What is your occupation and how did you come to work in this field?
I am senior counsel in the Private Client Services department at the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. After graduating from law school I started as an M&A, but I realized that my passion and skills were derived from the work my direct interaction with individuals and helping them to solve their personal issues. As a summer associate in a large law firm, I worked on many assignments, including “personal” matters for individuals, such as research on how to disinherit a child in Monaco, advising clients on a prenuptial agreement, and figuring out what the tax implications would have been for a client who did not satisfy the requirements outlined in a Will or trust agreement and how that affected her inheritance. I realized quickly that I wanted to be involved in this “trusts and estates” filed because it was a very broad practice which encompassed everything from Wills, to real estate, investments, finance, accounting and many other practice areas. I was fortunate at the time to have a great mentor, who helped me navigate through the red tape at the firm. After almost a year and a half as a corporate attorney, I later transferred to the private clients group and have been practicing in this area for the past 10 years. Changing practice areas early in my career was one of the best decisions that I could have ever done, and I am very grateful to my mentor for helping me through that process.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
The biggest challenge of my career is getting individuals to understand what I do and why they need my services. To most people “private client services” means just “trusts and estates”, but we are more than just wills and trusts. We advise individuals on all facets of their personal lives including (and this is not an exhaustive list) (i) estate planning, probate and administration (from basic probate of a will to managing a trust), (ii) tax related planning to pass wealth down to individuals – for example, making gifts during their lifetime to family and friends, implementing strategies to help them alleviate the tax burdens of selling a business, (iii) charitable planning – including forming and administering a private foundation or other charitable entity, reviewing agreements for large donations to charity or establishing an endowment, (iv) advising individuals on their family business entities from creating the entities to implementing a succession plan for the family business, and (v) cross border planning for nonresident individuals and their families, including options for expatriation, and other issues. In essence, our Private Client Services department handles all matters directly related to an individual’s life. The issue is that people think of us as merely estate attorneys, and the misconception is that only high net worth individuals need an estate attorney or even have an estate. The reality is that everyone has an estate and needs to plan for the distribution of their property in the event of death. We not only help you plan for that, but we also help you plan during your life to ensure that your business is properly structure, you have a plan in place for your successors to lead the business when you retire and that if you are a nonresident alien or an individual with dual residency or owns property here and abroad, that you understand the tax implications of how you own such property. These issues are more common than individuals may believe and the struggle for us is to help them understand that we are needed to help them think through these tough issues. It is a lot easier to have us advise individuals at the beginning, at the planning stages, so that they don't have to spend time, money and effort fixing problems that arise because of the failure to plan.
What is your proudest achievement?
My proudest personal achievement is that I have three beautiful, healthy, polite, respectful and fun children who still like spending time with me. My proudest professional achievement is that I have been able to use my knowledge, skills and professional degrees to help a broad range of individuals. A few years ago, my sister-in-law lost her husband, a firefighter, to a motorcycle accident. They had no children together, but he had two sons that lived with him and my sister-in-law. He had just turned 40 and they had just had their 5 wedding anniversary when he died. It was devastating for our entire family. What was even more devastating was that he had many assets that were held in his individual name, no will and life insurance policies which named his minor sons. Needless to say it was a mess. His minor sons were taken away from my sister-in-law, she has not seen them since. There was a court battle to ensure that the life insurance policies were not transferred into the hands of the sons’ estranged mother (who of course came back into the picture upon my brother-in-laws death), and many other sad issues that they had to deal with. It was a sad situation but one in which I was knowledgeable enough to advise my sister-in-law every step of the way. Much of this, including the years of litigation, could have been avoided with some simple planning techniques – which they had started and were about to execute the weekend of the accident. What’s even worst is that this happens to hundreds of thousands of individuals all over the country.
One of my goals in attending law school was to make an impact. I was very naive in the way that I thought I was going to go about it, but I finally found my calling. I have used my skills and knowledge to assist terminally-ill patients in settling their affairs, advise low income clients on appointing guardians for their minor children prior to death, and most importantly, I have been able to advise individuals on how to recover a family property which is or was owned by multiple individuals who passed. One of the things that I have been passionate about is making sure minorities invest in themselves and their families, particularly as it relates to the ownership of real estate. Typically, in minority communities, when an individual dies, the individual’s family continues to live in the familial residence and never takes steps to transfer property over to the appropriate individuals. This happens for many generations. As a result, the house is improperly titled, no one can tap into the equity and selling the house becomes a nuisance. I am proud that I have gained the skills and knowledge to help these individuals resolve these issues and recoup their interests in their family property. Unfortunately, this is still a problem in many areas in the U.S., and despite my simplistic explanation, it is a much more complicated matter not easily resolved. I am, however, proud to be in a position to not only assist in exploring opportunities to resolve these sorts of issues, but to have the trust and confidence of my clients and people that I work with to guide them through such legally complex and emotionally draining situations.
What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?
I admire Gloria Steinem as a leader because she says what she believes, take actions in furtherance of her beliefs and she acts to motivate individuals to rally behind good causes. I admire my siblings who are all leaders, thinkers and doers. For example, I admire my youngest sister (I am one of six children) because she is socially conscious about every aspect of her life from the TV that she watches to the friends she hangs around with, to the beauty products she purchases. She has somehow made it a part of her life to ensure that everything she does in her life has a positive impact on the lives of minorities and/or low-income individuals. She supports black and women owned businesses, protests against foods that contain GMOs, and, more importantly, she is a social worker in Queens who has committed her life to representing and helping underprivileged individuals with mental illness lead fulfilling lives.
Finally, I admire my little brother and my other younger sister because they are doers. They satisfactorily completed their commitment to the peace corps, fulfilled their obligations with enthusiasm, and made actual, notable differences in the communities they were assigned. In addition, they continued to pledge their lives and professional careers to giving back to our homeland by accepting positions in NGOs located in Senegal. These organizations make economic, social and policy-related changes in the Senegal and surrounding areas. They not only provide sustainable resources to youths and women in Senegal, but they also provide targeted data to assist Senegalese and other African governments to resolve the issues faced in the respective countries. My siblings used their U.S. education and experience to make an impact in Senegal and now have been able to broaden their reach to other African countries, and to Africans living here in the U.S. The work they do is personal to all of us because it also directly impacts our immediate family that lives in Senegal. Most importantly, their work continues to motivate my desire to “do good” and as a result I am constantly searching for different ways that I can contribute to my community here in the U.S. and in Senegal.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself continuing to practice law as a partner in an ever-expanding Private Client Services department. I love the business of law and am excited for the future that lies ahead. I also see myself continuing to provide valuable legal services to low income individuals in New York City. My pro bono work is very important to me. It not only makes my 3 years of law school worthwhile, but it makes me feel good to know that I am providing much needed services to individuals who cannot afford it. My pro bono work will always be a core part of my legal practice, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
More importantly, I see myself continuing to make a difference in the lives of Senegalese Americans here in the U.S. and contributing significantly to the overall economic and social development of Senegal and all of Africa. I am proud of my Senegalese heritage. Senegalese pride themselves in being very welcoming, we call it “teranga.” Our culture is about hospitality, inclusiveness, and community. To sum it up, Chef Pierre Thiam said it best when he said that teranga is instilled in a Senegalese person from birth so that we “treat the other [person] as the most important person in the world.” My Senegalese culture is the reason that I became a lawyer, the reason I have an affinity to helping individuals solve their personal problems, and the reason I want to continue to give back to every community to which I belong. I see myself practicing law for the long haul and am ready to spread the “teranga” as far as it can reach. My hope is that I will be able to reach far enough and accomplish enough to have an impact in the U.S. and across the Atlantic.
How has your participation with the Executive Leadership Program impacted the way you approach your day-to-day role?
ELP has changed the way that I think about my career, the way I approach tasks and the manner in which I deal directly with individuals. I have approached my meetings differently, take my phone calls standing up, have developed a strategy to ensure that every interaction I have with an individual is a meaningful one. ELP has helped me to focus more on the tasks that I take each day to make sure I am using my time efficiently. I have three children, a 12 year old pug, and as of January, we may be adding a new dog to the family. My strength comes from my family, and they motivate me to do better as an individual and to work harder so that I can advance in my career. My family supports me in everything I do and they make me feel like every accomplishment is the most important accomplishment in the world – no matter how big or small. It’s because of my family that I am able to do so much in my career, as a result, I try to spend as much quality time with them as possible, so efficiency and time management is a necessity. ELP has helped me to identify new ways to become more efficient in the ways that I accomplish my daily tasks so that I can have the quality time I need and desire with my family.
More importantly, ELP helped me to understand who I am as a leader, how I think as a leader, and what my weaknesses and strengths are as a leader. I have used this new understanding to develop a clearer picture of my future which utilizes my strengths and weaknesses and also aligns with my core values and principals. ELP helped me look into myself and articulate the personality traits that make me a great business woman, manager, sister, mother, lawyer, friend and trusted adviser. I am grateful to CUP and for the ELP program for making me focus on myself, which in turn has helped me focus more effectively on my family and my career.