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Black History Month Q&A: Miguel Colebrook, Vinson & Elkins

In celebration of Black History Month, V&E partner Miguel Colebrook shared his perspectives on his legal career during a recent conversation with Legal Business.

Can you tell me about your path to becoming a partner at V&E?

I became a partner in the firm’s M&A and capital markets practice group in January, having joined the firm back in 2020 as a senior associate.

I began my career as an economist before I went to law school and my skills paired well with transaction work and within that, capital markets. I started as a US capital markets associate at Latham & Watkins, but my first love was always M&A. I left Latham to go to Paul Weiss where I joined the M&A private equity team, and it was a happy marriage between both law and economics.

I also had an interest in infrastructure including energy, social and digital infrastructure, which are now the areas I specialise in. When I saw Vinson & Elkins, the firm fit became really important to me, for example things like commitment to diversity and supporting people from entry to promotion. Now actually sitting in the team, I’ve had all my initial perspectives around the firm validated time and time again.

Have you encountered any obstacles or biases in your legal career related to your race?

I’ve been incredibly privileged in that I’ve not experienced explicit racism. But that shouldn’t erase the experiences of those who have unfortunately experienced overt racism. However, I have experienced a series of microaggressions that were kind of wrapped in an outer layer of racial bias. To give a couple of examples earlier in my career: I remember a senior lawyer saying to me that I should ‘watch my tone’ when on a client call. I thought this was surprising because no one ever said I was aggressive. To take another example, someone once described me as ‘the big black guy, very hip hop’. Yes, I’m tall and I do like hip hop, but the articulation that I’m somehow urban because I’m black was a strange description of me, especially in a professional context. Lastly, I once had a colleague at a work dinner say, ‘oh, I knew you’d like the chicken,’ and I just thought ‘oh my god, that one wasn’t even subtle’.

How would you overcome instances like this?

Any response needs to be rooted in patience and understanding. I like addressing things head on, but I also want to be reflective which means thinking about both sides of those particular circumstances. For example, thinking, ‘Is there something that can undermine the otherwise hurtful implication I’m getting from that experience?’. If there is something legitimate, then the situation ends there. By virtue of this exercise, if I’m still not able to wash away the stain that’s been created then I will approach that person. Of course, thoughtfully, and discreetly. The goal is not to name and shame. That’s my approach though – if it were more overt racism then that probably requires a more visible approach.

How can the legal progression be more inclusive and diverse, and what steps can be taken to increase representation of black lawyers?

There’s still a lot to be done in terms of barriers to entry. Even if we are seeing more black individuals entering the profession, they certainly aren’t staying there because they are not being promoted. When they enter the profession, they need to look up and think ‘I can accomplish that!’.

Law firms are about relationships. One of the most important relationships is between an attorney and the person who’s going to shepherd them throughout their career and make sure they get promoted.

These observations mean that a concerted effort needs to be made for increasing retention and promotion of diverse candidates. It cannot just be window dressing, it cannot just be nice PR, there has to be substance. V&E is engaged in that concerted effort to try to disrupt that otherwise typical trend that’s observed throughout the legal industry. For example, assigning mentors specifically for diverse candidates to make sure they have somebody who is uniquely and specifically interested in their career.

Do you have any advice for aspiring black lawyers who want to enter the profession?

You need to prioritise the firm fit which means making sure you’re entering an environment that is going to result in you excelling. It’s thinking like, ‘Is this a place that’s going to allow me to come to work every day, in the fullness that is me, Miguel, as a black attorney?’. Because it could be a great place to work, for example, for private equity or infrastructure, but not for someone who looks like me.

Unfortunately, there are stereotypes that are quite pervasive about black individuals. Sometimes people feel like they know us without having met us purely by virtue of what they’ve observed in the community. One of the ways to dispel that, aside from having human interactions with those people, is making yourself beyond reproach. I will acknowledge that’s unfair, as you have to fly to places where other people can walk. But we also do need to be realistic. So, having a dogmatic commitment to being the best and then there’s nothing that can be said about your capabilities and competences.

Please network to try to facilitate relationships. If you know you want to enter the legal profession, then you need to be making those connections early.

Lastly, those of us who are in the profession have a responsibility to make sure that when we make it up the ladder that we are lending a hand back down to help those coming up. I feel so strongly about that and when I don’t see that happening, I’m so disappointed. It’s a responsibility and nothing less than that.