Charisse Lillie has had a lot of firsts in her career. She was the first African-American City Solicitor of the City of Philadelphia, the first African-American female to chair the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and the first African-American to chair a department at Ballard Spahr, where she chaired the Litigation Department.
Public speaking was a huge component of my rainmaking strategy. I did a lot of speaking in my specialty area and publicized it. I did CLE courses and newspaper interviews, too. This is a favorite story of mine: A major company called one of their local outside lawyers, asking for an African-American female employment lawyer. He said, “I don’t know her, but every time I open The Legal Intelligencer, I see Charisse Lillie being quoted or cited for her work in the employment law area. I’d call her.” They called and interviewed me and I got 11 years of business from them. The client is still with my former firm!
Biggest Influence on your Career
My parents were my biggest influences. They were hard workers who were dedicated to community service and giving back. My late father was a jazz musician and practiced his sax every day. My mom was a theatrical producer and speech and drama teacher and later a college professor. Both were involved in daily rehearsals—a great lesson for a child. It’s all about working hard and perfecting your skills, even when you appear to be at the top of your game.
Also, my first bosses, Judge Clifford Scott Green and Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. They also emphasized hard work, being precise, and being totally prepared anytime you are in court. I also learned from them the importance of treating people with equanimity and being respectful and dealing with the legal system with integrity.
Building my practice. When I went to Ballard Spahr, I had never asked a client for business, since I’d been a government lawyer and law professor. I had to reinvent myself. I built a practice for myself, became the chair of litigation, and created a voice for myself in the firm and the legal profession. It was a very challenging and fulfilling experience.
Knowing what you know now, if you were starting out as a lawyer today, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t do anything differently. Becoming a government lawyer and trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, after my clerkship, was very important to me. It was a dream job because I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer and eventually a judge at that early point in my career. As it turned out, I went from public law to private law to Comcast and things turned out as they should have because I am very happy where I am.
What has been your greatest frustration about trying to get
new business or new clients?
My Litigation Department chairman, Arthur Makadon, told me it would take me about two years to build my book of business. I had a strong network, so I thought I could make it happen sooner. However, my contacts already had established relationships with other lawyers. So it took about two years for conflicts to emerge, to build a reputation and to build the business, just as he predicted.
If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would
you give her regarding rainmaking?
Understand that rainmaking is about relationships. It is very important that you maintain relationships, that you stay in touch with clients with whom you have developed a relationship—and that you do extraordinary work to stand out in this tough business environment.
I developed a lot of business because of relationships I had developed in the nonprofit world. Many times clients were referred to me by businesspeople I had gotten to know through serving as a board member for a nonprofit. That’s another important reason to do community service. When I was serving for nonprofits, I never even thought that I would practice law in a big law firm. But the relationships I maintained through the years bore tremendous fruit for me when I was building my practice.
Would you say you ever had a mentor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If yes, please describe.
Judges Green and Higginbotham introduced me to a number of legal luminaries early in my career and I kept in touch with those people. For example, the former general counsel of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia—who ultimately led to my serving on the Federal Reserve Bank Board.
The judges also introduced me to Bill Brown, a partner at the Schnaider firm. Bill was chair of the MOVE Commission. The background is that in 1985 the MOVE organization, based in West Philadelphia, provoked a confrontation with the City of Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the confrontation, a bomb was dropped on the house occupied by the MOVE members, and an entire city block burned down and the occupants of the house, save two, died in the fire. Mayor Goode subsequently appointed a commission to investigate the city’s actions in the fire. Bill recommended me to be on the MOVE Commission. This was tremendous public service, but it also helped to propel my career. He also mentored many young lawyers and created opportunities for some of them at his law firm, based on my recommendations.
Think about when you started out as a lawyer. Now think about the new female lawyers just starting out. What is different now compared to when you started?
There are many more economic pressures than when I started out. I had very few female role models when I first practiced law. Young female lawyers now have many more opportunities to be mentored by female lawyers. Also, the job market is tighter, but the salaries are so much better now. Rainmaking, though, is harder now than 18 years ago when I entered private practice. There are pressures to keep prices down, an unwillingness on the part of clients to finance the training of associates, and clients want partners to do more of the work. The practice of law is much harder and now we’ve seen law firms fail, a relatively new phenomenon. This will have an impact on how lawyers build their practices.
Words that best describe you?
Passionate about diversity, hard worker, dedicated mentor, loyal friend and very blessed to be a member of the legal profession.
Women need to not feel guilty about the lack of balance in their lives. Work-life balance is very hard for successful lawyers, men or women. We need to figure out how to get as much balance as we can and not feel guilty about how much time it takes to practice law and be a rainmaker, which is substantial. I have one child and am a stepmother to two others. How did I do it? I did it with a very supportive spouse and a lot of adjuncts, most of whom were paid to do everything from picking up, dropping off, babysitting, to preparing meals. (My husband is a busy trial lawyer and my mother-in-law cared for my daughter the first year I returned to work.) All of these elements, working together, created an environment that allowed me to achieve and succeed.
Interview by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
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