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?
April: I was in business school at the University of Michigan. I really liked the case law studies and my real estate law professor, a woman visiting from the University of Chicago law school. I enjoy the strategic challenges of the business, especially right now given all of the market disruption in transportation – new technologies in electrification, autonomous vehicles (sensors, IOT, etc), last mile delivery in urban core, and the Amazon effect, etc.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
April: I was at University of Chicago law school when Elena Kagan was there (now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice). She was a brand new professor then, and one of not very many women, unfortunately. She was so close in age to me, it was pretty inspiring, and she was my professor for labor law. I entered law school after having taken a year off to work at Ford Motor Company in a glass plant in labor relations, so the course materials were very relevant. I also had an M&A class taught by Jack Levin (of the famous duo Ginsburg & Levin – they wrote a very important text book/workbook on M&A and Buyouts). It was a fabulous course taught by a practicing lawyer (unlike most of my other classes at the University of Chicago) and really influenced my decision to become an M&A lawyer. But also, this was around the time that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Marty Ginsburg’s wife) was being considered and then confirmed as the 2nd woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, and all of us students (especially the women) felt like we had an up close and personal view or inside track to the Supreme Court proceedings even though we were at least once and more like three times removed. Of course, this means that I was also at the University of Chicago while President Obama was a lecturer there as well, but I never actually took his class. I was very focused on a “corporate law” track, and his course simply did not fit my schedule. It’s really too bad, though,because we had so few Black professors that I feel like I really should have taken the opportunity to take his course.
I was a Thurgood Marshall Fellow (which means I received a scholarship from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for law school) so Justice Marshall was really my first legal influence.
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?
April: Intellectually curious, hard-working, strategic thinking, comfortable making decisions even without all relevant information, determining what information is really critical vs nice to have for decision making, an ability to think several steps ahead – it’s like playing chess rather than checkers or, put another way, focusing on where the puck is going vs where it is now.
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?
April: Leading three global legal departments through significant change, providing my teams with significant opportunities for development, growth and reflection; Effectively leading the HQ office of an Am Law 200 law firm during significant industry disruption and changing the strategic outlook of the firm.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
April: Yes, I have had great mentors and sponsors. Sponsors are especially important in helping you advance your career because, even when you are ready, someone needs to be in the room to vouch for you when you aren’t there and likely will need to use their clout and power to help get you to the next great position / opportunity. I have been a mentor and sponsor to countless others, but especially other African-Americans and women.
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?
April: I think we will see continued pressure on firms and outside counsel to add value and demonstrate that added-value to clients. More strategically important work will continue to move in house because these lawyers simply know the business better and companies continue to expect more and more sophistication from their in-house teams, especially as they realize the cost disparity. Additionally, I hope that we will see tremendous change in the diversity of the bar and more /continued success of African-American, Latinx/Hispanic and Asian Pacific American lawyers in law firm leadership, partnership, and as GCs. If we all agree to do the hard work to get us there, it’s possible. But we have a very long way to go.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
April: The decision on whether to move from law firm leadership to the GC chair. I ultimately made the switch and it was easier than it might have been for other lawyers that were as senior as I was then because I was essentially moving to a client where I knew the management team. Although it was challenging and risky to make the move, the calculated risk paid off.
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?
April: Very important topic for me, as you know. As buyers of legal services, we must continue to insist on having minority lawyers working on matters in a significant way, leading our matters and to have minority relationship partners. Make it a priority each time a new matters starts or it won’t happen.
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?
April: Being a Corporate Board Member. I love learning about new industries, businesses and challenges and having a say in their strategic direction.
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?
April: There is no substitute for doing the hard work to become a subject matter expert in your chosen area of law. Choose this carefully as you may find some areas more interesting than others and some areas simply lead to more opportunities because they are in higher demand. At some point, you may want to branch out and become more of a generalist (as a GC and strategic business advisor) but you can’t skip the first step. You must first be an expert.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, that 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.
April: I am an adventurer and really love helping and connecting people. For example, I organized a trip to the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) for women executives to learn more about the role of women in society. We did a similar trip to Turkey organized by a Turkish foundation. Additionally, I have worked on an all-woman crew helping build a house for Habitat for Humanity. This year, I started an organization called 50 Black Women Over 50 to celebrate, connect, inspire and engage with fabulous women who have reached or are nearing this milestone.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )