Shauna Clark

First person

Shauna Clark
RE | Issue 19 | 2021

 

 

Shauna Clark—the global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright and the chair of the United States practice—in conversation with Ingeborg Alexander in January 2021

 

 

 

 

I am a woman of faith.

 

I’m a black woman.

 

I’m black before I’m a woman. I should not be anything before I’m a Christian, but because of the world I live in, being black is the most defining characteristic for me.

 

I grew up black and poor, but it took a while before I realised I was poor. But I’ve always been black. Being a dark-skinned woman is a more complex layer to being black—particularly in Louisiana, because of the Cajun French influence, where skin colour was very important, and still is.

 

My mom prayed all the time, every morning and every night without fail. She was a single parent and I was for sure momma’s girl, I was very close to my mom, and I have the same relationship with my daughters. Every morning she would pray. And every night she prayed a different prayer, on her knees, head down, bowed down.

 

I was ‘a daughter of the church’: that’s what my pastor would call me. It was a small Baptist church, three or four hundred people, and I was always on program. I either had to say a welcome or I had to give something, and I hated it, hated speaking. As much as I hated it, I never complained, I did it every single time. I look back on that today and I think, I know my mom wasn’t doing it to get me prepared to be a trial lawyer, but that’s what happened.

 

I was born in 1969 and I was baptised when I was able to confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior. I was six or seven. I remember it like it was yesterday, I remember going down and coming up. And then I had this beautiful white dress to take my First Communion. I was there with two of my first cousins, we were like three peas in a pod, it was awesome.

 

I had an awakening of my relationship with Christ in 1992. From that point to this, there is not one day that I don’t think about myself in relationship to doing what’s right or disappointing God. Every single day.

 

I married a Catholic man, and this is a Louisiana Catholic so they are really Catholic, and we had to have a summit, because his mother was concerned about him marrying this heathen Baptist. We agreed that I would not convert to Catholicism unless the Lord led me to but our children would be raised Catholic. So they are very Catholic; and he’s very Catholic.

 

I’ve led Bible studies and written sermons and I started taking a course to be a preacher, and I’ll tell you, I’ve toyed with wanting to go to Divinity School. When my husband retired last year, we said we would start taking courses at Houston Bible College—this was before Covid.

 

I’ve never grappled with doubt. I did grapple with anger at the Lord. My mom died. She died of a heart attack at 53. I tell people she died of a heart attack, but she really died because she was poor. She didn’t have access to healthcare, period. My mom had cancer at 47, and this was back when Tamoxifen was the only real cancer drug that poor women received, but it tore up your heart. So my mom dies and I’m 31, pregnant with Brooklyn, and my son Rick is two years old. I hurt and I grieved and I found solace in Scripture: ‘Men wonder why good men—and women—are taken but do not realize that the Lord took them to spare them from evil’. And that was fine for some time. And then I remember this particular Sunday morning, it was Mother’s Day, and I was coming from church, and I was by myself, and I just railed at the Lord, I was so angry. This was five or six years ago.

 

Here’s what’s so interesting. The person I am today: if my mom had lived, I wouldn’t be this person. Because this is not the life I wanted. The life I wanted was the life of being at home with my children. And the only reason I work is because she had a history of cancer and she was poor, and my husband was an executive and would take care of the family, and I worked so that if anything ever happened to her I could take care of her without it being a strain on the family. That’s it. And so when she died, it put me in a tailspin. ‘Why am I doing this?’ The only reason I was doing this was to make sure I could take care of her, and now she’s gone.

 

 

 

 

 

Being poor meant—to me, growing up—I was always fearful that the other shoe would fall. When I was a child, I would lie awake in bed and think, suppose I get sick, or suppose my mom gets sick? We didn’t have healthcare. The worst thing about being poor in Louisiana is you had to go to Earl K Long, the charity hospital, and it was horrible. I’d never gone to Earl K Long but in my mind it was the worst thing in the world.

 

I was always fearful that something would happen. I don’t know where that came from, maybe it’s because I didn’t have a father, maybe because I saw my mom working so hard, and there was never a savings account, there was never extra. So my mom worked, she would bend over backwards, and I don’t know how she did it.

 

I was never ‘the poor kid’ at school. If the girls were wearing designer clothes, I may not have had five pair but I had two. And I was always popular. So I never looked poor, but I felt poor and I knew I was poor, I knew there was never extra. So I felt this sense of fear, and shame. I remember being so scared that people would find out that we were on government assistance. That was the dreaded secret. I never wanted anyone to know.

 

We lived in this house that my granddaddy had built (my granddaddy was a preacher and he was a sharecropper, my mom was one of thirteen, and he was able to buy this little plot of land) and we ended up staying in this house, after all my uncles and aunts moved. But this house was this wood house that was just kind of slapped together. If you’re born into a house, if you don’t know anything different, you should be comfortable there, right? I never was. And yet my brother was so comfortable. He had no fear, he had no shame. And because I wasn’t comfortable in my house, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin for a long time.

 

Here’s the thing. I was uncomfortable in my skin because I was poor. I knew once I changed that, everything would be fine. And I will tell you, I am very comfortable in this life, I am very comfortable taking trips, I am very comfortable having nice things, I don’t have any guilt complex, none of that. I still have a poverty mentality. I save so much money. I save all the time.

 

We lived in a town called Seymourville in Plaquemine, Louisiana, probably the poorest part of Plaquemine. The summers were spent playing outside. There were no trees. There was not grass. The city would come and put rocks down. This is not Steel Magnolias, it was not that life. I would have been comfortable there, with the big trees and the porch and lemonade. No, it wasn’t that.

 

We did have a pecan tree, though, and we would pick pecans and we would shell them and my mom would make pecan candy, and then we would go around selling it.

 

We walked everywhere or we caught rides. (That’s where the shame came in.)

 

There were plenty of jobs, when I was a teenager, and it never crossed my mind to get one. Let me tell you this, my mom coddled me. No one expected me to amount to anything, because my mom spoiled me. She did everything. I did nothing. By the time I got to high school we had an actual physical washing machine. Before that she washed my clothes in the tub by hand, and she would hang them out on the line and take them in and they were all hard and she would iron them, and never complained. I never washed a dish, never cleaned the house, I didn’t have to clean. All I had to do was go to school. And pray.

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I got a job was when I went to Louisiana State University on a scholarship and I had a Work-Study. I was 17 and that August, in 1987, was the last time I accepted money from my mom. And from that point until she died, it was my job to take care of her. You know how some girls grow up thinking about the man and the white picket fence and the big wedding—not me. What I dreamed of was buying this big white house for my mom and my granddaddy and me to live in. I was buying her this beautiful lot in Plaquemine when she died. I was 31, and I was buying this lot for her, and she died that week.

 

I talked to my mom four or five times a day, every single day. We had all these great conversations. The week before she died, she said, ‘I want to tell you that you’ve been the best daughter, and that if you never do anything else for me, you’ve just done so much’.

 

I was a fourth-year lawyer in Houston. My mom was coming for Christmas; she was driving in with my mother-in-law and father-in-law, and she had a heart attack right in the back of the car. It just so happens they were at the Houston Medical Center. So we get there, and I’m talking, and the doctor just looks at me, ‘You need to come and say goodbye’. Can you imagine? I just talked to her that morning. It was awful. I can’t even describe. It’s been twenty years, and sometimes it’s like yesterday.

 

Everything she had, the little she had, she gave to me and my brother.

 

But here’s what I said to the Lord. Before I got to the hospital, I said, ‘Look, I know You are not going to take my mom away.’ I’d just found out I was pregnant. I said, ‘I know You can’t do this, I know she’s going to be fine. But if You take her from me, You have to give me back the same relationship with this baby. But I don’t believe You’re going to do it.’

 

People talk about answers to prayers and blessings. Brooklyn is the incarnation of an answered prayer. That child is that. Brooklyn is now at Vanderbilt, and she calls me every single night to say good night. She has a heart for people. She’s on every march; but everybody loves her.

 

She wants to be a Senator, she wants to work for non-profits, it doesn’t matter to her that she won’t make any money, because her mom has done that. I want my children to have the choices I did not have.

 

 

 

 

 

My mom was a single mother because my father didn’t want to be with us. I don’t remember him ever being there.

 

Here’s the thing. My mom never said one negative thing about my father, not one thing, ever. She never asked me to but I took on the role of protector and I stood in solidarity with her. And so that meant I despised everything about him.

 

He died when I was 30. He died in October and my mom died the following December.

 

For years I never heard about him, never saw him. And then he came by. I was 13 and he took me to a store. It may have been thirty minutes. The next time he came by, I was either a junior or senior, and he brought his daughter, to meet me. (He’d married, he had a complete other family. I could have seen him, he lived in Baton Rouge. I never knew anything.) I remember saying hello to the little girl, cause it wasn’t her fault. I would not speak to him.

 

Years later, his children would reach out to me; they told me he would say things to them like how much I loved them, he just made up these stories for them, like I was this great lovely person.

 

So anyway, he was dying and his wife called me at the office and asked me to come and visit him, and I said no. And, you know, I could have gone. I didn’t, though. And he died. I was 30 and I was pregnant with Rick. I went to the funeral with my mom and my brother, and none of us cried. So I struggle with the Commandment: Honor your father and your mother. I do struggle with that. I should have honored him. It’s like, ‘Lord, if I could do that again—but You know where my heart was—I would do it just to ask a couple of questions, like, why did you not want to stay with us?’

 

Here’s the thing. He turned out to be an alcoholic and he died of cirrhosis. So here’s how the Lord will make things bad work for good: we would have been much worse off living with an alcoholic father than being with a single mom who prayed all the time.

 

That doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with abandonment issues. I am a rabid people-pleaser and I hate that about myself. But I’m self-aware enough to know where that stems from. And so (and it’s contrary to what Christ teaches me) I am a performer. I will perform for you. Whatever you need. That’s just how I am bent, that is a part of my dysfunction. Always being available, never wanting to give anyone a reason to walk away from me. I am well aware of that. But now, I use that and I drive it to my good.

 

 

 

 

 

My husband benefited from my people-pleasing until I was 45. And then, you know what happened? I’m going to tell you what happened.

 

I am a romantic. I love happily ever after. So when I married my husband, I was going to be the perfect wife. I was going to cook and I was going to clean and I was going to take care of the kids. To give you an idea, when our babies were born—some women would put the baby in the room, not me, cause I needed to make sure my husband slept through the night, because he had to go to work. I would move out, I would be in the room with the baby, nursing.

 

Every time I would get promoted, I would say to my husband, ‘Look, nothing’s going to change around here, I’m going to still do everything.’ I was almost apologising for my success. When I became partner-in-charge of Houston: ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m going to handle it, your life is not going to change.’ When I became head of employment: ‘Look, your life is not going to change, I’m going to handle it.’

 

He’s my David, he’s a man after the Lord’s own heart, but at 45—and 50 is so liberating­—I realised that I didn’t like my happily ever after.

 

And the kids, as they got older, it was hard. My son Rick, he rebelled in high school. We’re very conservative, very, and he’s not; he’s creative; he was listening to rap music, and I’m like, ‘This is not representing Christ, why is he doing this?’ I was angered during that period (I look back now and think, that was wrong of me). But here’s the thing—and the Lord had to let me see this—the challenge I had was, my husband could not fix it. When the rubber hit the road, I told him, ‘I need you to fix Rick Junior’, and he said, ‘I don’t have the answer’. ‘Wait a minute. All these years, I’ve done all of this stuff…you were supposed to be able to…where’s my happily ever after?’

 

I started to accept that there was this seed of discontent. It didn’t seem like there was an equitable division of responsibilities. I was waiting for happily ever after, and it wasn’t happening. And so we sat down and had a conversation. We had a series of conversations.

 

It’s been liberating. I’m still the same—no, I’m happier, because I don’t have to do it all.

 

Every single day I wish that I’d got there earlier! Every day! If I had known at 35 what I started learning at 45—but I can’t dwell on it, because that is the road to madness.

 

But, here’s the thing: I love what we’ve built in this house with this family. Through all of that, it was me and my husband, it didn’t spill out to the kids. Life is just getting better, for me, because now I am looking more at home the way I look at work.

 

 

 

 

 

I dress up all the time. Hair; make-up. I do it because of this sermon I heard about David. I still remember, and this was twenty years ago, this preacher talked about how one thing the Lord pointed out about David was how good-looking he is. The preacher said, if you’re fine, throw that in there, dress well, do your hair, do your nails, kind of joking but really saying, look, this could be a part of who you are, don’t be ashamed: you can be successful and look good. That’s why I do it. I fit right in. I believe it is a part of a package, we are selling a product, period. When I leave the house, I always think I’m representing the firm, I always think I’m going to run into a prospective client, every single time. I’ve never not thought that.

 

Shauna Clark

 

 

 

 

 

I have this anecdote that I tell that my daughter hates, but I cleaned toilets. I had three jobs in college (that’s when I was taking care of my mom, when I thought I was ‘grown’). I was a custodian at a refinery in south Louisiana; you learn a lot about yourself cleaning the men’s restroom in a refinery in south Louisiana. Between seeing the racist stuff on the bathroom walls and seeing the nasty—anyway, you learn a lot about yourself. So I am a great cleaner.

 

When Rick and I first got married we had a little two-bedroom apartment and I kept it clean. But I remember when it became an issue. I was eight months pregnant with Rick, my son, my first, and I would get up every Saturday, from the time I moved to Houston until this particular time, every Saturday was clean. I would work, I would run, I would clean my house, I would go get my car washed, and then I would go to the beauty salon, that was my Saturday, every single Saturday. Now I’m pregnant, and now we’re on a budget, I’m still getting up, I’m working really hard, Rick comes in from playing golf and he says, ‘Hey! Do you want to go to lunch?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Go to lunch? Do you know how tired I am? I’ve been cleaning this whole house, I’m pregnant, I have all this work to do’, and he said, ‘Then just hire somebody’. And that was that. I hired somebody from that day.

 

I was so angry that day. And he was, ‘Just hire somebody.’ Because you know what he wasn’t going to do? He wasn’t going to go clean a toilet. And you know what he hasn’t done? Cleaned a toilet, from that day to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

My mom, before she started being a mail-carrier, used to keep kids in our home, and so that’s what I wanted for Rick, I wanted to find a lady like my mom to keep my baby, I didn’t want day care. At home, when I had ‘the audacity’, when I hired a nanny, I was judged viciously by my cousins and my aunts. My cousins would say, ‘I can’t believe you’re letting that stranger raise your baby’. Now this is my first child, and your skin is so thin when it comes to your first. And my mom (she made everybody make sense), she was there to say, ‘Why are you even listening to these people?’ She didn’t go to college, high school education, but that woman knew how to just…it was awesome, that’s why I almost lost my mind when she died. She was the sweetest person but she had no patience for foolishness. But my cousins and my aunts were like, ‘Oh, she thinks she’s better than everybody, she’s gotten around all these white people, now she can’t raise her own kids’. And this is family! This is not judging from strangers. But that’s why 45 is so liberating, because you don’t care.

 

And let me tell you, everybody wants a Zee. This is Zamora’s eleventh year with us; and everybody knows, everybody says, I wish I had a Zee.

 

She is in the trenches with me. When I’m in trial working twenty-two, twenty-three hours a day, that is the person who’s there. She was ‘ride or die’ there. Zee is… my wife. She takes care of me. In one hour she is going to come in with this smoothie of kale and spinach, and if she doesn’t come in with that I won’t eat, cause I never eat lunch, I drink coffee for breakfast, I will not eat, I’ll just sit here until I’m starving and then I’ll go in there and I’ll eat for five hours. She’s from Honduras but she spent a lot of years in the Bronx in New York. Here’s the thing. This woman loves me and my family and my kids for real, like we love each other. It’s wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

What I would hope to do, and what I pray I have the opportunity to do, is to do for Brooklyn what my mom wasn’t able to do for me. When she wants to start her family, and she wants me, I want to be able to step away from work and take care of her family—like Michelle Obama’s mom did for her when she went to the White House. That’s what I want to do.

 

I know what it takes to be successful in corporate America if you’re a woman, and the guilt of being away from kids and all of that will eat you up. I would love it if the Lord allowed me to be healthy, and wealthy enough or established enough, to walk away when the kids need me.

 

That other life. I think that’s when I will answer the Call to do something more meaningful. But I never felt called to leave the firm. People have asked me that after every single child, ‘Is this it? Is this the time?’ And I’ve had four children.

 

I’ve had and I am enjoying a good life, but it’s not a pain-free, trial-free life. I have a better appreciation for disappointment and the certainty of pain. So I don’t live in fear of the other shoe falling. Now I know: yeah, the other shoe is going to fall, eventually.

 

 

 

 

 

George Floyd... the six weeks of that, it was trauma.

 

I have mentored a lot of people, I’ve sponsored young white men to partnership, really going to bat for them. I was proud of that, and I am proud of it. And here’s the thing. I never wanted the firm to say, she’s only helping black people. So I bent over so far, so if they ever—they, even though I have to stop and think, you know what, I am they—I never wanted them to say, ‘Look what she’s doing, she is helping black people’.

 

No one ever says, ‘Look, he’s helping white men’.

 

But then I thought, what have I done for black people? And I was ashamed of it, I was ashamed.

 

Some of the partners were talking about the rioting. I had never shared; this was the first time, cause I’m very good—and I said this to them (we had some awkward, candid conversations)—‘Black people as a people are very good at putting on a mask, and so you only see what I let you see; you think you know but you have no idea’. So I talked to them about what it’s like raising two black boys and not knowing if they’re going to come home: two black boys who are ridiculously well educated of ridiculously successful parents, and none of that matters, none of that matters. When they leave my house they are just two black boys, who could be mistreated and abused. That is the life of black women, black mothers, in this country.

 

It’s everywhere. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. It does not matter—from New York to California, from Seattle to Florida, it’s everywhere. If you are a black male, you are suspect in so many different areas, scenarios, circumstances. And that is a weight my boys carry that I can’t help them carry.

 

I said to them, ‘Have you ever had to give your child a primer before he leaves the house, like what to say if the police should stop you just because you’re black, that you have to say, “I want to call my mother”, and no matter what they say, you keep your mouth shut, and you say “Yes sir” and “No sir” even if they’re using racial slurs, and you tell them, “I need to call my mother”?’ ‘Do you know what it’s like that my son walks around with the card of one of the best criminal lawyers in his wallet, his card and my card? And that’s Shauna Clark! I don’t get a pass because I’m global or U.S. chair or I’ve done this or I’ve served in the community or I’m on the Board of Baylor College of Medicine, none of that matters.’

 

Every single day we have to live with that.

 

So George Floyd happens and I cannot stop crying. I was not able to stop crying for two solid weeks. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. For two months. But what was great about it, even though it was awful, was that there were so many CEOs, general counsels, executives around the country saying, ‘I know what this feels like’. All of us, regardless of political affiliation, were affected by what we saw, and we all went through this grieving process.

 

My partners were reaching out, saying, ‘Hey, can we talk?’ Like, ‘Absolutely not, no. It is enough for me to get off the sofa; the last thing I want to do is educate you, so don’t ask me to talk. That said, I don’t speak for all black people. There are some black people who want to talk. And if that’s the case, then fine, but don’t think that we are all now gung ho to tell you our plight.’

 

My oldest boy is—he’s subversive. There is no one better at putting on a persona. He is never disrespectful. So I don’t have to worry about him playing the role with cops. He is the smartest person in the house.

 

That’s what Obama was trying to do for eight years, to get people to confront the history, the blight of racism in this country, how we see each other, and he couldn’t get to those conversations that hurt. And Trump exploited that. He exploited the fear of white people in this country: ‘We are losing our country’, ‘Let’s go back to how it used to be’. There is nothing worse than uncertainty surrounding how your kids are going to turn out. I know what that feels like—how do I make a better life for my children? That’s what drives us, black people, for the most part.

 

The promise of America is that there is that light up there, on the top of the hill. The problem is: it’s for everybody. That’s the problem. And folks don’t think there’s enough room for everybody at the top. This country is built on this unwavering faith and hope that if you work hard and you do these things, you are going to be successful—everybody. And that’s the problem. Because everybody—people like me, single parent, poor, welfare, from Plaquemine, could be right up there with you—and that’s the problem.

 

We are still that beacon. It’s just a matter of people understanding that we all could participate in the hope and promise of this country. It’s not just for you and yours, and people who look like you. It truly is for everybody.

 

I could not protect my sons from the pain and disillusionment of racism. I see that. I can’t un-see that. But I’ve got to believe, their kids, maybe not.

 

Even in the midst of hurt and pain and loss, I’m still seeing the Kingdom of God.