Sonya: When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Joseph: Within one year of graduating college I realized I wanted to practice law or at least obtain a law degree. As an electrical engineer, I wanted to explore an unknown career path and trajectory and law seemed to provide that for me. I also chose the law, in part, so I could advise family members and my community. Lawyers are invaluable to their communities and I benefited from their contributions in my development as a first-generation college graduate.
Many influences led me to leadership in the National Bar Association. The leadership bug came as a challenge in college, when I made a suggestion and some of my peers said, “Well, you can lead that project.” From there, I was a student leader and I continued on the same path in law school. I never imagined leading in this capacity, as a large law firm lawyer,but my mentors at my firm and in the legal community encouraged it. It took time for me to tap into my natural desire to problem solve and serve in a prominent leadership role (more than eight years of practicing law), but I like helping others and that is one hallmark of my leadership style.
At this juncture of my career, I most enjoy being able to bring my authentic self to the profession, our clients and my law firm, with the aim of positively influencing improvement in the culture of the legal community and the opportunities within it. I equally enjoy collaboratively working as a team to help our clients with pressing and challenging legal disputes.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Joseph: There have been so many. My parents, as well as my siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, instilled the core values that allow me to succeed to this day – basic biblical principles. Leading professional career enhancer Werten Bellamy, renowned trial lawyer Richard Harris, my wife, Stacey St. Rose, corporate guru Joseph Hansen and my CEO and law partner Joe Conroy have had the most influence on my career. Additionally, numerous leaders in the National Bar Association have helped me better understand how to deliver my best self in the work place.
Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Joseph: All successful lawyers work hard to deliver A+ performances and work product on behalf of their clients, while allowing their natural talents to give them an advantage. We all have strengths and should identify and leverage them. This is a consistent challenge as we evolve, our practices evolve and our clients’ needs and business imperatives evolve. It takes work for many of us to have the necessary self-awareness to understand our strengths. Empathy is an important trait in all areas of practice. Others include patience, tenacity and civility. There are so many, but knowing that we do not know it all ranks up there – and most laypersons do not see that trait in most lawyers.
Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Joseph: I am most proud of being a law firm partner and finding a home at Cooley. The odds favor a far different result, given diversity statistics that remain bleak. I am proud to represent the world’s leading companies at a law firm that has intentionally improved its culture and approach to inclusion since my arrival in 2012. In that same vein, I am proud to serve as National Bar Association president while being a Cooley partner. It is a statement to the world that the standard of engagement for law firm partners in the legal community is evolving and that large firm lawyers will continue to be part of all aspects of our legal community. I would like for Cooley to be the most diverse law firm partnership in the Am Law 100 and, personally, I would like to play an integral role in the firm’s overall and bottom-line success as we progress toward reaching that goal.
Turning to the National Bar Association, I would like to develop leaders who will have a greater impact than I do on the legal community and the community at large. My focus is on ensuring our members are optimally prepared to excel in their respective practices and to contribute to the continuing effort to ensure equal access, equal opportunity and equal rights in partnership alongside leading National Bar Association sister organizations. In my short one-year term at the top, this work includes developing realistic member community engagement opportunities, transformational developmental experiences and collaborative leadership internally and externally.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Joseph: Being black in a large law firm and sustaining your career naturally lends itself to having mentees. You have no choice. I would not have survived my first few years as a lawyer without then-junior law firm associates Sheila Boston, Dean Garfield, Carlton Thompson, Nicole Bussey and Tamara Stephen, attorneys with only a few years more practice than me, and my first-year office mate Karin Garvey. They provided me with a sounding board and gave me practical advice and instruction that I needed to perform on par. The law is not the most forgiving environment for an electrical engineer who spent his entire life focused on math and science before law school. These young mentors made a big difference and helped me avoid natural and normal but career-ending mistakes that negatively impact minority lawyers. As I had the insight to rely on those friendly faces, I, in turn, became a young mentor and provided as much as I had to the development of other lawyers. To sponsor, you have to be able to influence a specific outcome material to one’s career success. I have acted as a sponsor on several occasions and hope to have many more opportunities to do so. Leading in the National Bar Association and its local affiliate in New York City, the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, has opened up unique sponsor opportunities for me to influence the careers of lawyers within and outside my firm. Sponsorship is mission critical to the advancement of historically underrepresented groups in the legal profession.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next 10 years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Joseph: We will all become technology lawyers. I have a head start as an IP lawyer, and I am privileged to be a partner in what I believe to be the world’s leading technology law firm, Cooley. We will start to see tech practice groups and the lines across the traditional practice areas will not be as divisible as we know them.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Joseph: Looking back, I would say that a significant challenge was fearing transition and using familiarity as a comfort blanket. This challenge rears its head in multiple ways. I overcame it with time, working with different teams of lawyers and finding success in the courtroom, but change can be a good thing. For example, we want to work in an optimal environment that allows us to engage and rely on our strengths. It took me 15 years to make a transition, but Cooley has been a great firm at which to practice law and continue to grow as a lawyer.
Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Joseph: D&I is an aspirational pursuit. As we strive for the best outcomes, we cannot achieve those results without true diversity and inclusion. At Cooley, we have made diversity and inclusion one of our highest business priorities and we have established multiple programs aimed at ensuring all lawyers can practice as their best selves. Our work has yielded returns as, for example, we have added five black partners to our ranks in the last five years. At the sitting president of the National Bar Association, my goal is to keep our members as sharp as possible and as skilled as anyone, so they can compete for the limited seats and opportunities in our profession and reach the top to take part in the systematic change necessary to move us toward full inclusion. For those wanting to make a positive impact, I encourage us to have the courage to present and execute our thoughts and ideas for making our individual work environments more inclusive. We crawl, we walk and then we run. It is time to run.
Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Joseph: My current role is a dream job. I have the privilege of representing the nation’s leading corporations in federal court and examining issues relating to the technology we leverage on a daily basis. I could not ask for more. But the law is my second career, as electrical engineering came first. So, if I could not practice law within a firm, I would revert back to my first career and seek a leadership role in a technology company, with the aspiration of being the CEO or a member of the C-suite. One way to influence change is to be recognized as successful and indispensable to the success of an enterprise. Thus, I would want to earn such a role.
Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Joseph: I would counsel my younger self to embrace all people and be more curious about the lives of those who have walked different paths. I would share this with my 17-year-old self upon graduation from high school. I would also recommend immediate world travel.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Joseph: I enjoy playing golf. It requires you to key in on your weaknesses and turn them into strengths, and it reminds me of the importance of being mentally tough. On the golf course, the golfer deserves all credit for success but, more importantly, can only blame one’s self for failure. Golfing also allows you to get to know an individual pretty well in one outing. And, depending on the golf course, the view can be magnificent.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or fewer (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )