Zakiyyah Salim-Williams, currently the Chief Diversity Officer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has made a habit of identifying and solving problems of representation and diversity throughout her career.
As a child, Zakiyyah and her seven brothers and sisters were lovingly assigned either ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ by their father. “Because I talked a lot and was the youngest girl, I was assigned to be a lawyer,” said Zakiyyah, looking back on her childhood and giving a little chuckle. “But in fact, I actually wanted to be a teacher."
At the time, the only thing that Zakiyyah knew about lawyers was that they had to go to school for seven years, but since she was a studious child, she set out to the library and watched old civil rights movies to learn more.
“I remember learning about Thurgood Marshall through a television special about the civil rights era, and so I had him as my inspiration,” Zakiyyah said of her early career plans. “So of course, I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I think that everyone wanted to be a civil rights lawyer back then.”
After identifying Marshall as a role model, Zakiyyah began reading biographies of African American public figures to learn how to be a successful, Black professional. She followed the years of ravenous biography reading by attending Howard University, a historically Black private university in Washington, D.C.
“I got to Howard and it was like walking in the footsteps of greatness because that's how I viewed the people who went to school there,” said Zakiyyah. “Toni Morrison once walked on this campus in the way I did.”
Once Zakiyyah got to Columbia Law School, she saw it as an extension of the diverse learning plan she began in high school. “Columbia is a law school that’s very rooted in civil rights,” said Zakiyyah.
“I was someone who really loved law school, but I also really dug in to forming relationships. My good friend, Kristen Clarke, who now runs the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and I formed the Civil Rights Law Society. We were bringing in all of these speakers and really immersed ourselves in learning the law, but also fueling our passions around civil rights.”
It was during her time as a summer associate that she first experienced the differences in her background and those of her wealthy counterparts. “Everyone was talking about traveling to these really fancy places that I had no idea where they were or that they existed and feeling so out of my depth, like out of my league,” said Zakiyyah, but she didn’t let that feeling get her down. Instead, she recognized what she needed and reached out for support. She began seeking out mentors and set her focus on learning and being the best lawyer she could be, and for Zakiyyah, that meant securing a clerkship.
“I clerked for two years. I clerked for two African-American judges, which is what actually led me into diversity,” said Zakiyyah. “After I clerked for the judges, I realized how few clerks of color there were.”
Zakiyyah decided that she needed to help law students of color pursue clerkships. “I was just trying to open and widen those doors for others,” said Zakiyyah of her early days working toward inclusivity in the law field. “So, when I started out, I had no idea exactly what to do, but it was really all of these, really leveling people who kind of guided me along my path. Many of whom look like me.”
After working to make clerkships more inclusive, Zakiyyah again found herself underrepresented at New York City Bar Association events. “When I first walked in the Bar, I didn't see anyone that looked like me,” said Zakiyyah. “In fact, I actually called my mother one night when I first went to an event at the Bar and said, ‘I will never step foot in this place again.’”
Rather than dismiss the institution, though, Zakiyyah leaned in. As the Diversity Director at the New York City Bar Association, she began moderating and leading programs on inclusivity and diversity. “Now that place is like home,” said Zakiyyah. “I was able to go to the City Bar, run the diversity office, and make it a more inclusive place.”
In reflecting on the earlier days of her career, Zakiyyah also notes how different the environment is now for women. “I remember that at the time people didn’t have kids. You were told if you wanted to make partner you couldn’t have a baby,” said Zakiyyah. “But now there’s representation—I’m seeing first-years and second-years having kids, and seeing women make partner while they’re pregnant."
Zakiyyah attributes part of the shifts she’s seen in the industry to client demands for increased representation of women and people of color, as well as to the current political climate—resulting in firms rightly focusing on community and inclusion.
“I think that every company, and not just law firms, was grappling with inclusion and diversity around the time of the racial unrest [this past summer], and then created these communities that support and uplift each other with allies doing the same.”
Since 2012, Zakiyyah has been implementing global diversity initiatives for Gibson Dunn, which hosts more than 500 D&I-related programs each year. The majority of her career has been focused on fostering diversity, inclusion, and representation in the legal industry, and mentoring and coaching young, Black lawyers, which continues to inspire her. “Throughout the years I’ve collected one thing from every conversation I ever attended that would spark something in me, to keep fueling me,” said Zakiyyah.