New Alpha Profile: Jamila Hall, Partner at Jones Day and Former Federal Prosecutor
Jamila Hall is lawyer and partner at Jones Day and is the first African American female partner in the 25-year history of the firm’s Atlanta office. In addition to working on numerous cases for Fortune 500 companies that have garnered national attention, she is also a former federal prosecutor and has managed investigations involving the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Outside of her work, Jamila gives time to numerous pro bono and volunteer projects in the Atlanta area.
As the child of Jamaican immigrants, Jamila was born and raised in New York City and attended the University of Maryland where she graduated summa cum laude, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, received the University Medal, and delivered the commencement address. She attended law school at Columbia University, where she served on the Columbia Law Review, one of the top law journals in the country. In her free time, Jamila enjoys international travel, the arts, yoga, and spending time with her family.
For this profile, Jamila talks with Danielle Harlan at the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential about the importance of taking command of your professional destiny, being authentic, and “getting it right.”
The most important lesson that I’ve learned is to seek out mentors and sponsors. A mentor is someone who you can go to for advice. This person helps you figure out what to do and leads you along the way. You can ask them all kinds of questions and not feel like you’re being judged in any way.
A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone who will promote you in your “field”—whether in your job, in your company, or in the marketplace. Sometimes, you can have a mentor who is also your sponsor, but it’s essential to have both—you need the support of a mentor combined with someone who will recognize and value your talent, and who will push you up.
Also, these people don’t necessarily have to be people that you’d ordinarily see yourself reaching out to—don’t pick based on personality, race, gender, age, etc. Instead, look for who’s doing what you want to do, how you want to do it. Often times, someone will see a potential mentor or sponsor, but they think “Oh, this person is too high in their position,” or “They won’t want to talk with me,” or “I’m a minority/woman/etc.”—whatever it is, and they don’t reach out, but the reality is that almost everyone appreciates the opportunity to talk about themselves, or to be approached by someone who thinks their work is amazing.
In my case, my mentor is also my sponsor. He’s a managing partner at Jones Day, and one day, early on in my career, he happened to walk by my office and stop to ask what I was working on. From there, we got to talking and realized that we’d both attended Columbia Law School, and I ended up working on a project with him.
Now this guy was in his mid-50s at the time, a white guy from North Carolina—so the only obvious thing we had in common was our law school. In fact, if there had been an official mentorship program in our company, I probably would have been paired with another black attorney—but not necessarily someone who was working on what I wanted to work on. This person, however, was doing the work that I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, and so he became my mentor and sponsor.
Over the years, he’s given me advice on everything from work to office personalities, etc., and he’s publicly praised and promoted my work—both within the Atlanta firm and internationally. All of this, in turn, has helped me to rapidly advance in my professional career. Moreover, though, he has supported me beyond just my role at the firm. When I became engaged [Jamila is married to Whitcliff McKnight, Jr., who is the Head of Lower School for Westminster Schools.], he helped my husband connect with a job in Atlanta. Later, when I decided to pursue a role as a federal prosecutor, he and another senior member of the firm both gave me excellent references, and continued to promote me around the firm, even after I had left—so much so that when I returned to Jones Day five years later, people whom I’d never met said that they felt like they knew me. That is what it means to be a good sponsor.
I think being myself in every situation has most significantly influenced my success. I am no different with my friends than I am with my colleagues or my clients—you will always get the same Jamila. I don’t have different alter egos for different situations. I represent a number of CEOs for Fortune 50 companies—and I talk with them just like I talk with my friends—I build relationships with them, I know what their interests are, and I’m always the first person to whom they reach out when they have questions or need to talk.
To me, being genuine is the best approach—and of course, you need to be a good person too—caring, a good listener, etc.! The thing is, you see so many people trying to act how they think you want them to act, but it’s so much more effective to just be yourself—to let people see that, and to make authentic human connections.
I think a lot about how we’re taught to say no and to not take on too much, but I look at some of the women who are in the generation right above me—the black women partners in law firms, and I truly don’t know how they do it—all of the Board work, their practice, their vast social networks, and they have families…
These women have been real pioneers and many have taken on twice what I’ve taken on, so when an opportunity to make an impact comes my way, and I worry that I won’t be able to do it, I just think of these exceptional women and how much they’ve been able to accomplish—while being extraordinarily happy, with strong families and great careers—and I think: “This is possible!”
One of the big things that I’m working on right now is further developing and refining my brand and professional network. In order to do this, I’ve been giving talks and participating in panels where I can demonstrate my expertise at conferences in my field. I was giving a speech recently and afterwards the CEO of a major company came up to me and enthusiastically gave me his business card. I really wanted to connect with him after the conference, but wasn’t exactly sure of the best way to network with him—so I just called him and told him that it was great meeting him and that I really enjoyed our conversation and would love to invite him to lunch. (Note: Calling is always more impactful than email!) He was excited to hear from me, and ended up inviting me to lunch, along with his general counsel, so that we could talk more about how I might be able to help them.
The thing is, networking is about more than just going to cocktail parties and passing out your business card—you have to strategically figure out what your personal brand is going to be and proactively develop your network—don’t just wait for people to call you! Personally, I’m constantly revisiting this idea, and adapting and revising my networking model.
I would love to be remembered as somebody who was a good person and who always tried to get it right. I work in the justice system, even though I’m currently on the defense side, for me, it’s very much the same as when I was a prosecutor: it’s not about racking up the wins, it’s about getting it right. No matter what the situation, or what side you’re on, your goal should be to get it right. If that is all that I’m remembered for, that would be enough for me.
The one other piece of advice that I would give is to stay connected with people! This means the people who you go to school with, who you’re in programs with, etc. If you do this, you’ll find that, as you rise through the ranks in your profession, they’ll go up in theirs, and you’ll likely find commonalities that come up later—opportunities to help each other. So maintain relationships, go to alumni events—keep in touch and connected with those people—even if your circumstances end up being very different, shared experience can be a powerful bond later in life.
For more information on Jamila Hall, visit http://www.jonesday.com/jhall/.
Author’s Note: Jamila Hall was my first professional mentor and is one of the people who inspired the concept of the New Alpha: confident, competent, and compassionate. She’s truly an outstanding role model and I’m grateful that she is willing to lend her wisdom to this New Alpha profile.