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My Reality

Kenya Woodruff on Leaning In to Conversations About Difference

“Embrace the challenge, embrace your diversity, and be strategic about how you utilize both,” the Katten attorney says.
Kenya Woodruff headshot

Kenya Woodruff started her Dallas career at Jenkins & Gilchrist as a franchise attorney. She moved to litigation and quickly realized her passion for healthcare. Woodruff worked her way to partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman and is paving the way for the women and diverse attorneys of the future. She created a series in Katten’s Women’s Leadership Forum to teach women business development skills and discuss how to remove barriers for women in law.

Below, Woodruff shares the importance of being consistent in DEI efforts, recognizing how far we’ve come, creating allies and working together through differences.

Ensuring Continued Opportunity and Support 

“I’m the head of the Women’s Leadership Forum here at Katten, and through that we’re able to do programming and ensure that the information is available to diverse individuals who are navigating this professional career. I think all of that is absolutely necessary, but we also have to ensure that there are practical, day-to-day opportunities afforded to diverse individuals.

“I always want people to be careful not to tilt their diversity efforts too much to the speeches and listening to this person and listening to that person, but to be sure that we are ensuring actual opportunities, and that once people are in those opportunities, they’re supported.

“A company that embraces inclusion and equity can identify clients that may be neglected by other companies … We’re always looking for opportunities for additional business development. So, paying attention to those communities, and those professional individuals, and the companies that may be different enables you to not only broaden your scope from a company culture perspective, but also from a financial and business perspective.

“Several folks in our group have been with us for a number of years, and we are always trying for them to be the next diverse group of healthcare lawyers in the country. When we go to national conferences, there aren’t many of us there, but to know that we can have a hand in making a difference for the next generation is really helpful.”

Pushed Forward by Progress

“Sometimes we can get discouraged about where things are and where we would like them to be. But, when I think that my mother grew up in Oil City, Louisiana, and she had to go to the back of the store to get whatever she was buying. And to think that now I’m an equity partner at an Am Law 100 firm.

“My grandmother was the daughter of a slave. To see how far we’ve come in two generations, it’s really gives me drive to keep going forward, because we know how much people sacrificed for us to have opportunities.

“There have been challenges, but I think those are the reality checks that we need to keep us driven towards moving toward a more equitable space and equitable opportunity.”

Leaning In to Conversation and Difference

“There have been some really great discussions sparked by the events of 2020, but I do think that the polarization politically and socially has somewhat tucked those discussions away into various distinct camps…The challenges are much more difficult and are further below surface. It really has made it even more important to have relationships across difference.

“One of my best friends I met when I first started practicing was from a small town in Oklahoma, a White woman. She had never seen a Black person until she was in high school, and we had a discussion early on about a confederate flag. She had no idea what anybody’s issue was with the confederate flag. We were able to have that discussion, and she was open to it because we had a relationship, and she was willing to listen and hear other points of view. And that, to me, is really what’s going to be necessary for us to really get to the next level of inclusion and equity.

“My perspective is informed by a history that’s different from many of my counterparts, and [there is] discussion that happens, because I’m not afraid of that difference. I think that we as diverse professionals sometimes are reticent to show our difference, or we are reticent to say ‘My history may not be like everybody else’s in the world.’ But [it’s important] to embrace that and be able to say, ‘No, my experience was different, and this is where I’m coming from because of that.’ To be able to communicate that in a way in which people hear you, and you can have that open dialogue is crucial.”

Being Open to Connection and Communication

“I understand that there will be challenges that a women of color will face in the legal industry. So, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we can identify allies, and sometimes those allies are not the people who we think they’re going to be. Letting yourself be open to connection and communication with those individuals [is important] because what I have found in the Dallas market is that there are people who are diverse and non-diverse who are so willing to work together to overcome the historic and current issues that we have around race and gender. And that has been the most inspiring thing for me—that there is continued opportunity.

“We have others [in our group] who may not be in firms but they’re in in-house situations. So, because of my experience, I can often give support to those who are making decisions, or if they’re looking for a job, connecting them to the right people but ensuring community support [and] communication across all of the individuals who will be helpful in their careers.”