July 19, 2022
Creating a Culture of Equity and Inclusion
It’s been said that lightning does not strike twice in the same place, but that’s not the case for Jeremiah “Jerry” DeBerry ’82. He has been able to pursue two dream jobs in his career: first as a business lawyer working on multi-billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions as well as serving as a lawyer for some of the biggest names in professional sports. As general counsel for GameFace Ventures, a premier sports marketing agency, he represented Ray Allen, Scotty Pippin, Chris Weber, and other notable sports figures. Currently, he is a partner and the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Mayer Brown, LLP, the 19th largest law firm in the world. He is based in the firm’s New York City office.
DeBerry grew up in Stowe Village, a low-income housing project in the North End of Hartford, and attended KO from 1978 to 1982. He is the youngest of four, and his three siblings, Charles ’76, P ’11, ’13, Gloria ’77, and Diana ’80 are also KO alums. At KO, DeBerry flourished as a student, and he served as captain of the varsity track team and president of the newly formed Black Student Union. He felt that KO’s requirement that every student be involved in sports was a vital part of making him feel valued and welcomed in the community. “Team sports bring people together in ways that they don’t come together in the classroom,” he said. “Race matters less in team sports. Merit reigns supreme. As a teammate, you fight together for a common goal with your brothers and sisters, and it allows you to interact and appreciate people for who they are. You focus more on your similarities than differences, and when you find those differences, you celebrate them.” As a member of a close-knit class of 125, DeBerry is still in regular communication with 97 of the KO Class of 1982, who are all part of an email string sharing updates and memories.
Like most kids in his neighborhood in the late 60s, DeBerry believed the road to success was paved with a career as a professional athlete or an entertainer. He dreamed of being a professional basketball player or a successful rap artist. But his parents had other ideas. DeBerry grew up at the height of the civil rights movement and access to quality education would soon become a reality for him and his siblings. Even though neither of his parents had graduated from high school, they knew that education was the essential ingredient in the recipe for success. So, they made sure that their four children were afforded every educational opportunity that was available. DeBerry’s parents also instilled in him and his siblings the value and importance of hard work and performing at a high level in their educational pursuits. That instruction resulted in DeBerry and all of his siblings attending KO and some of the most selective colleges in the country. Charles (‘76) completed his undergraduate education at the University of Pennsylvania, Gloria (‘77) at Harvard University, Diana (‘80) at Wesleyan University, and DeBerry at Tufts University. Not bad for a group of kids who, at the time, weren’t expected to finish high school.
While at Tufts, DeBerry and a friend made a pact to attend Harvard Business School together after they both completed a two-year stint in business after graduating from Tufts. For his two-year work experience, DeBerry participated in a management training program at Cigna in Hartford. But, fate had a different plan. During his time at Cigna, DeBerry met his first lawyer, and he was so taken by the work that the lawyer engaged in that he decided to pivot and attend law school instead where he could still dabble in his dual passions for music and sports. He matriculated at the University of Virginia, where he excelled and was invited to join the prestigious Virginia Law Review, an invitation he enthusiastically accepted.
“When I became a practicing lawyer, I still had a fire in my belly to be part of the sports and music industries,” he said. “Being a lawyer allowed me to achieve that goal.”
As a lawyer, he spent long hours working on mergers and acquisitions and private equity transactions, but he still had time for legal work in sports and entertainment, which came with plenty of perks like attending 26 NBA all-star weekends and close to 20 Super Bowls as well as hobnobbing with Julius “Dr. J” Irving, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neill, Charles Barkley, and countless others. Operating as a “quarterback” for several basketball and football players’ professional services team, including sports agents accountants, and marketing and publicity teams, DeBerry ensured that the players were not only receiving the right advice but also heeding it.
“I’d heard so many stories about how professional athletes would make millions of dollars and, by the time their career was over, they were bankrupt,” DeBerry said. “I thought because of my background I could help them make more informed decisions and prevent them from making catastrophic economic decisions by following the lead of less informed members of their entourage and unscrupulous professional service providers.”
It took 17 years of practicing high-powered law for DeBerry to experience this Road-to- Damascus realization, and it triggered his decision to pursue another avenue in law. While he thrived on negotiating against lawyers twice his age and besting them in the art of the deal, the long days, late nights, and unending client demands gave him pause. He had started a family with his college sweetheart and wanted to spend more time with his two young boys.
“I loved the work, but I questioned whether there was something else I could be doing that would be more meaningful,” he said. “I looked at my job and I was making the rich, richer just transferring wealth from one individual to another or from one business to another. I thought there has to be more to life.”
After plenty of soul searching and talking to others in his field, he decided to extrapolate the part of the job he liked best and build upon it. He recognized that one of the most rewarding aspects of his job was teaching, developing, and nurturing diverse lawyers and law students and helping them succeed in the field of law. Realizing that the industry was difficult to navigate for people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community, DeBerry set out to create a more inclusive profession.
In the late 1990s, DeBerry created Finao Partners, a company whose name is an acronym for “failure is not an option,” which provided mentoring advice to diverse lawyers as well as created an online network enabling thousands of attorneys of color to post resumes and cover letters to be put in a database and utilized by law firms who were interested in hiring diverse candidates.
Through this business, DeBerry was hired by Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft as their full-time director of diversity where he worked for seven years prior to heading to Mayer Brown in 2013.“My role is to lead the firm in its efforts to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive and supportive work environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and to reach their full potential,” he said.
DeBerry’s work in creating a culture of inclusion at Mayer-Brown is paying off. When he arrived at Mayer Brown, only five percent of its partners were minority group members and today, almost 20 percent are. At the associate level, the firm was 13 percent diverse, and now it is close to 40 percent. And, although the company has made great strides, DeBerry feels that more work needs to be done so that not only do the numbers increase overall, but diversity is also achieved in top leadership positions. DeBerry said that his clients are also demanding that his firm staff its legal teams with diverse lawyers.
“They want to know what we are doing as a firm to promote diversity, not just in the firm but in the legal profession as a whole,” he said. “I’m doing presentations to clients on how we can work together to move the needle forward, and I am loving it. I could not think of a better job for me.”
DeBerry’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. He is a recognized expert and thought leader on diversity and inclusion matters, particularly in the legal profession. The University of Virginia School of Law, Profiles in Diversity Journal, Lawyers of Color.Org, The National Law Journal and the National Bar Association, among others, have awarded him with their highest honor for his contributions to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in the legal profession as a whole. Most recently, the New York Law Journal recognized DeBerry as a “Distinguished Leader” for 2021. The award recognizes attorneys in leadership roles who achieved impressive results in the past year, while demonstrating clear leadership skills that lead to positive outcomes. In addition, City and State, a leading publication for the public sector, included him in its list of the 2019 Responsible 100. This award honors New York’s most outstanding executives, thought leaders, visionaries and influencers who are setting new standards of excellence, dedication and leadership in improving their communities and making transformative change.
As a Black man in a majority white profession, DeBerry knows firsthand the challenges in navigating a world that is littered with unconscious bias and micro-inequities. He loves sharing those insights on these topics with those minority group members who have experienced dealing with these issues.
“There were periods when I wasn’t bringing my authentic self to the office or the negotiating table,” DeBerry said. “I was fortunate that I had some white straight male mentors with whom I became close and with whom I could discuss that issue. They explained that they, too, were not bringing their authentic sleeves to work and that everyone had to put on a different face in the office. While they acknowledged that they had the privilege of bringing more of their authentic self to the office as white straight males than I could as a Black male, it was interesting to learn that we had a shared experience that I was previously unaware of.”
One presentation that DeBerry felt was extremely powerful for his colleagues was unconscious bias training. He recalled a seminal moment when he brought in a consultant who had just published a piece on diversity in the legal profession. She conducted a study in which she asked sixty partners across the country to review and analyze a legal memorandum they were told had been written by a third-year associate in a big firm and a graduate of NYU law school. One group of 30 lawyers was told it had been written by a white associate, the other group of 30 was told it had been written by a Black associate. On a scale of one to five, with five being the best, the lawyers rated the memorandum by the “white” associate 4.3. They rated the same memorandum that they believed was authored by the “Black” associate a 3.2.
“That presentation changed in a meaningful way how many of our partners viewed their interactions with others,” DeBerry said. “Up until then, they believed that big law was the last bastion of a meritocracy. They, like many others in Big Law, believed if you are good, you’ll succeed. Your race, gender, or sexual orientation didn’t matter. It opened their eyes and opened the door to more meaningful and impactful conversations. They have been provided with the tools needed to interrupt their biases and not allow such biases to unduly influence their decisions related to hiring, assignment locations, and promotions.”
Like many people during the summer of 2020, DeBerry keenly felt the murder of George Floyd on a cellular level. Initially, he wrote and shared his thoughts on Floyd’s death with a close group of friends and explained what it means as a father of two Black teenage sons. Encouraged by the positive feedback he received, DeBerry wrote an article entitled “In a Time of Reckoning on Racism: Silence is no Longer an Option,” which was published by The American Lawyer. In the article, DeBerry expressed his exhaustion regarding his identity as a Black man, experiencing firsthand racism, from being accused of plagiarism in college by a professor who could not accept that DeBerry had written so well, to being thrown out of a cab by police in a case of mistaken identity and being mistaken for a paralegal at a meeting where he was the lead negotiator.
And, although the momentum of the movement toward equity and inclusion has subsided since that sea change summer of 2020, DeBerry has not lost his optimism or hope. “I do think that the needle has moved and the needle will continue to move in the right direction,” he said. “It requires a commitment, a sustained commitment to making sure equity and justice are available to all. I am thrilled that I have a job that allows affords me the opportunity to make a difference. I am uniquely positioned in the legal profession where I can make the greatest difference. It’s really about voting laws to protect the underrepresented and the marginalized. The only way the underrepresented and marginalized are going to get the equality they are due is through changes in laws. Laws do change behavior, and that’s what we are looking to do.”
DeBerry exhorts leaders in companies to move outside their comfort zones and mentor people who don’t remind them of themselves. “If you’re a straight white guy, make an effort to mentor someone who is very different from you – and I guarantee that you will have more in common than you think and that you will learn and benefit more from the relationship than your mentee.”
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