Founding a Minority-Led Firm in One of the Least Diverse Industries

Five years ago, three black female lawyers were getting tired of feeling isolated at company after company. So they created their own.

Jessica Reddick, Keli Knight, and Yondi Morris  (Rebecca Clarke )

Discussions of racial and gender diversity have been striking chords in many industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, law remains one of the least diverse professions. And it’s not a pipeline problem: Minority students make up about one-fifth of law school graduates, and yet—according to The Washington Post—they constitute fewer than 7 percent of firm partners and only 9 percent of general counsels for large corporations. Women overall receive 47 percent of law degrees; they make up about a third of the population of lawyers.

Despite those statistics, or perhaps because of them, three women have taken it upon themselves to institute a change. Together, Keli Knight, Yondi Morris, and Jessica Reddick founded Knight, Morris & Reddick Law Group, one of the few women- and African American-owned firms in Chicago. The Chicago office opened in 2012, and since then, they’ve expanded to Los Angeles and opened a legal-staffing agency in Washington D.C. The women—who have been friends for yearscame together to form the firm after Morris tweeted about her frustrations with her job doing contract work.

While the success of their firm might signal an industry climate that is becoming more open to fostering diversity, the statistics are still grim in the city where they practice: Black women in particular make up just 2 percent of law associates in the Chicago area, as well as less than 1 percent of the city’s partners.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Knight, Morris, and Reddick about what it was like building a law firm, why they pursued entrepreneurship, and the uniqueness of a law firm headed by three black women. The transcript that follows has been lightly edited.

Adrienne Green: How did the three of you get to know each other?

Keli Knight: Yondi and I knew each other through a mutual friend. We probably clicked because she was in law school, and I was a lawyer. Jessica and Yondi knew each other from undergrad: Yondi went to Spelman, and Jessica did an exchange program for a year there. They ended up reconnecting when Jessica moved to Chicago from Washington D.C. to go to law school. When Yondi and I ended up having a conversation about starting the firm, she decided to bring Jessica along to our meeting because they had been having similar conversations about entrepreneurship. We just hit it off from there.

Green: I've read that your business started with a single tweet. Can you tell me the story?

Yondi Morris: At the time, I was working at a law firm doing contract work. That meant that I was in a firm, but there was no real upward mobility. I would move from firm to firm doing document-review work. I was working for one of the big firms here in the city, and I just didn't love what I was doing, or enjoy the culture. At the conclusion of a meeting where there were lots of partners, associates, and contract attorneys in the room, one of the partners said to the whole group of us: “Okay slaves, get back to work.” I was saddened by his statement but more so by the culture of the firm, where you could call people slaves and it not be jarring to everyone. I was one of the only people of color in the room, and it impacted me in a pretty severe way.

That night I came home and I tweeted, “I need to start my own law firm.” Keli was on Twitter at the same time. She re-tweeted me and said, “Well, let's meet to discuss that.” I wasn't really that serious. I was just venting my frustrations. Jessica and I used to gchat all day long, talking about wanting to be entrepreneurs. After Keli and I decided to meet, I quickly gchatted Jessica and said, “I know this girl named Keli, she's a lawyer and she's interested in starting her own firm. Can we all sit down and talk about it?” Jessica and Keli had never met before, but when the three of us sat down at Starbucks it was as if we had been having this conversation for a really long time.

Green: Keli, what made you want to reply to the tweet?

Knight: I had wanted to be a lawyer my whole life, but once I actually got into actually practicing—I wasn't sure that it was really for me. I had been doing pretty well, and I had taken the place of a different attorney who was an older black man. I was being told that I was doing his job better. But then, I found out that I was getting paid substantially less than he was. I ended up leaving and going to a small real-estate firm, where I was on the partner track. When a shift in the market took place, they weren't able to offer me the same track. I just made the decision that I had to venture out on my own. When Yondi tweeted, it came to me that she was probably what I needed in order to move to a higher place in practicing.

Jessica Reddick: We actually planned for a whole year prior to officially hanging out our shingle. We're young, black, females—obviously minorities in our field, particularly law-firm owners. We wanted to be taken seriously; we wanted to be able to really compete with our counterparts. We literally met with everyone from our network—web designers, marketing and branding people, mentors of ours who had gone on to create large practices on their own—so that when we did step out, we were representing ourselves in the best way possible. Obviously there was a learning curve, because that's just part of entrepreneurship, but we wanted to be as prepared as possible. So many small businesses collapse in the first 18 months, and we didn't want to fall into that statistic.

Green: The law industry is historically male-dominated and predominately white. As a firm headed by three young black women, what challenges have you faced?

Reddick: I would say, more than anything, we received support because of it. I think the general consensus was excitement around us being minority women. People had not seen it before, or they had in very small numbers. We've even had multiple people, older men, approach us and express an interest in investing in our firm. One of them, a very successful attorney in his own right, was very excited to hear our story and wanted to pour [resources] into our business. We didn't accept all offers, but it felt good to feel that type of support from the type of people that look like us, but also our competitors.

Green: Since there aren’t a lot of black women who own law firms in your city, whom did you look to for mentorship?

Knight: One thing that was really helpful to us was using a business coach. Though we have always learned how to practice law, we hadn't necessarily learned formally how to run a business.

Morris: We really depended a lot on each other. We had all worked in different places; we knew what we liked about those environments and what we didn't like. We spent a long time getting to know each other in a business sense and figuring out the culture of our own firm—how we wanted it to be different. We did get advice, but a lot of advice was from people who were older, and it was important to us to be true to ourselves. We knew that a lot of our clients would be people who look like us. We wanted to be very purposeful about being different.

Green: You’ve all noted that your presentation and being taken seriously were both important. What did you do to be taken more seriously?

Knight: It was really important to us to be very accessible and transparent. We know that attorneys have a bad reputation for not being willing to have conversations to explain things to their clients, and maybe not being so upfront when it comes to billing. We did not want to be that. For me, one of the biggest things came down to making sure that people take us seriously and trust us, and want to engage our business.

Reddick: Another thing was our office space. We wanted to be in a place where people would immediately see the address and respect, acknowledge, and recognize it. We don't actually spend a lot of time in our office, which is funny because that was one of the first decisions that we made in terms of our budget and our brand. In Chicago, LaSalle Street, historically, was where all of the major law firms were. We are located in the Willis Tower, which most Chicagoans know as Sears Tower.

Morris: One of the ways that you can also be taken seriously is to know your work. Once we learned that we knew how to practice law very well, and that we could be involved in conversations with opposing counsel who had been lawyers for 20 or 30 years, we felt comfortable and confident in our knowledge base. Our clients felt comfortable and confident with us. Even though we are young, minorities, and maybe don’t look how attorneys typically look, clients know that we know what we are talking about. There's always new information that we're learning, so this isn't to say that we know everything, but we built a level of seriousness that I think our clients would say is what made them really trust us.

Green: You all touched on the importance of your web presence and social media; you even started a business off a tweet. How does prioritizing the web affect your business?

Knight: I think that we are part of the younger generation and we naturally are just a little bit more tech savvy and into social media than some of the older attorneys. It works for us, because it's how we naturally are. It's how a lot of our clients are. A lot of people, young entrepreneurs have a regular 9-to-5 job, but then also maybe do something on the side. They have to communicate and exist by email and social media instead of the typical phone calls and in-person meetings. It helps that we exist in the same space. If you're starting a business in this time, you have to accept social media. It's the way that people find out about you. Nowadays, people look to Facebook to find your business page. They look to their friends on Facebook to find business referrals. It's something that you can't resist.

A photo posted by Knight, Morris & Reddick Law (@kmrlawgroup) on Apr 24, 2015

Green: How do you balance being both lawyers and business owners, while also working together as friends?

Reddick: I think one of the main reasons we've been as successful and sustainable for five years is because we acknowledge the power and organic energy that we have together. That is really important to the day-to-day functionality and management of our business, and our friendship as well. I don't think any of us really assumed that at some point we'd be running a law firm. We all found ourselves in law school and wanted to become the best attorneys that we could be, but the camaraderie and the sisterhood that was formed almost immediately has been our biggest asset.

Where the other two fall short, the third definitely stands strong. We don't argue. There are three of us, so that makes a vote pretty simple. I think our clients see it, through our social media you can see it, and definitely those that engage with us on a day to day see it and feel it as well.

Morris: When there are things that come up where we're not really sure how to best deal with it, we take those types of issues to our consultant. There's no reason to bicker back and forth about anything, because we've all made a decision that, most important is the success of our law firm and maintaining a very close and personal relationship with one another. We love and respect each other, so there's really no way that we could ever imagine there being a problem.

Green: What is it like to be a partner in a law firm? A lot of people get their ideas about what it means to be a lawyer from TV shows, such as The Good Wife or Suits, but how does it differ owning a business?

Knight: For me, the most challenging thing is the balance because being a lawyer is time consuming, challenging, and mentally exhausting enough. Then to add being a partner is even more. You are practicing law and managing clients, but then you must bring in clients and figure out the most creative way to do that. If we wake up one day and the website is down, we have to figure out what's going on. If we want to hire an assistant or anyone else, we have to do the interviewing, and go through the resumes.

Morris: When you are an associate at a law firm, there are partners there who have relationships with companies, large corporations, and clients. That work can be divvied up to associates. In our law firm, it is 100 percent on us to bring in our business. That means that we have to spend a significant amount of time on client development, going to networking events, and creating visibility so that we have the actual work to do.

That's challenging, because when you decide to start a law firm, where do you get your clients? Our law firm was our only source of income. We're also paying all of our operating costs. There's no one but the three of us who can really do that. There wasn't much work-life balance; we just worked around the clock. Learning how to do everything, wear all types of hats, and still find time for our loved ones and our family—that was pretty tough.

Reddick: Both my parents are entrepreneurs and I’ve always intended to be an entrepreneur. I didn't know exactly what that was going to look like, but I always knew that I was going to create my path around my happiness.

For some people, working and creating just means having a solid income. You're able to support your family, and that's what work and success is for that person. For us, and for most entrepreneurs, it's almost a baby that you're creating. You are defining yourself through your work. When you wake up and go to a 9-to-5 job, the hope is, that your 9-to-5 time is not what defines you. But for us, it is something that we talk and think about all the time.

The creation of a law firm for us has been a personal journey that has taught us a lot of life lessons. I don't think any of us could ever work for someone else in a real capacity ever again. I think it's been a beautiful lesson in fighting through fear and functioning outside of your comfort zone: Being able to be challenged by someone, not necessarily in a courtroom because that's not what we do often, but to being challenged by opposing counsel and learning how to really stand strong in who you are and be confident in your intelligence.

Our firm is bigger than just the work we're doing; our brand is a representation of us. We want it to continue to be that way, because people are drawn to us. The work is about the end goal, which is KMR Foundation where we can give back through education to the next generation. The goal is to be strong images of powerful, intelligent, black women that maybe didn't come from where we'll end up in 10 to 15 years.

Morris: We are black women; we wanted to be able to help other people and minorities. A lot of people can't afford counsel, so we've gotten really creative with how we charge our clients and making sure that we're not turning people away just because they can't pay us today. A lot of times minorities are afraid of lawyers, they're afraid of really high prices.

Knight: Doing this work is absolutely tied to us as individuals, our personalities and who we are as a group. Even when it comes to our legal staffing agency, that was a product of us being serious and being fluid—and just deciding that we always want to take an opportunity if we can.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a surgeon, a civil engineer, and an accountant.