There isn’t much that Attorney Khalilah Spencer hasn’t seen or heard or represented while matriculating at Honigman’s law firm, one of American Lawyer’s finalists for 2022 Legal Services Innovation award. To be recognized as a “Super Lawyer-Rising Star,” Khalilah Spencer as her firm’s litigation department partner, proves that her years of jury trials and arbitrations involving a wide variety of complex commercial, environmental and employment issues have not gone unrecognized. While primarily representing public and private companies in automotive, financial and real estate, Attorney Spencer is most proud of her pro bono experience in civil rights advocacy and her mentorship.
“I have watched mentees that have made partner at firms and … advanced in their careers … I had a little hand in that.”Super Lawyer-Rising Star, Khalilah Spencer
Spencer also serves as Honigman’s inclusion, equity and social responsibility partner; and a member of the firm’s board of directors. She chairs the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee as well as leads the firm’s women and minority recruitment and community outreach activities. Additionally, Spencer enjoys her role on the implementation of the firm’s pro bono and social responsibility programs; as it is with this in mind that BLAC spoke to Spencer about filling the role as “Rising Star.”
BLAC: We would love to know when you were growing up, what did you want to be?
Khalilah: It was between a doctor and a lawyer. I was a math and science nerd and I grew up in Kalamazoo and attended the Kalamazoo area math and science center. So I was definitely engrossed in math and biology, taking a bio-med class as a junior in high school, but I always gravitated towards civil rights and justice issues. I was one of the very few minorities in my high school and in my middle school.
My grandmother was very much into TV shows like “Law and Order,” “Matlock,” and “Perry Mason.” So I grew up engrossed in the law. And just recognizing that they didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be what they probably wanted to be in the legal field. When I got to college, I made a decision to just follow the law track instead of the doctor track, and I haven’t regretted it.
BLAC: So if you could go back, what advice would you give your younger self?
Khalilah: You know, I was in a hurry to be an adult. I was a very independent kid. I was one of those kids where my parents didn’t have to tell me what colleges are you applying? They didn’t have to say, oh, aren’t don’t you have placement exams or something. I went to U of M for undergrad and law school and I took a month off in between. Why did I do that to myself? I was in a hurry to be a lawyer and now you just don’t have the time to take the break and soak it all in. I just was in a rush to be an adult, to be what I was going to be. And so I definitely would tell myself, “You could take a summer off before you go to law school and see the world and explore”. And I think it’s probably something that most lawyers tell themselves, too.
BLAC: You talked about being one of a few people of color in your school?
Khalilah: I think that my high school class was maybe a hundred folks. There might have been five of us of color. And so it was definitely dynamic. I think I was about 10 and I went home to my mom. I was like, “There’s no Black people.”
BLAC: Looking back, how has that experience of being one of a few; shaped the way that not only that you look at yourself as a Black woman, but as a Black woman in corporate America?
Khalilah: That’s a big question. I think for me, it is being able to be an expert code switcher. And understanding that this is my environment; it just clicks and you don’t realize you’re doing it. But also understanding sort of what we deal with, you know, having had that experience before you got to the workplace. I think for some of my colleagues or my younger mentees who didn’t grow up in that environment, going to an environment like the corporate world is more difficult because that’s maybe their first experience at imposter syndrome. That’s their first experience and being questioned just because and I think that can be an adjustment that they’re not necessarily ready for because it’s not something you can get ready for.
BLAC: Was there anyone along the way that you can recall that inspired you?
Khalilah: I was very close to my grandmother and she was a Black woman who was born in the 30s in Kalamazoo. Recognizing that there were limitations on what she could be and recognizing where her interests were and the fact that there was a divide. She was definitely an inspiration. Recognizing that I had the ability needed to be what she couldn’t and the pride she had in seeing me do that.
My mom’s father died when she was young and just recognizing the restriction that had on their life from that point on, in terms of poverty and educational opportunity and seeing what you could be. You have to see women partners to think that it’s something that you can be. I would say that that’s sort of more the inspiration than a particular person. Just recognizing my privilege and making sure that I made the most of it for that sort of legacy was more inspiration than anything.
BLAC: Outside of your grandmother, are there other women that you look back at that have mentored you along the way?
Khalilah: Absolutely. Women and men; I don’t discount the men. Being a lawyer is a tough job so you gotta find your fun when you can. I certainly have mentors along the way that have really helped me maintain that balance. Having mentors and also passing that on to mentees. I’m getting to the age where I’m probably more the mentor age than the mentee age. I have some mentees that have made partner at firms and starting to advance in their career and reach a maturity where you’re like, “Oh, I had a little hand in that”.
We don’t talk a lot about it, but lawyers have a very collegial existence. I started at Dickinson when I first started my career. And shortly after I started, I shared a secretary with Dennis Archer. This was fresh out of his term as mayor. Sharing a secretary with him and just seeing that he was a normal person, he had a sense of humor. He was a mentor. He stuck up for people. He would speak up for people and really pushed for leadership to make sure that they embrace diversity, not just to say they do, but actually do the things of inclusion.
BLAC: What’s the best work advice that you’ve ever received?
Khalilah: Ooh. Be authentic.
BLAC: Do you remember who gave you that?
Khalilah: You know, I don’t know that they actually said be authentic, but I’ve heard that message throughout my career. Like seeing people be authentic, like, you know, you’re at work and then you see ’em out socially and they still act the same. They still speak. They still are friendly. If you can’t be authentic in your job, means you’re probably in the wrong job. You should at least be true to yourself and between being authentic and making sure that you advocate for yourself. I would say those are the two main ones. As a lawyer, I always tell my mentees, you cannot advocate for others if you’re not advocating for yourself.
BLAC: Have there been any significant challenges that you’ve had to overcome as a woman of color in the workforce?
Khalilah: I always talk a lot at the firm about the intersectionality of really racism. As a woman lawyer, you have your challenges. I mean, there’s certainly sexism as we are well aware, but I think, as a Black woman, there’s an intersectionality of how people perceive you, how they perceive your intelligence and how they perceive your worthiness. And there’s an assumption that something’s been given that may not be given to others and kind of the affirmative action issue. Take your pick.
BLAC: For a young woman getting started today, what piece of advice would you give her?
Khalilah: It is a long journey. Don’t feel like you’re in a rush. Just enjoy the journey a little bit. Don’t make too many plans and just be ready to take that fork in the road when it’s there. And be responsible. As long as you’re prepared and responsible, when you get opportunity you can take it.