I recently attended a Celebration of Black Alumni at Harvard Law School. It has been held every five years since 2000. I last attended in 2011, and I could not help but marvel at what had changed since then. Class reunions are a dubious mix of reflection, comparison and inspiration. It is a poignant intersection of the past, present and future. I have rid myself of a lot of baggage since attending in 2011—literally and figuratively.
Last time, I brought an oversized luggage stuffed with purses, shoes and outfits. This time, I managed the miracle of stylishly representing with only a carry-on—packed to the brim, but a carry-on nonetheless. This literal lightening of my load is also reflective of where I am in life.
In 2011, I celebrated my 39th birthday on the first day of the reunion. I remember being astounded that the airline attendant would not give me any slack for the 54-pound luggage on my birthday! I swear it was 50 pounds on my scale at home! But that was a different Stephanie. One as burdened by the baggage of life as the overstuffed luggage was burdened with too many outfit changes.
The day before departing for the 2016 reunion, I celebrated my 44th birthday. It is not a milestone birthday, but a milestone in my personal renaissance. As I approach the mid-point of my life, I am more deliberate about how I spend the next 44 years and beyond. Last time, I was focused on the outfits, the selfies, the pictures and the celebrity appeal of the attendants. This time, I pensively retreated in the background as I truly reflected on my experience at Harvard Law School.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
And so it is today. I have a love-hate relationship with my Harvard Law Degree. It has brought me great victories, but at a cost.
I Know So Much, Yet I Know So Little
When I entered Harvard as a 1L from Mississippi, I was as green as the green in Greenville—the town in the Mississippi Delta where I was born and raised. I had spent the summer in New York after graduating from Tougaloo College, a small but mighty HBCU perched eponymously outside of Jackson, Mississippi. I traveled to the Big Apple alone and it marked my introduction to the world outside of the South.
I have always been blessed with a sense of adventure and very little fear, so I embraced the summer as a time for discovery. I spent the summer working at Cleary, Gottlieb, Stein and Hamilton as a summer intern for students of color interested in law and investment banking. It was an awesome experience! I learned much, but had soooo much more to learn.
No one in my family had ever gone to law school, let alone an Ivy League law school, so I was literally just happy to be there. I did not know how to optimize my time there. I didn’t even try out for the Harvard Law Review because I didn’t even appreciate its significance. I thought it was just some law journal. I barely ventured outside of the awesome relationships that I built with the students in the Black Law Students Association. It was a safe place where I thrived, but I clung onto it like a safety blanket. There were other great student organizations where I could have built more relationships and networks, but I didn’t even try. As much as I was unafraid, I was terrified.
As I enjoyed the camaraderie of being reunited with the people I spent my law school career with. I reflected on how little I knew about them since I left in 1997. But for Facebook, I would know nothing of most. I missed out on an opportunity to really build long-lasting relationships beyond graduation. These are awesome people, and I let life untie the bonds we formed in law school.
I didn’t attend a law school reunion before 2011. I missed all of my class reunions and the Black Alumni reunions. I had a small infant in 2000, and I was reeling from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and did not have the mental fortitude to attend. I missed out on so much! I missed out on meeting the 2005 Keynote speaker who was a little-known senator from Illinois who would go on to become the president! But I missed out on cultivating relationships with some of the most awesome leaders in the world!
I’ve Done So Much, Yet I’ve Done So Little
One has to have both a tough skin and high self-esteem when attending a Harvard Law School Reunion. The bar for achievement is set very high. HLS graduates sit in the most powerful seats in the world—U.S. Supreme Justices, U.S. Attorney Generals, CEOs, U.S. Secretaries, and the Oval Office.
I remember reflecting, in 2011, how there was a time that I would have felt small among people who have accomplished so much. I mean, my peer was the president of the United States and all that I had ever been president of was my sorority graduate chapter. But alas, comparison is the thief of joy.
In my notes, I reflected that I was “big because I am living my purpose.” When I left that reunion in 2011, I had goals to return “big.” Big in the sense of having accomplished the goals I had set. I have not quite achieved all those goals and in some respects have failed them spectacularly. But I am big still. I am still living my purpose.
During the opening luncheon this year, Bryan Stevenson, HLS ’85, challenged a room full of law firm partners, CEOs, professors, entrepreneurs and the best legal minds in the country to do more! He challenged us to embrace that although we had done so much, we still have much to do. That is the double-edged sword of the Black HLS Graduate. It is much more than us making it, but paving the way for others.
We cannot get too comfortable in the spoils of our Ivy League treasures that we forget the power of proximity. While we may no longer be in the ‘hood, we still have a responsibility to the ‘hood. We must remain connected to the people that we profess to love and serve. If we only serve ourselves, we have not only missed the point but evaded the responsibility.
It made me really think about what have I done with my Harvard Law degree. Have I changed the world enough? Have I made the most of its power? Have I made the most of my legal career? This question was more piercing because I don’t even practice law any longer. I never argued a case before the U.S Supreme Court. I have never represented a prisoner on death row as had Bryan Stevenson. I’ve handled a couple of multi-million dollar deals in my career, but I’m no Reggie Lewis by any stretch of the imagination. To whom much is given, much is required. Have I met the requirement? At 44, it is not too late. I may never practice law again, but I can help the next woman leader who will set the world on fire! We all can change the world in our own way.
It’s Not a Big Deal, But It Really Is a Big Deal
Even during law school, I was often hesitant to say where I went to school. I would sheepishly say, “I went to law school in Boston.” Which wasn’t even true. Harvard is in Cambridge. I was not ashamed of where I went to school, but it was not always well-received, especially in Mississippi. There was the camp that spurned it and the camp that celebrated it. The first camp was split into the “How did you get into Harvard” and the “You think you are better than everyone because you went to Harvard” sentiment.
I have even been ridiculed for having gone to an Ivy League school. There was often the underlying contemptuously seething insinuation that I did not belong at Harvard. Yep, I probably was admitted under the school’s affirmative action and diversity efforts, but I did belong there. I graduated summa cum laude from college and I did well on the LSAT. I was no underachiever. These responses are rooted in issues beyond my control and I have learned not to expend energy or brain power trying to understand them. I decided that it was just plum stupid to say anything other than, “I went to Harvard.” I did. Haters be damned.
The camp that really made me uncomfortable were those who celebrated my achievements. I modestly didn’t think it was all that big of a deal. I worked really hard to get in. I worked even harder to get out. Honestly, I did not think was any more genius than anyone else. Not everyone can get into Harvard. I recognize that it was an honor and privilege to be admitted and I am truly proud of the accomplishment that my law degree represents. It was uncomfortable nonetheless. But in 2011, I realized that I should embrace the “big deal” that my Harvard Law Degree represents.
During the 2011 reunion, I was reminded that Harvard Law School was founded from the proceeds of the sale of slaves that Isaac Royall, Jr. inherited from his father’s sugar plantation in Antigua. Until 2016, the law school bore the Royall family crest as part of its shield. All of my HLS paraphernalia bears the painful reminder that I, a descendant of slaves, was afforded the opportunity to receive my law degree from the finest legal institution in the world at the literal cost of human lives.
My Harvard law degree is a big deal not because of any material prestige it may bring, but because of the sacrifice that it represents. Every Harvard Law School graduate, regardless of race or color, is a beneficiary of the sale of human lives. Either we honor that legacy and make the world a better place for all humans or we ignore the responsibility that our privilege requires of us. Privilege is accompanied by a responsibility. It bears repeating. To whom much is given, much is required.
My HLS Degree Has Come at a Cost to My Marriage and Motherhood
The biggest love-hate relationship that my HLS degree has spawned is the cost to my marriage and motherhood. I got married the summer between my first and second year of law school and my pursuit of my degree and career has remained a tension ever since. It began with the debate over whether I would take my husband’s name professionally—hence the compromise Stephanie Barnes Taylor, no hyphen. It has continued to evolve over 21 years with a cruel persistence that rears its ugly head time and time again.
My career is a conflict with my husband’s desire for a more domestically-inclined wife. I often voiced my frustration with “I didn’t go to Harvard to be a housewife!” As I matured, I have sought to find balance between my duties as a wife and my desires as a career woman. Likewise, once I had children, I had to constantly balance between being a mom and being a career woman. It has been a fitful battle between embracing life in the “and,” rather than surrendering to living in the “or.” I truly believe that I don’t have to choose between being a Harvard-trained lawyer or a mother and wife. The marrying of theory and practice has been a struggle, but it is a challenge worth facing. It is never easy. It is never perfect. It is often messy.
And I am not alone. During a breakfast panel, Life Beyond the Bar: Strategies for Balancing the Blessing and Burden of a Harvard Law Degree, the discussion began with a declaration that “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” It made me question whether eating your cake is purely fictive as the panelist suggested or does it just come at a cost? There is a cost to being a high-powered woman with a Harvard law degree. There is a cost to being a high-powered woman—period!
The piercing confession of a colleague who stood to say that she did not feel like she belonged anywhere struck me to my core as I wondered if she had peered inside my brain or read my journal. With the deepest of sincerity, she shared that when she left work there were people who were still there. When she got home, everyone had been there three hours before she arrived. She struggled to fit it as a mother, wife, and career woman. She reflected on the tension that her career created with her husband and for her husband by others who questioned why he “let” her work long hours or travel for her job. As she spoke, I felt the collective sigh in the room as we all felt what she had the courage to say.
It is hard to operate in the “and” when the social constructs remain committed to an inflexible tradition of “or.” Women constantly face the division of woman or wife/mother/lover or careerwoman rather than the celebration of the trinity of womanandwife/mother/loverandcareerwoman. All in one person. One woman, yet many. Harvard Law Degree or not, there is a love-hate relationship between trying to meet the expectations of the many roles that we must fill and the need for self-actualization.
So as I continue my reflection on the years since entering Harvard Law School in 1994 and what I have learned since leaving in 1997, VERITAS speaks for itself. I have learned so much, yet there is more to learn. I have done much, but there is so much more to do. I am not a big deal, but the legacy that I create from the sacrifices of others is a really big deal. I have earned success at a cost, but it is a cost worth paying. It is up to me how that cost pays off.
When we meet again in five years, I will be 49—on the glorious brink of my Golden Birthday! I hope that I travel just as lightly as I did this year. More importantly, I hope that I step out from the background to embrace my connection to the history—past, present, and future—of the many HLS graduates that have gone before me and those who are yet to take on the responsibility of vindicating the lives of the Royall family slaves that bore the sheaves for us to bear the title of Harvard Law School graduate.
Love it or hate it, the Harvard Law degree brings great responsibility. For whom much is sacrificed, much is owed in service.