Grace E. Speights, a partner at Morgan Lewis, was the featured guest in the the third program in MSBA’s 125th Anniversary Thought Leadership Initiative SPARK Series, which was held September 14, 2022, at the Center Club in Baltimore and livestreamed to members across the state. The Initiative focuses on four themes: the ethical obligation of lawyers to serve as Guardians of Justice; the legal profession’s role in leading efforts to ensure Access to Justice for marginalized communities; the responsibility of the profession for Reforming Justice to alleviate historic inequities; and its emerging obligation to address challenges and opportunities currently found at the intersection of Science, Technology, and Justice. Speights focused on the role of attorneys as guardians of justice. In her practice, Speights handles high-profile and high-stakes workplace matters for employers and is often called upon by clients for crisis management assistance. In addition to helping companies investigate workplace misconduct claims, Speights assists clients in navigating demands to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces, examines allegations of non inclusive or racist workplace environments, and advises on corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Although she represents employers in discrimination cases, Speights is recognized as an advocate for workplace equality and an ally of the MeToo movement. Speights was raised by a single mother who worked in a factory. Childhood visits to her mother’s workplace inspired Speights to want to help workers obtain better lives.
In a discussion with Donna Hill Staton, Speights explained that management-side employment lawyers practice in different ways; there are some whose only concern is mitigating risk and avoiding measures that create risk. Speights does not approach her practice that way but thinks, “you have to have a willingness to take risks and to do the right thing . . . . I’m not teaching my clients how to discriminate against people and treat them awful. I work with my clients to make sure their environment and . . . culture is safe for all employees—inclusive and respectful.” If clients do not want the kind of advice from her, she is not the right attorney for them.
Speights evolved into her current role as an advocate for equity in the workplace. When she began working at Morgan Lewis as a clerk, she was reserved until she learned she could be herself. Her colleagues were not only good attorneys but were also good people, and they were willing to mentor her and show her how to handle difficult situations. They eventually became her sponsors, meaning they put their reputations on the line with clients and with law firm management for her. Speights believes this is the only way that diverse lawyers and women lawyers can be successful in a law firm; if they don’t have partners staking their reputations on them, they won’t make it.
As a partner, Speights now has responsibility for the development of other lawyers. When they come on board, she talks to them not only about their career expectations but also about life, what they should do outside of work, and how to conduct themselves in the office. Her firm also conducts upward reviews, meaning associates get to grade partners, a process
Speights had a hand in creating. The reviews assess partners not only on their legal skills but also on whether they build diverse teams or respect their flexible work arrangement and personal time, and directly impact partner compensation.
Investigations comprise a large part of Speights’s practice and in many cases, uncover problematic behavior. She finds that most clients she deals with have made significant changes since the MeToo movement, and she encourages clients to make sure they have appropriate policies and procedures in place for reporting discrimination and harassment. The level of transparency and reporting of discrimination and harassment has increased as well, which encourages more people to come forward. It represents an evolution in terms of how corporations think about these things but also how lawyers approach their representation of clients. Speights views herself as a trusted advisor in that she quickly identifies her client’s problems and offers ways to resolve them. In other words, she helps them reduce risks instead of being afraid of them.
Speights touched on the role of lawyers as guardians of justice. Her firm has discussions on the moral and ethical roles of lawyers, which she attributes to great leadership. Firm leaders have to set the right tone for the firm, and good leaders are empathetic, sympathetic, fair, and transparent. If you start with good leadership, Speights does not believe you would have the unprofessional and unethical conduct lawyers have engaged in recently, like ignoring subpoenas.
Speights also addressed issues that might arise in workplaces in the future, including the concern that the diversity, equity, and inclusion projects or initiatives that have been put into place will suffer due to remote work. Additionally, many companies are facing reverse discrimination lawsuits because of their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Employers that allow for remote work also encounter issues keeping track of the number of hours non-exempt employees work, which may leave them vulnerable to wage and hour lawsuits.