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?
Angelique: My family and friends told me that I should be a lawyer when I was very young. I would love to think it was because, even as a youth, people witnessed my strong sense of fairness and equality. Realistically, it was most likely because, at that time in my life, I loved to argue and to be right. I had never met a lawyer and I am not certain that I knew a lawyer until I attended law school. I was drawn to being a lawyer because I had learned that lawyers were leaders who advocated for change and fought for justice. Even as a young person, I knew that I wanted to have a positive impact on this world. While I did not turn out to be a civil rights attorney as I had planned, I have been able to work with some positive people and in many ways serve as a change agent. I appreciate that the practice of law requires one to think in a disciplined manner. I love that I can use my voice to change people’s perspectives on issues and to break down barriers.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Angelique: I have been blessed to have ancestors and elders who positively changed this world. I am inspired by civil rights leaders, known and unknown, who gave their lives to make this world a better place. When I was in college, I learned of a young man named Hector Peterson who was only fourteen years old when the South African police killed him during a peaceful demonstration for an appropriate education. His tragic death changed the momentum of the anti-apartheid movement as it demonstrated the cruelties of the system. During the same time, I learned about Steven Biko, another South African freedom fighter. Steve Biko remained proud of who he was despite the system of apartheid that attempted to destroy his self-worth. The South African government also killed him as he was trying to organize South Africans against apartheid. From these two lives, I learned that I must always take a stand for what is just and fair, even if it means some level of personal sacrifice.
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?
Angelique: I believe that successful attorneys must have a sense of fairness and equality. They have to be open-minded and they must have a certain level of empathy. I truly believe people who can view life and issues from other people’s perspective are much more effective as lawyers. In the role of General Counsel, you have to appreciate the perspectives of others while providing legal advice that complies with the lawand appreciates business goals.. I love being a General Counsel because it allows me to work on various projects and provides me with an environment of continuous learning. It is not the ideal job for everyone, so I strongly recommend that those considering this path make sure that they have the personality that thrives in a dynamic and fast-paced environment.
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?
Angelique: I am a first-generation college student who was born and raised in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio. I have been able to become a successful and respected lawyer while remaining true to who I am. Specifically, I am a proud African-American woman. I have followed my God-given purpose in life, and it has allowed me to be active in my community and successful in my profession. I am raising my daughters with the same spiritual foundation and with pride that God made them exactly as God wanted.
As to my legacy in my company, I believeit will be that not only was I a very committed and dedicated member of the team, but that I allowed others to get a chance to know me and in that learn from a different perspective. They will remember me as an “out-of-the-box” person and thinker who used simple, self-proclaimed, and “hilarious” analogies to help them and others find resolutions to problems and appreciate the uniqueness of our differences by relating to them based on what we have in common. I should add that my company is still a business and they will perhaps most appreciate that, in being myself, I significantly reduced our outside counsel spend, developed strategies that prevented or effectively resolved disputes and litigation, found effective ways to reach commercial resolutions using the law as the support and not the driver, and that I genuinely cared about the people with whom I worked and developed a corporate legal philosophy reflective of my care and compassion.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Angelique: I have definitely had mentors in my life and my career. Some I actively sought so that I could benefit from their knowledge and some that happened organically. While I genuinely believe that each person has his/her path in life, I also think that we can gain wisdom and courage from others to follow our course. We can also learn from those whom we do not want to emulate. I have always been a very active member of bar associations and community organizations. I have been able to meet some intelligent and courageous people as a result of my involvement. I have and still receive mentorship and guidance from Sixth Circuit Judge Eric Clay, from Vernon Baker, former General Counsel of Meritor, from Marcia Goffney, former General Counsel of Yazaki Automotive, and from Terence Page, my first boss and founding member of the firm at which I first worked. Terry Page is unashamedly a conservative white male Republican. However, from him, I learned some valuable lessons that have allowed me to succeed in the profession. More importantly, he also gained some valuable professional and life lessons from me. I also find guidance in learning from the experiences of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, El Hajj Malik Shabazz, Sojourner Truth, Steve Biko and other civil rights leaders, who sacrificed so much ultimately to improve the lives of so many. When I think about their sacrifices, it makes me more committed to my standard of excellence in the workplace and my continued commitment to my community.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten 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?
Angelique: The world is so much more global and appreciative of diversity and culture. The legal profession lags behind tremendously on this concept of diversity and appreciation. As a profession, we continue to have this “old guard” mindset. The law firms have established a culture that makes it hard for anyone other than white men to succeed and remain authentically true to who they are. Corporations do better, but honestly, not much. From my perspective, if the legal profession does not start accepting diversity discussions, it will lose its status as respected thought leaders and merely function in a role of service providers. Ultimately, this will impact the profession regarding compensation because at some point the younger generations will lose respect for the lack of progressive thought in the profession and will not continue to pay for the “intelligence” the profession should exhibit. Ironically, the lack of progressive thought will ultimately impact the very thing those who currently have the decision making power in the profession want to protect—the money.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Angelique: In 2008, after serving as the first African-American General Counsel of a publicly traded company in the State of Michigan, the economy changed and, to protect the interest of the shareholders, the Board of Directors decided to sell the company. So I was recently divorced with two young daughters and also unemployed, which was not quite the life that I envisioned for myself. I overcame it by accepting it. I realized that this was a path on which God has placed me and that it was my responsibility to appreciate and understand why. I prayed every day and recited, “God did not bring me this far to leave me”. I circulated my resume, maintained contact with friends in the profession and developed myself as a person. I spent three weeks in South Africa working in a township at a center that served women and children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, I started running again and started training for my first half marathon. I volunteered on Mayor David Bing’s successful bid for Mayor. I remained active at church, in bar associations and community organizations. After eleven months, I saw a posting on careerbuilders.com and later acc.com for a General Counsel position at Behr America, Inc. I applied for the job with over 200 other applicants. The beauty and the blessing in the situation are that the CEO had also not only worked in South Africa but had sponsored two students’ education, and the COO was a marathon runner. This experience taught me to always keep my faith in God and God’s path for me. More importantly, it confirmed for me that my life’s purpose was much more profound than a job title.
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?
Angelique: Diversity & Inclusion in a perfect world means that we are all treated equally and respected for exactly who God created us to be. I also must say that I am not a proponent of how we use the term “Diversity & Inclusion” in the legal profession. The legal profession has exclusion issues. It is challenging for African-Americans to succeed in the profession. It is also very difficult for Hispanics and Asians to succeed in the practice. Similarly, I believe there are challenges for women, particularly non-white women, to succeed in the profession. With that said, I think that the people who have influence and make decisions in the profession have different motivating factors as to why they intentionally exclude each group from the profession. I also believe that some of the members that we include in the diversity dialogue are also some of the people who exclude members of other groups. I think we need honest conversation that acknowledges that the legal profession is, to its disadvantage, influenced by a group of mostly homogeneous white males and that there are distinct reasons why the decision makers have historically exclude members of certain groups. Specifically, the underlying reasons that cause the profession to exclude African-Americans are in many cases very different than the underlying reasons why the same group is not inclusive of white women. . As a profession we must address the issue of diversity but we must also have the difficult dialogue regarding the reasons why and how the profession should address how it remedies its exclusion of each independent group.
My advice to other General Counsel is that we are much more useful as “Diversity Doers” and not as those who only choose to have a dialogue regarding diversity. Your department should be reflective of this world’s diversity and your outside counsel should be reflective of it as well. There are some firms that are progressive enough to appreciate diversity. Simply use those firms and not the ones that don’t.
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?
Angelique: I would have been a community organizer or advocate. I have a strong passion for helping others and I would have used that passion to make a difference in this world. I am fortunate because I can serve as a change agent with and through the skills I have gained practicing law.
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?
Angelique: Stay true to who you are and your purpose in life. Hold yourself to that standard of success. You are the only one who can and should define your success because you can only measure success based on your God-given purpose in life.
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.
Angelique: I am a true music lover with a passion for alternative and neo-soul music. On any given weekend or weekday as the case may be, you may find me at a concert in my worn jeans and a T-Shirt enjoying a positive music vibe! I also absolutely love to run. You may see me up and running early in the morning around my neighborhood. I have run a few marathons and I am currently training to run a half marathon. I also enjoy hot yoga classes in the evenings and my cross-fit/metcon class at 5:30 a.m. I am an active member of my church, Triumph Church, where I teach finance courses and volunteer with the youth choir. Most importantly, I am actively engaged in the daily lives of my beautiful daughters, Amari Ajene and Jalia Iman, which means that I am a track/cross country mom and I am working with them when they do their homework at night to support their academic success.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )