When Charlie Harris became the first African American to lead the Missouri Bar in 2007, one of his top priorities was to create a more diverse board of governors.
During his term, he added three diversity seats to the board in an effort to bring women and people of color to the table. In the last 12 years, he’s seen more diverse presidents rise up through those seats, as well as more people of color and women represented on the board as a whole.
When he was president, there were no African Americans on the board, and about one-tenth of its members were women. Since then, women have come to make up about half the board, and more people of color have served on it.
Harris said he is proud of those gains. He also is humble about his role in the process.
“I don’t think I’m anything special. I think I’ve been placed in special positions,” he said.
Harris said his year as president was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.
“Not because of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds being president of the bar, and not because I was the first,” he said. “Rather, it’s because I think I helped open the door for other African Americans, Latinos, disabled individuals, government lawyers, you name it.”
Harris graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1995 after working first in business management. He said he’d considered becoming a lawyer as an undergraduate, but he put it off.
After marrying, his wife encouraged him to go to law school. His father’s death also provided a push.
“He said, ‘Don’t go to your grave saying, ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda,’” Harris said.
Harris clerked for U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr., then joined Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Later, he joined Berkowitz Oliver. In 2008, during his term as president, he left to join Seyferth Knittig & Blumenthal, and the firm changed its name to include his. He practices in the areas of employment law and business litigation.
During his 24-year career as an attorney, Harris said awareness of the need for diversity has grown in the legal profession, but he doesn’t believe the profession is where it should be.
“I think the emphasis needs to be on how do we make sure that people of color, women and those people who have been historically disenfranchised are put in the position where they can have an equity stake,” Harris said. “I believe equality equals equity stake in law firms — the true power for change comes through ownership.”
He said it’s important for firms of all sizes to be mindful of putting diverse lawyers on track to equity ownership.
Part of doing so means teaching attorneys how to grow and maintain business, and how to be successful, and that hard work is necessary to get ahead, he said.
Harris is also passionate about talking to lawyers about how to be themselves within the confines of a law firm environment. The secret: Lawyers can’t abandon their core selves as they practice law, he said.
“The pressure is too great in and of itself to add onto it,” he said. “To spend 12 hours a day pretending to be something you’re not — I think that’s why we’re losing so many people.”
He said he’s willing to help other attorneys navigate that thorny issue, too.
“If you’re at these firms and you just want somebody to talk to, come see me,” he said.