There are enough life experiences, positions, and accolades on lawyer LaShann DeArcy Hall’s CV for three very industrious people: she was lawyer, professional dancer, Air Force airman, and a member of various commissions in New York. Add motherhood to the mix, and well—it borders on unbelievable. DeArcy Hall spoke with mater mea about her unconventional path, and how the busy mom keeps it all—more or less—together.
“Mommy? What are we going to do today?”
Jayden Hall asks her mother, lawyer LaShann DeArcy Hall, some variation of this question every weekend morning. The 5-year-old keeps a tight schedule that rivals some adults, dashing from her kindergarten class at Chapin School on the Upper East Side to dance lessons, swim classes, and play dates around the city.
No stranger to a packed schedule herself, LaShann DeArcy Hall relishes in being able to say, “Today, we’re just going to relax.”
One can hardly tell who is more excited to play a game of charades, Jayden or her mother. Save for the sound of her husband, venture capitalist Courtney Hall, watching TV upstairs, it’s a relatively quiet Saturday afternoon for the family.
Of counsel at Morrison Foerster, one of New York City’s most respected law firms, relaxation isn’t something LaShann DeArcy Hall gets to do a whole lot of, she admits. There are the untold hours spent working on commercial and civil litigation trials, acting primarily as the defense lawyer a number of Fortune 500 companies want in their corner for antitrust, bankruptcy, and class action cases. Last fall she was appointed as a commissioner for the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, adding to her role as a commissioner of the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, to which she was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And somehow LaShann DeArcy Hall also fits in pro bono work, as well as championing diversity in the legal world.
“At the end of the day, it’s stressful, we work long hours, but I am doing what I love to do,” DeArcy Hall says. “I get to have a career that is the career I would choose for myself, and it’s not just one that I’m doing because I have to.”
DeArcy Hall says she wants to become a partner at Morrison Foerster, an especially rarefied position for black women who only made up 1.84 percent of law firm partners in 2008, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on the opportunities afforded women in business.
Surprisingly enough it’s a world she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to be a part of when she came to that inevitable college graduate crossroad: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Her other option may surprise you.
“I was going to be one of two things,” DeArcy Hall says. “Either a professional dancer or a lawyer. And I did both.”
The first in her family to go to college, LaShann DeArcy Hall considered going straight to law school after graduating from Antioch University in 1992, “but quite frankly, really couldn’t get my sh*t together,” she admits now, “which also means I just wasn’t ready.”
She moved to Washington D.C. after college and worked on Capitol Hill for former New York Congressman Floyd Flake, before moving to New York City to pursue a professional dance career on a Broadway scholarship. But being a professional dancer just didn’t jibe well with what LaShann DeArcy Hall wanted in her life.
“Dancing has always been my passion, so it fills me up—it just takes you someplace. To this day, [though] I don’t do it very often, there’s this joy I get when I dance,” DeArcy Hall says. “But there’s also this part of me that is intellectually curious, and dancing didn’t satisfy that part of me. I am also a person who doesn’t do well with ‘the struggle.’ I need to know that I can pay the bills. I had to make choices that really weren’t helpful if I was trying to be a serious dancer, because I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice in terms of paying my bills. So it became a really difficult existence for me.”
While trying to decide if a life at the barre was for her, LaShann DeArcy Hall visited one of her friends in the military who was stationed in Korea. What was supposed to be a two-week visit became a six-month stay.
“I realized I wasn’t really happy pursuing my dance career, because if I was, I would have been right back in New York dancing,” she says now. “But instead I stayed in Korea for a while,” teaching English to get by.
When she returned to New York, DeArcy Hall’s life was effectively in shambles. “I lost my dance scholarship, I was on the verge of defaulting on my student loans, my personal life was a hot mess, and I [thought], ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’
“My girlfriend said to me, jokingly, ‘Why don’t you join the military?’ So the next day, I signed up for the Air Force,” she says, laughing, “and went to basic training in Texas. [I] went through tech school in Mississippi, and then got stationed at the Office of Special Investigations on Boeing Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.”
Two years into her four-year commitment with the Air Force, it became clear to LaShann DeArcy Hall that she wanted to go to law school, and not just any law school—it was Howard University or bust. After getting a recommendation and making her case to the Air Force’s top brass, DeArcy Hall left the service early and started at Howard Law in the fall of 1997.
“You want to motivate someone to do what they want to do?” LaShann DeArcy Hall says laughing. “Have them do something that they know is not what they want to do.”
Since taking that circuitous path to law, LaShann DeArcy Hall has been on a straight line to success—working her way up at high-ranking firms Cravath, Swain, and Moore and then Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher before leaving in 2008 to work for Morrison Foerster, a move that promoted her to of counsel from senior associate shortly after arriving.
“[I’ve found] myself at a really good place professionally. I love this firm that I’m at now—it satisfies me, I feel supported by it, it is what I was looking for, and it’s also what I think I deserve,” DeArcy Hall says.
HOW HAS BEING A MOM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
Her presence in my life fills a void that I did not know existed. I was not a woman who knew for all my life that I wanted to have kids. There are people who from the time they’re little girls know that; in their twenties, they’re longing for it. I wasn’t really that person.
When I met my husband, I knew I wanted to raise children with him, and in the context of my relationship with my husband, the notion of being a mom was born. But it wasn’t until she came that I realized, wow, maybe there was this thing that I didn’t know that I wanted, in terms of completeness. Having her in my life has made me adjust my priorities. My child comes first, but sometimes adjusting my priorities makes me even more driven to do what I want to do for her. I am her role model, and so I think the greatest gift any mom can give their children—especially black moms—is the belief that they have options and they can be and do whatever it is that they choose. The only way you can really impart that into your child is if you live that.
WHY DIDN’T YOU THINK ABOUT HAVING KIDS UNTIL YOU MET YOUR HUSBAND?
My mom … was a young mom. My sister and I are nine and a half months apart, and she had [us] when she was just 18 years old. Having grown up with a single, young mother, as wonderful of a job as she did, I don’t think I allowed my mind to contemplate [having kids] until it looked different. Parenting for me was something I wanted to do with a partner. We never know what life holds for us—people get divorced. But [being a mother was] certainly not something that I would even contemplate until that part of my life allowed for it.
WHAT’S THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A MOM?
From the day that Jayden was born, every day, I am always a little scared. I never had that before, [and] I’m not certain when this will ever stop.
I lived my life as if I were invincible—a lot of things that I did were ill-advised. (Laughs) But now I pray more regularly, I pray more deeply, and [my prayers] center around my child largely. The only prayer that I even have for myself at this point is that I am around and healthy long enough to see my daughter marry someone I love. (Laughs) And then I’ll know that she’s okay. That’s the only part of parenting that I really don’t like. The rest of it—even when you want to pull your hair out—it’s part of the ride.
FILL IN THE BLANK: I LOVE BEING A MOM MOST WHEN …?
I love being a mom most when I am a fly on the wall and I’m watching Jayden laugh and be happy. You can just tell when she is exuding happiness. I love being a mom most when Jayden takes my face in her hands and gives me a kiss, or hugs me at night.
I could watch my daughter all day long. I mean, look, she drives me insane, don’t get me wrong; she’s a kid and I’m an adult—that’s part of it. But I dig her, I like this little girl. I think that she is an awesome kid. She’s so empathetic, she’s so concerned about other people—she just has a good heart. I love being a mom most when my husband gives me a kiss, and she says almost every time, “Happily ever after.” (Laughs)
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE JAYDEN’S PERSONALITY?
She is immensely creative; she is happiest when she is singing or trying to learn the choreography to some musical theater of some sort (currently it’s Annie). She loves opera, which is interesting. She can be shy at first; she’s a kid who wants to take it all in, and then when she figures out the lay of the land, she just jumps in with both feet. She is going to be the one to try and get everyone in the room to settle down and relax. My girlfriend tells me all the time that when her daughter gets worked up and Jayden’s over there for a play date, my daughter will often say, “Just relax, Marin, just relax!”
She’s a fairly even-keeled kid. She is immensely happy—her teachers at school say she is always smiling, always laughing. And that is probably my greatest joy, to be able to know that I am raising a child who is in her core two things: happy and she knows she’s loved. Matter of fact, when you tell her “I love you,” [she’ll say], “I knooooow that!” How lucky that you can [say], “I know that, enough”?
WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF THE HARDER ISSUES YOU’VE HAD TO ADDRESS WITH RAISING JAYDEN?
We made the choice that until a particular time and when we knew it was right, all the baby dolls that we had in the house would be brown. It was very important to us—my child’s a minority in a lot of places and it’s not going to be in her house.
When she was four and a half, she wanted this accessory to the Loving Family set. We had gotten her the black version, but the accessory only came in the white doll. I agonized in the store if this was the right time, and I ultimately decided, yes, we’ll get it for her. She ended up having this collection that had the [black] Loving Family, and then she had this additional mom that was a white woman and her little daughter. I noticed that Jayden had substituted black mommy for the white mommy in the family proper, and I asked, “Jayden, what happened to the other mommy?” She revealed that she liked the color of the white mommy’s skin.
I talked [to her] about how beautiful brown skin is, and [how] we’re all brown, [but] it was clear that wasn’t resonating with her. She was clear that she [thought] the brown people [were] pretty too, but she said, “I just like this one.” In that moment I decided that I couldn’t leave it at that because it was too important to me, but my efforts to deal with this from a logical, rational way weren’t working. So finally I said, “You know, Jayden, I appreciate that, but I have to tell you, it hurts Mommy’s feelings because I look like the other mommy.”
You don’t know in any given moment whether the choices you make are the right ones, you can only take a leap of faith. She looked at me, and then later she came back and said, “Mommy, are your feelings still hurt?” And I said, “No, Mommy’s okay, I don’t want you to feel bad.” But then she made a choice later, “white mommy” was never “white mommy” again. “White mommy” became the neighborhood [mommy].
Now Jayden is actually in a really different place about skin tones. She’d asked me if I would vote for President Obama; she didn’t want me to vote for Romney. (Laughs) She [said], “Mommy, can you vote for Obama?” And later my husband asked, “Well, why do you want Mommy to vote for President Obama?” Truthfully [I] think it’s because she’s very familia—we’ve been to the White House tour and Easter Egg Hunts—but one of the things she said is, “I really like the color of his skin.” Having had a child a year ago who commented at least in one instance that she’s favored white skin over black skin, it was affirming for me that the way I handled that situation with my child was right for us.
YOU’RE A HUGE CHAMPION FOR DIVERSITY IN THE LEGAL WORLD. HOW HAS YOUR RACE AFFECTED YOUR CAREER PATH?
I was going to say I have not experienced any overt racism, [but] I have experienced it in my career. As a general matter, do I believe that people have viewed me as a capable and competent lawyer? Absolutely. I’ve never gone to work and felt that anyone thought I wasn’t capable because I was black or a woman. I don’t think that that has been an issue. It’s [more] about the fact that in order to succeed in this profession, people have to take a vested interest in your career.
What I mean by succeed, I don’t mean being an excellent lawyer, learning how to do it—that’s a different kind of success. [I mean] being able to partner, for example, or being promoted to an of-counsel position. People have to decide, I believe, that they want you to succeed, because there are a lot of really smart, talented lawyers out there. And not every really smart, talented lawyer is going to have professional success at any given firm. At some point, someone has to make a decision that they want that to happen for you.
So then the question becomes what is it that people use to make a determination of whether or not they want that for you? And I think we would all be naïve to say that people don’t often gravitate towards people who are familiar in some way. We all do it, so that’s not necessarily racism, but it certainly means that if I am the single black female in a group of 100 lawyers … you would be naïve to think that it doesn’t somehow play out where perhaps you don’t have as easy of an ability to develop those kinds of relationships.
I think that I have had every opportunity to prove my abilities throughout my career. But what I don’t believe I had up until recently was the relationship with one or more influential people who could make a decision that they want to help me navigate these waters. You can’t do it on your own. Someone has to decide that they’re going to help you navigate it. I think that people of color are not the benefactors of those relationships at the same levels [as] our white counterparts.
WHAT’S THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF YOUR JOB?
The truth? There’s the substantively gratifying part, where I get to be creative and I learn something new regularly. That’s why I like doing litigation, because it’s challenging and I like to be challenged, I like to be tested, and I like to have an opportunity to win. (Laughs) But personally, there’s another part that I find gratifying. It’s that, notwithstanding the fact that we have made tremendous advances in terms of the makeup of law firms, I am still in some respects not always the one who’s expected at the table, and I like that I have a seat at the table. It’s an important table.
Having gone to Howard, undoubtedly there [was] this discussion where people would say, “Oh, people who are going to law firms, you’re selling out,” and I say to myself and to them, “There are people who fought really hard so that opportunities for me to work in places like this exist. Some of us have an obligation to take our seat at the table and fight the next part of that.”
WHAT PERSPECTIVE OR EXAMPLE DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART ON JAYDEN THROUGH YOUR WORK?
The notion that she can be and do anything she wants, that there are no limitations except for those that she places on herself, and that she is as capable as anyone. I am the product of teenage mom, a black single teenage mom. I’m not, by a lot of folks’ definitions, supposed to be here, doing what I do. I want her to see it doesn’t work that way, you define yourself.
I also want her to understand about working hard. I believe that it’s important to have some sense of entitlement. You need to feel like it’s your rightful place to be [where you want to be]. But you also have to understand that hard work is important, and it’s gratifying, and the most important things you get in life, you’re going to get because you worked really hard for them.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE IT ALL?
(Laughs) I think I balance it all by not having any real balance. My work/life balance is a work/life imbalance. I have an exceptionally supportive partner in all of it, which I think is huge, and it’s huge from a practical standpoint in that we parent together. During the week, for example, the mornings are mine. I get Jayden up, I get her dressed. We leave as a family, and we take her to school together as a family. But because of my hours, Monday through Friday, I don’t participate in nighttime. He feeds her dinner, and he puts her to bed. If I did not have a spouse who was willing to do that, I couldn’t do what I do.
Beyond the practical part of it is that he is all in, in terms of really wanting me to have the success that I want to have. My husband [is] like my professional coach. He’s the guy who kind of helps me navigate this as well. He wants me to have this. It’s hard to do what I do and be a mom, and not experience guilt. It’s impossible. He doesn’t add to that. It’s not that it doesn’t exist for me because of him, but he certainly doesn’t add to that. And he quite easily could.