Embracing diversity: Grace Speights on the subtleties of labor and employment litigation

Speights discusses overcoming her personal struggle with gender and diversity

Given the heavy emphasis on human capital, labor and employment often carries considerably more emotional gravity than other practices areas. The ability to proceed with both sensitivity and logic can often be conflicting, but comes with experience. Grace Speights certainly has that experience.

Speights—a partner with Morgan Lewis and Bockius’s labor and employment practice and managing partner of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office—was originally part of Morgan’s litigation group. She began seeing an uptick in her employment cases when amendments to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act put attorneys with jury trial experience in high demand for employment cases.

“It got to the point where I really enjoyed labor and employment work, and as of October of 1999 I transferred into our labor and employment group. When I got to the group, the goal was for me to work with another partner, George Stoner, to build on our discrimination class action practice, in addition to doing individual cases,” Speights said in a recent interview with InsideCounsel. That partnership resulted in a considerable expansion of Morgan Lewis’s labor and employment practices and put Speights at the helm of a number of high profile labor and employment cases.

While she’s been a superstar in the space for some time, initially Speights, who is also chair of the firm’s systemic employment litigation practice and co-chair of its Diversity Committee, had concerns that her selection for cases was motivated only as a result of her being an African American woman. “I did struggle with that fact initially. Many clients often think that if they have a race case or a race class action, they should have an African American lawyer, or if it’s a gender case that they should have a woman,” Speight explained.

But eventually with the aid and advice of other lawyers, family and friends, she came to terms with that issue. “Lawyers are hired because of some asset that we have, expertise, or because we possess something that clients believe we will bring to the table. Rather than looking at the fact that I may have been initially hired because I was an African American or a woman as a burden or something negative, I began seeing it as an opportunity, because I may bring a different perspective to those matters.”

That perspective is perhaps what has made Speights such a force as an attorney, allowing her to key into issues and sensitivities that may not be readily apparent to lawyers without her experience. Of course any good lawyer has a client’s interest in mind, but great ones are able to apply their experience and see multiple possibilities, including alternatives to litigation.

“It really varies from matter to matter, if you hire me because you’ve been sued in a discrimination case and I do an investigation, look at all the documents and it’s clear that there is no discrimination obviously I’m going to fight and win that case for my client, and there are many times that I do that,” she added. “But there are also some other time where you say ‘look there is no evidence here, but I can see why this person feels this way, I can fight to the end and it’s going to cost you however many thousands of dollars, and we’ll win this case.’ You have to ask, ‘do you really want to spend the money that way, or is there another fix here that could put this behind you?’”

Speights says while she will fight hard in situations where it is clear that a claim is false or misrepresentative of a client, sometimes there are opportunities to get more out a case than just a decision. “If there’s something we can fix or resolve and make things better not just for one individual person but for others, who have maybe filed similar issues, why not fix it?”

Since labor and employment is often one of the most frequent areas of litigation that corporations see, there are a number of important factors to consider when gearing up for a case. Speights says that when evaluating options for outside counsel for example, companies should consider the personality of an attorney before selecting them for a potentially sensitive labor or employment case. “I think a company’s counsel needs to be tough, but not so tough that they can’t display to the other side that they feel their pain. Some lawyers only know one speed, and that speed is, ‘I’m going to fight to the death,” she says.

In the same way that not considering a personality match for a case can make it more difficult, lack of vision about the importance of a single case can also be problematic. In a time when news travels incredibly fast, one cannot assume that even a small case is irrelevant to the brand’s public perception.

Speights summarized: “I think that sometimes employment cases, simple typical cases, can be underestimated in terms of the impact it can have an on a company’s brand or reputation, if the case blows up…If a simple employment case is not handled correctly, or you fail to take into account the forest as opposed to the trees, it can significantly damage that brand.”

Associate Editor

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Chris DiMarco

Chris DiMarco, Associate Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, has a background in multimedia production with previous involvement in projects in which he developed and created content...

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