Partner Reflection: Felicia Gilbert

By Felicia Gilbert, Palo Alto and San Francisco Partner | June 2024

My sights were set on a legal career since childhood. Raised primarily as the daughter of a single mom who did not have a college degree and often worked long hours in concurrent low-paying jobs, I saw first-hand how she was taken advantage of, and discriminated against, at work.

My view of the law as a viable way to handle such grievances was sharpened by my mother’s love of Court TV, which she watched fastidiously, providing me early exposure to high-profile matters like OJ Simpson’s and Scott Peterson’s murder trials and Anita Hill’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings – which I found very interesting. I was also inspired by Clair Huxtable (played by Phylicia Rashad) on The Cosby Show in her role as an extremely poised and competent attorney who excelled at achieving an enviable work-life balance, managing an upper middle-class household and raising a lively family of five children. I watched each episode, hoping that one day I would be able to do the same.

By third grade, my career aspirations were solidified to the point that I dressed up for Halloween as an attorney, encouraged by my mother who helped me acquire stodgy glasses, a formal business suit, and an old briefcase from thrift stores to achieve my image of a grownup female lawyer.

Fourth and fifth grade provided additional fuel to my burning legal ambition: My selection as a “Conflict Resolution Mediator” afforded me exciting opportunities to negotiate and de-escalate disputes between my peers at school who were in trouble or had an altercation of some sort. The mediation skills I acquired early on were the forerunner to the more sophisticated skillset I have developed in my practice, which includes advising clients throughout contentious settlement negotiations.

My resolve to become an attorney strengthened when I attended an all-girls, catholic private high school on partial scholarship. Although academically prepared, I didn’t immediately fit into the privileged student body. Those years gave me insight into the impacts of race, ethnicity and class on economic opportunity and fairness, and have helped me better understand clients who experience “Imposter Syndrome.” I had to constantly remind myself I deserved to be at the school and earned all the successes I achieved.

My mom was always behind me on this path – from helping me assemble my “lawyer” Halloween costume to supporting my extracurricular interests – even though she had to make difficult choices to provide enrichment experiences for my older brother and me. There were times we had no electricity, hot water or telephone service because she had paid my swim club fees, competitive soccer team dues, or summer camp fees, instead of household bills. The lengths she went to ensure that I was prepared, academically as well as socially, for college and law school came at a cost.

Though many of my mom’s financial decisions may have seemed short-sighted at the time, in hindsight I recognize they made it possible for me to become a lawyer in one of the nation’s top civil rights law firms – the only career I ever dreamed of.

I am passionate about my work as a civil rights plaintiffs’ attorney because it enables me to assist and empower people who have experienced mistreatment by their employer on the basis of race, gender, and/or other protected statuses. The majority of clients my colleagues and I have been privileged to represent share a common story: after working assiduously to obtain the education, experience, and credentials necessary for their chosen career path, they hit a proverbial wall of disparate treatment and bias. The “wall” can include being denied the same resources, compensation, and career advancement opportunities that the employer provides to their (often, white and/or male) counterparts, and/or being subjected to sexual harassment and/or sexual assault.

It is a jarring and disorienting experience to, for example, face repeated and unwarranted scrutiny from supervisors despite one’s exemplary job performance and output, or to be disciplined for exhibiting the same type of proactive and assertive behavior that is encouraged among one’s white and/or male counterparts. From what I have observed and experienced, it is virtually impossible to overcome this type of adversity—i.e., discrimination—merely through assimilationist behavior and hard work without sacrificing one’s professional stature, reputation, and dignity. Because so many of the clients my colleagues and I represent have become accustomed to “toughing it out” to grow and progress in their careers, it is not uncommon for them to endure months, or years, of illegal disparate treatment before seeking legal counsel. The injuries that clients face in such circumstances are exacerbated when their efforts to address discriminatory conduct by reporting it to management and Human Resources result in retaliation and further unwarranted criticism.

As a black and Latina woman among the American Bar Association’s reported five percent African American and five percent Hispanic lawyers in the United States—where these statistics have remained static over the past decade—my practice and business acumen are informed in part by my own past experiences with disparate treatment and bias in educational and corporate settings. It has been the most rewarding work of my career to advocate on behalf of and in support of clients as they face the emotional (and sometimes, physical) toll of discrimination and unchecked bias in the workplace. Their courage, determination and resilience inspire me to approach impediments with optimism and creativity when working to achieve outcomes that enable them to get their lives and careers back on track.

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