Altomease “Al” Kennedy is a trailblazer who wears many caps. Al is a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and practices qui tam law, representing employees who blow the whistle on companies that are cheating and stealing from the government. Al has worked full-time as an attorney for forty years while raising two children with her husband, a now retired United States District Court Judge for the District of Columbia. Not only is her skill and professionalism second to none, Al is also one of the first black female attorneys to represent whistleblowers. I had the opportunity to sit down with Al to ask about her experience in law and how the intersection of race and sex has impacted her career. She also provided critical advice to young women entering the legal profession.
How did you start out your legal career?
I graduated from law school in 1975. I didn’t apply to big firms because I perceived hostility towards women and African-Americans. This combination used to be called a “two-for”. Perceived hostility deters people from even trying. It was not the fear of rejection; it was just that I thought it was pointless. The hiring climate was not known as inviting for black females at that time. Women were minorities when I was in law school, and black women were even more of a minority. More recently, when my daughter graduated from law school, the male to female ratio was 50/50.
So what did you do to get started in that very hostile environment?
I worked at a government agency from 1976-1981. In my Litigation and Liquidation division, there were eight lawyers and two were women. That was a high proportion of women for that time. Later, I worked in private practice at a firm and eventually became a partner in 1990. I was the second woman made a partner at the firm.
Has being a mother played any role in your career choices along the way?
When I worked at the firm, it did not have a maternity leave policy. I was the first female attorney working there to have a child. As I was the first, I took it upon myself to write the firm’s maternity policy, consisting of three months leave at full pay. The firm immediately agreed with my proposal. It was clear that the male managing partner didn’t want to have a discussion about maternity leave.
Much later, I took one year off to work for a non-profit and returned to the firm in 2001 in an “of counsel” position. My older daughter was going to college in three years and I wanted more of a life/work balance.
Later, I started my own practice with Vince McKnight in 2009 called McKnight & Kennedy. However, from a life/work perspective, it is a major undertaking to start a law firm, and it is important to consider the large overhead costs (staff, rent, furniture, computer and phone systems, insurance, etc.). Most recently, McKnight & Kennedy merged with Sanford Heisler in 2014.
Have you ever experienced or witnessed discrimination in the workplace?
There are three examples of discrimination that I would like to share.
First, at a previous job, I observed a male attorney yelling at his secretary to get him coffee. I explained to him that getting him coffee was not her job and that he shouldn’t speak to his secretary in that manner. I believe that everyone should stand up in those types of situations, and I do think that women are more aware of these occurrences because they can identify with the person being harassed.
Second, when I worked in private practice, the majority of attorneys were men. During lunch, I would force myself to engage in “male conversation” about football and baseball even though I really didn’t care about those topics.
Lastly, when I worked at an energy company, a white male attorney colleague of mine screamed at me during a discussion. I told him that it was inappropriate to speak to me that way and then wrote a letter to the President of the company explaining my colleagues’ disrespectful behavior. This same colleague came to my house to pick me up for a meeting one day. He drove right by my house and when he came back he said that he had passed it because he thought the “house was too nice” for me. This intersection of race and gender was woven throughout my experiences at work.
While these experiences were difficult, I believe that many of my female colleagues had it harder than I did. During the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, we would discuss our experiences of race and sex discrimination. I didn’t have many of the experiences of my peers. My friends said that I had fewer experiences because I didn’t “look vulnerable.”
What has it been like being a black woman who represents whistleblowers?
I started representing whistleblowers in private practice. I recognized that this field was extremely male-dominated when I attended my first TAF (Taxpayers Against Fraud) conference in 2001. There were very few women, and I was the only black women.
As a black woman representing whistleblowers, I feel that I can’t be mediocre and that I am always being judged. A common saying among African-Americans of my generation was “to do as well, you must do better.”
Why do you think there are so few women in the partnership ranks?
I think that, in addition to the other challenges I’ve described here, many women pull back on their work due to other life demands which may affect their partnership potential. Although, there is a cultural evolution happening as men now want to spend more time with their children as well. More firms have paternity leave; many have on-site day care facilities and more flexibility with partnership, such as part-time partners. It all has to do with the sensitivity and sophistication of the firm.
Have you had mentors or role models in your profession that helped along the way?
I have never had a female boss or a black male boss. Women in the 1970s didn’t reach out to each other because of job insecurity. Fortunately, that time has passed. Women used to be harder on women because they didn’t want to appear preferential to other females. Now we have a society that is focused on mentorship and respect.
I never had a formal mentor when I was starting my career. The closest thing to a mentor that I have had is my partner Vince McKnight. My experiences working with him have confirmed that it is important to look for a mentor. We all need someone to explain things in a safe non-judgmental way. Don’t be afraid to ask someone who has been there for help. Qualities to look for in a mentor include someone with experience, someone who has done what you want or hope to do. I would suggest getting involved in your local bar association and networking to find a mentor.
Do you have any advice for young women starting their careers?
First, the world is not equal yet so you have to be excellent in everything that you do. You must take initiative and be better than any male or non-minority group. There is a presumption that white men know what they are doing while women have to prove themselves.
Second, I think that DC is the best place to work for women because the government is here, and it has always been at the forefront of hiring females, including female attorneys, compared to the private sector. There are many lawyers and lots of legal jobs in the DC area.
Third, more female leaders will lead to positive changes, such as women becoming partners. Look to work in places where there are female leaders.
Fourth, it is important to define your relationship with your employer. Once you know what you want, see if your employer can support that. The culture is still changing. It is important to surround yourself with people that are respectful and invested in your career in both your professional and personal life.
Fifth, get as much experience as you can. Be around people that you like because it is easier to work hard when you enjoy and respect the people around you. Find a career that you are passionate about. If you are not sure what you like, talk to as many people as you can; network and try new things.
Sixth, do your best work and contribute. Own your work and never let someone else take credit for something that you have done.
Seventh, it is important to never burn bridges. Whenever you decide to leave a job, leave in a good way. If you are not happy, then move on. You will not be productive and will become resentful if you stay in a job that you do not enjoy. Don’t beat yourself up if you do not like where you are. There is nothing wrong with you, we all like different things.
Finally, don’t ever count yourself out!