Yondi Morris on Starting Her Own Law Firm and Being the Only Black Woman in the Room
November 21, 2017 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Five years ago, attorney Yondi Morris was so frustrated in her job hunt that she decided to hire herself. With two friends, she co-founded Knight Morris Reddick Law Group in Chicago, which has since blossomed into a thriving firm and law staffing agency. We recently visited Yondi at her home in Chicago’s Bronzeville, where we met her newborn twins (!) and talked mentors, fortuitous elevator rides, and how it feels to be the only black woman in a room full of white men.
I WAS ARGUMENTATIVE from a very early age. Not in a bad way—I was just inquisitive and wanted to debate every possible topic. So for as long as I can remember, everyone was saying, “Oh, this girl’s going to be a lawyer,” and it stuck. In our household, we had a very democratic upbringing. If we wanted something, we had to present our case at a family meeting and explain why we thought we should get it. My older sister and I would come in with notes and arguments for our side, whether it was that my parents should have another baby or buy a minivan. And it worked! My sister and I were eight and nine when we decided that we wanted another sibling, and we called family meetings every month to discuss why we thought it was a good idea, and my parents were like, “No. We’re done.” Then they called a family meeting and told us that my mom was pregnant. They also bought the minivan!
I WENT TO SPELMAN, which is a historically black women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta. Classes were small, and I built good relationships with professors, which helped when it was time to get internships or network or get letters of recommendation. Most of my peers went into other fields—mainly education—but I have an incredibly supportive, tight group of friends from school. They would cook me dinner when I was going through the lows of my first year at law school, and quiz me with flash cards when I was preparing for the bar. When we were starting our firm, we used them as a focus group to see what types of marketing initiatives would make people want to hire us. They’ve also helped increase the law firm’s visibility and presence on social media.
I GOT THE IDEA to start my own business from a man I met about six years ago, at a law firm where I was doing temporary contract work. It was located in the Sears Tower, very high up, on the 75th floor or something. One day, I got on the elevator and held the door for an older man behind me, just to be polite. When he got on, he said, “Thank you for the elevator door. A lot of people don’t do that.” I noticed we were going to the same floor, so I asked if he was an attorney. It turned out he’d been a partner with the firm for many years. So I asked him if we could go to lunch, just so I could pick his brain. It was the middle of the recession, jobs were scarce, and I was networking as much as possible. During our lunch, he suggested that I start my own law firm. I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m barely out of law school.” I remember being frustrated because it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to know where I could find a job.
WHEN WE ACTUALLY DID START OUR OWN FIRM, about a year later, I called that same man and said, “We did it! You have to come to dinner with my new law partners.” So he did. His name is John Adams, and during dinner, he explained that he was a direct descendant of the former president John Adams, which I’d never realized. He said, “Black women have had a hard time in the legal community and in the world, and a lot of it correlates to what my family did to your ancestors.” Then he literally wrote us a check at the table, and said, “Use this for seed money for your law firm. I don’t want anything back; just make me proud.” You’d never expect an elevator ride would create an informal mentor relationship, let alone money to start our own firm, but it did.
I MET ONE OF MY LAW PARTNERS, Jessica, when she did a year-long program at Spelman as an exchange student. We were both sociology majors, so we had classes together. We were friendly, but we weren’t really friends, and when I moved back to Chicago after college we weren’t in touch at all. But then she started law school at Loyola in Chicago at the same time that I started at Northwestern. After we both graduated, we ran into each other at the Corner Bakery. It was a Friday, and she said, “What are you doing later?” And I said, “Oh, I’m going shoe shopping.” And so we went shoe shopping together, and became extremely close friends from that point forward. When I was doing contract work at different firms, we would talk every day. I didn’t love what I was doing, and her job wasn’t permanent, either. She comes from a family of entrepreneurs, so we began talking about starting our own business.
I MET MY OTHER LAW PARTNER, Kelly, through a good friend. We were not close by any means, but we’d see each other socially, and we followed each other on Twitter. One day, I was working at a firm, and we had a big meeting in a conference room to discuss the case. At the end of the meeting, one of the partners said to the room full of people, “Okay slaves, get back to work!” I was so shocked and disheartened, and that night, I tweeted, “I need to start my own law firm.” Kelly saw it and tweeted back, “Let’s meet to discuss that.” I invited Jessica, and we all met at Starbucks and it just clicked. We could immediately tell that we trusted each other. Jessica sketched our logo in that meeting, and it’s the same logo we have today.
I’M ALWAYS KEENLY AWARE that I’m typically the only black woman in the room. Recently, I had a real estate closing with a white male client. Everyone on the seller’s side was white and male too, so there were about six or seven white males in the room, and me. The closing went really fast; a typical closing might be two hours, and this one took 43 minutes. I said something like, “Wow, that’s the fastest closing I’ve ever had.” And one of the men said, “Well, you’ve probably never closed with all white men before.” I didn’t know how to respond, and then the moment passed because I was thinking, Wait, did he just say that? By the time I had processed it, it was too late to say something, and I don’t know what I would have said anyway. But things like that definitely come up, and make me even more aware of my minority status—feeling invisible as a black woman, and not knowing how to find my voice in that type of situation. It makes me wonder, Gosh, if you say these things in front of me, what on earth do you say when I’m not around? Still, it makes you a little bit stronger. We’re all in the same room together and we all deserve to be there, and that backwards thinking doesn’t hold.
WHEN WE STARTED OUR LAW FIRM, we were very purposeful in saying that we wanted to be different. We don’t want people to see us as stuffy or unapproachable. We don’t want to intimidate people. We have a strong social media presence and we’re active in our community. A lot of our corporate clients are entrepreneurs, and a lot of our individual clients are women. I think they come to us because they find us relatable. We aren’t what lawyers typically look like. But we didn’t set out to be a “black women’s law firm.” We are women, and we are black, but we started the law firm to do business. Then we learned along the way that people were excited about us being black women in a field that is dominated by white men.
PART OF OUR BUSINESS is that we’re also a legal staffing agency. We now bring attorneys into corporations and law firms to do the type of work that I used to do—contract work for bigger cases. We have a minority certification [an MBE] for that, so we’re able to help companies that are serious about hiring diverse vendors. Quite a few companies are really struggling with diversity, which I find strange. You still see big law firms with no people of color.
I DEFINITELY HAD A PERIOD OF FEELING LOST when I finished law school and couldn’t find a job. I had accumulated so much debt, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I remember talking to one of my professors at Northwestern after I had been out of law school for about two years. I had been networking like crazy; almost every day I had lunch scheduled with a different attorney, and almost every evening I was going to events. I was doing everything I could think of, and I was at my wits’ end. I was worried I was going to cry in front of this professor. And she said, “You don’t know this yet, Yondi, but from what I know about you, this is going to be the best thing that could’ve ever happened to you.” And I remember being like, “What?!” I think I did shed a tear at that point. Now I know she was dead on. Those contacts and relationships that I made from all that networking have resulted in a lot of business for our firm and our staffing agency. That dark tunnel that I was in, and all of the hustle that it took, turned into something wonderful.
WHEN WE FIRST STARTED OUT, I didn’t have children and I wasn’t married. I used to bring my phone to the bathroom because I was afraid of missing a call or an email. There’s still some of that, but I learned there has to be a cutoff. Now I have three-month-old twin babies, and I’ll be honest: It’s been a struggle to find balance. Especially at first, I felt guilty because I wasn’t fully present for the babies, I wasn’t fully present for work, and it seemed like I was failing at both. But it helps to have people in your life who will say, “It’s okay for you to step away from your babies, and okay for you to step away from work.” Now, I try to not work on weekends. I used to bring my laptop with me in my purse whenever I went anywhere, just in case I could find a free moment. Like, if my husband was driving us somewhere in the car, I could pull out my laptop and get a few things done. Now I try not to do that. Part of it came with practice. Our firm is five years old now, and I know that if I don’t respond to an email within 10 minutes, it’s not like I’m going to lose that client. In fact, it’s probably okay for me to respond tomorrow. Being a good mother, a good wife, and a good law partner means that I have to take care of myself, too.
Photographs by Taylor Castle.