Women Criminal Defense Attorneys blog

Connecting Women in Criminal Law

Interview with Jamila Hall

During the Women White Collar Defense Association (WWCDA) Annual Attorney Meeting in New Orleans last month, I had the privilege of interviewing Jamila Hall, a partner at Jones Day in Atlanta in the Investigations & White Collar Defense practice. Jamila serves as defense and investigative counsel to Fortune 500 companies and regularly conducts internal investigations throughout the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Jamila is a former federal prosecutor and an experienced trial lawyer. 

Jamila is also a member of the Criminal Justice Act panel, a vice chair of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association and has served two terms as the chair of the Criminal Law Section of the Atlanta Bar Association. She is president of the Leadership Institute of Women of Color Attorneys and a member of Leadership Atlanta, Class of 2017. She has served on the board of the Atlanta Ballet and is a trustee for the Woodruff Arts Center. In 2017, Jamila was named as one of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “40 Under 40.” 

What drew you towards your career in criminal defense?

I think the larger question is what drew me towards the criminal justice system, because I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system. I think the interest originates with my upbringing by parents who are Jamaican immigrants. When I was growing up, we had two sets of rules.  There were the rules inside of my home, which were very strict and based on my parents’ country, and then there were the rules that applied in the rest of this country that were based on the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution. My parents had stricter household rules than what I understood the rules for the rest of American children to be, and I thought that was unjust. So at a young age, I started advocating for my rights. In sixth grade, I wrote a long letter to my parents advocating for why I shouldn’t have to take arts and crafts at summer camp because it was my right to have fun at summer camp, and arts and crafts was not fun for me. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was writing to them in order to be granted an extended curfew. As a child and teenager, I understood that my parents came to the United States for the freedoms that we have here. At the same time, I myself did not feel free, and that experience gave me a limited exposure to what justice meant. I was very intrigued by the notion of fairness, and that interest led me to law school.

You mentioned Jones Day and big law – you’re probably on the young side for somebody that’s made partner at a big law firm like Jones Day, no?

Yes and no.  Jones Day has a long partnership track.  It’s 9 ½ to 10 ½ years. Many other law firms have a 7-year or 8-year partnership track, but then the partnership is tiered.  Jones Day is a single-tier partnership. We’re all one partnership, and that’s why the partnership track is longer. But the road to partnership in any big law firm is a challenging one. When I look at the class that I started with, I’m the only person from my starting class of 12 associates in the Atlanta Jones Day office that made partner. People always ask me, “Why is that?” I think I didn’t worry about what other people were doing and, how that was affecting their careers in comparison to my own. I just focused on my career. I only competed with myself.

It’s a proud moment to make partner. At Jones Day, we’re a working partnership, so if anything, it’s more work to be a partner because we add on the responsibilities of being partner with being a practicing lawyer. At the same time, it is more rewarding too because you are involved in the strategy of the cases and you interact closely with the clients.

Can you talk about some of the challenges or issues you face as a woman partner, at a time when there is not a high percentage of women making partner in big law?

Our incoming class this year at Jones Day will be more than 50 percent women. But, when you look at our partnership, women only make up 25 percent of the partnership. While we’re extremely proud of the 51 or 52 percent women incoming class this year, I think the question is, “What happens along that journey where we lose so many women?”

There are some people who would say, “Oh, women sort of opt out because they want to have a family.”  I don’t believe that to be true.  I think that the big law firm culture can make it very difficult for men and women ‒ but more so for women ‒ to be parents. The reason I believe the culture can be more difficult for women is that women often take on lots of responsibilities in the household, and as you get more senior in the firm you have additional responsibilities of building business and having relationships with clients.  At any large law firm, the way that people build business and relationships with clients is often to the exclusion of women. It’s not intentional, but if we as women are not thinking about being included we will miss those opportunities. For example, there are lots of client development activities and trips.  Lots of these activities happen in the evenings. So, if you have a family, you may want to be home to give your children dinner and have some time for yourself. As a result, you might not be opting into those client dinners, and people at the firm might assume that you’re not interested ‒ even if you were able to get childcare and/or your partner could take care of the child care responsibilities.

Furthermore, there are many activities that offer the opportunity to build relationships with clients that are centered on, for example, whiskey or cigar tastings, fishing trips, ski trips and going to the Masters. With respect to these types of activities, often the men will make a decision, without being intentional about it, to allocate the tickets to their male friends. These are huge business development opportunities for attorneys in big law firms. Women are thereby left out of the key moments where clients really get to know you. Unless women are more determined about their client relationship development, they could wind up being very senior and looking around and saying, “Oops, I’m not going to be able to build business here, maybe I should look in-house or to the work for the government.” This is the trend we see in large law and what is resulting in the 25 percent loss from the first-year class to the partnership classes.

You are obviously finding a way to succeed at Jones Day. Tell us what you are doing to create business development opportunities for yourself. How are you thinking outside of the box from these traditional ways that exclude women?

One of the things that I’ve found to be very important is to not allow myself to get pigeonholed into being the only the person that does diversity and/or women’s events. First and foremost, I want to be seen as the subject matter expert in my field, so writing articles, speaking at conferences, teaching courses and CLEs have all been really important to me. When I teach or speak, the audience sees that I’m a woman of color when I show up, and that helps to build for all women in the profession.

The other thing is, I never take it personal if I am not invited to something.  I assume that the person was just going on with their life and did not think about me, but they did not intentionally exclude me. Then I find a way to invite myself to the event. For example, there was a client development fishing event and I was interested, but because it was fishing, the men may have assumed the women attorneys didn’t have any interest in attending.  So, I let it be known that I was interested in fishing.  My dad took me fishing all the time.  I love fishing. After I have made it known that the event is something I enjoy, I can then make a decision about whether I’m being intentionally excluded. That’s the point where people’s true colors show.

To give another example, we recently had a firm ski trip. There were 13 men on the trip, between the clients and my law firm partners and three women.  I was the only person to bring a female client to the event. She didn’t ski, but she brings in enough business that I told my partners, “If she wants to come on the trip to hang out and go the spa, that’s what we’re going to do.” I do ski, so one day of the trip I went out with a male client who had a similar experience level to mine with an instructor (everyone else’s level was way above ours). I ended up spending the whole day with this client, who was an assistant general counsel and was able to build a relationship with him. The point is, a lot of it comes down to letting people know you are interested – putting it out there. I also think that letting other people see that there are women that look like me, who have diverse interests, will help other women.

We need more diversity.  Tell me the challenges that lawyers of color face in our field.

There are a few things that I see. The first is something that we experience as women too. Clients often have a visual of what they think a white-collar defense lawyer looks like. That visual image is often of an old white man. So, for someone like me, you’re doubly cursed, because not only am I not a man, I’m not white. As a result of this visual image clients can have, in order to build confidence and trust in my legal abilities with the client, the more senior men that I’ve worked with have often been the ones to say: “Jamila’s the smartest person in the room, so you need to have her on your team.” I’m okay with that. I’m okay working with men that understand that the only reason that they’re as good as they are at what they do is because people like me have been helping them over the years, and now it’s their turn to help me. If they can get me in the door, I can do the rest. Once I have an opportunity to meet with a client and explain what my strategy is, they’re not worried about what I look like at all. But I do think that there is a difficulty, especially for women of color, to find allies to be able to get them in the door. If you can’t get in the door, it is really hard.

As a practice, we need more allies that understand the benefit in having diverse defense teams. I mean this not only from a jury perspective, but also from a thought leadership perspective. There are times when a younger lawyer of color or I will bring up an idea that is just outside of the life experience of an older practitioner, but absolutely resonates with the jury or with the judge. Diverse teams work better. It should not be about individual egos – it should be about creating the best team for your client. Our whole practice needs to transition to the mentality that the focus is on the client’s team and not on the individual.

You’re hired.

Thanks, boss.

If you could go back and give yourself some advice when you started practicing, what would it be?

Relationships, relationships, relationships.  You know, I was a back bencher in law school and I was sort of a middle-of-the-road person when it came to building relationships in the class. I’m glad that I was at least middle of the road when it came to building relationships, because I see how valuable it was and I’m afraid I could have been one of those people that just completely sat on the sidelines with respect to relationship building.  I regret that I was not more ambitious in making more lasting friendships and relationships starting in law school and in my early years of practice.  It took me almost 8 years before I started to realize that you could be the smartest lawyer on Earth, but you cannot bring in business if you don’t have relationships with people who are going to help you along the way and/or later down the line refer you business or become your client. I used to think of those two things as separate.  Like, clients go over here and friends go over there. I wish I had known earlier that you can have friends that are also clients and those relationships are not mutually exclusive.

Can you tell me something about yourself that very few people know?

That very few people know?  Well, very few people know that I’m training to be a semi-professional poker player. I love poker and before I had my son I used to travel and play in lots of tournaments. Lately, I’ve been getting involved again and practicing. My poker experience and training is really helpful for the investigations work that I do. People might think that there isn’t a lot of reading of other folks and signs, but there absolutely is. It’s not just their facial expressions. There is so much that you learn about people when you sit at a table from their body language, conversations, and patterns of play, and recognizing that helps me be effective in my work as an attorney too. I’m pretty serious about my training and I have a whole different persona when I play poker. You wouldn’t even recognize me.  Okay, you would recognize me, but most people wouldn’t.

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