100% Community Made: Nolan Highbaugh, GC of the KIPP Foundation

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20 Sep 2019

Paying it forward: forging inter-generational support

Nolan Highbaugh, GC, KIPP Foundation. Nolan was crowned Minority Lawyer of the Year at our Chambers D&I: USA awards ceremony in June 2019.

“I DIDN’T see the legal field as anything different to what I had done before,” says Nolan Highbaugh, recalling his journey to becoming a lawyer. He’d graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Master’s in Public Policy and set out to be a city manager: “I’d always been interested in public policy, particularly with regards to how we can make conditions better for people to thrive in.” With this goal in mind, he soon found himself working with “a group of lawyers. I was curious and wondered: ‘what is it they know that I don’t?’ It was a different and rigorous way of thinking – I thought it would be another good tool to put in my kit.”

Highbaugh subsequently joined Stanford Law and began studying for his JD. But why did he feel that it was no different to what he had done before? Highbaugh connects this comment back to the messages he received growing up: “We were always told that as black people we had to be better, and that was based on the way that we’re portrayed.” On top of that, Highbaugh points to being very conscious of a situation that remains to do this day. “You know that there’s a lot fewer of you in the profession – you’ve seen the numbers. It’s that way everywhere, so for me [pursuing a legal career] wasn’t anything that I thought differently about in terms of approach.”

That approach was one of resilience that yielded success. Yet Highbaugh credits the positive influences around him for making him believe he could do it. “I am 100% community made, just like Robert F Smith said,” states Highbaugh, referring to the commencement speech that the billionaire private equity investor made to the class of 2019 at Morehouse College, which is predominantly attended by black and African American students and boasts alumni including Martin Luther King Jr, Spike Lee and author Howard Thurman. (Smith, incidentally, also surprised the students by revealing that he would personally be paying off their cumulative student debt). Smith’s message to the class of 2019 was clear: he wanted them to pay it forward in the future as he had done, to provide support and positive role models for the generations that would come after them.

This was a message that Highbaugh was very familiar with. He cites the impact of those who’d “just participated in the civil rights movement” on his younger self: “Their contribution was to work with younger people to set them up for success.” Those around him, including his family, did just that: “I really admired these people for taking the time to care about me and trying to help me go further.” He admits that he had “a lot of help” and points to an unhelpful assumption he’s come across over the years: “The first thing that’s assumed is that if you’re black you grew up poor. I didn’t grow up poor. We were firmly middle class. I never had to worry about food, shelter, clothing, and my family were always around me.” However, Highbaugh knew of many others who weren’t so fortunate. “There were also a lot of students like me who were smarter and more talented than me, but they got discouraged and chose a different path. My feeling was that if I could go back, I could try and help others persevere.”

The KIPP Foundation: providing support from school through college

Go back is exactly what Highbaugh did. He volunteered at schools (one in Oakland had a 20% graduation rate), including those set up by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Foundation. As a non-profit, KIPP has created a network of 242 public schools that focus on assisting students from, as its website states, educationally underserved communities. “There’s a ton of work to do,” says Highbaugh, highlighting the broader racial context in the US with regards to areas like income and incarceration rates, but for him, the great thing about KIPP is that “we try to get in earlier with kids and families to share hope and say, ‘Hey, here are some resources, here are some tools, here are some things that you can do’” to help secure a good future.

Highbaugh has now been KIPP’s GC for 16 years. He tells us how the organisation’s programmes have evolved in order to provide ongoing support for students. “When I first got here we mainly focused on middle school, then it was ‘KIPP to college’ and now it’s ‘KIPP through college.’ What we found was that because of a lot of the students’ circumstances, it was hard for them to complete college, so now we offer them college counselling advice through college.” KIPP has also recently developed an ‘alumni accelerator’ programme to help graduating students “get their first job – we look at offering them opportunities to build their business networks, giving them the access more affluent students have once they graduate from college.” Highbaugh is not short of connections in the legal field, thanks in part to his proficiency at networking when he was at law school: “I’ve connected a lot of my former classmates to KIPP Schools. They do a lot of pro bono work for us and contribute by showing up to events.” He’s clearly pleased with the response he’s received from the legal community, but attributes it partly to location: “I think it’s being in the Bay Area. You have people who realise they are really fortunate and want to help those who are not as fortunate. If they think something works then they’ll dive right in.”

The Pipeline: the need for coordination

Now, more than ever in the US, we are aware of initiatives and organisations that are aiming to make the legal industry more diverse at the entry-level stage. But is enough being done?

Highbaugh is quick to credit the attention being paid to the pipeline and the work being done by law firms, companies and organisations such as his own. The problem for Highbaugh is not lack of effort, but lack of coordination. “That’s something that we need to take a serious look at,” Highbaugh states, referring collectively to all the organisations involved in developing and facilitating pipeline programmes. “It doesn’t make sense to create new programmes from scratch if they already exist.” He feels that the duplication of efforts can result in a narrowing of impact: “If there was more coordination amongst education reform organisations and divide the work to say, ‘OK, that’s your piece, this is my piece,’ then I think we would be able to serve a lot more people.” At the same time, Highbaugh acknowledges the complexity involved in establishing that level of organisation. “It is difficult, in part because everybody is passionate and has their ideas.”

However, the Bay Area’s Law in Technology Collaborative has shown that a good model (eBay’s split 1L summer internship programme) can be successfully scaled up and rolled out collaboratively across law firms and companies. It has started as a more regional programme in Northern California, but with growth on the agenda it looks set break to out into other areas. It may not have as many nuances as the type of wide-ranging collaboration that Highbaugh is referring to, but it is a positive sign that collective efforts can progress cohesively. Read more about the Law in Technology Collaborative here.

The Legal Industry: are we at boiling point?

“I see the numbers and everything,” says Highbaugh, with a note of disappointment that’s combined with one of optimism. He is enthused by the “number of people in firms and throughout the industry who definitely want to see change and more diverse workforces.” But then there’s the note of realism: “I just think,” he pauses, “you know… it takes a profound, solid commitment, which is really hard to do over a course of years and maintain momentum. It also takes courage.”

In what way? “I mean, legal work is high stakes. I tend to want to hire myself – all the time.” We’ve hit upon the spectre of bias (both conscious and unconscious), which is never far away from

Nolan is announced as the winner of our Minority Lawyer of the Year award.

discussions about blocks to establishing diverse workforces. “You’re a lawyer, so you’re risk adverse. You’re the most attractive candidate because you know what you’re going to do,” he explains, before adding: “But that’s limiting. You’re totally limiting, because you’re not going to get different viewpoints and different ways of looking at a problem.” He quips: “And quite frankly I should never hire myself!” Highbaugh therefore tries to remain conscious of his biases and avoid them – and he’s pleased that he’s not alone in doing so. “There are more and more people who are thinking about this stuff – it just takes sustained commitment.”

That commitment has been given a recent and mighty boost by the open letter to law firms spearheaded by Turo’s Chief Legal Officer Michelle Fang. “Clients are demanding different voices in the room,” Highbaugh comments, “so I think that right now it’s a moment where there’s a lot of steam to get that done.” We detect hope. “There’s always hope – you’ve got to hope! I know the numbers may not bear it out but hopefully we are getting closer to figuring it out. I’ve got to believe that that’s what will happen.” Highbaugh’s hope is that “as more people of colour ascend the ranks and make partner, they can help to facilitate these conversations and bring different voices into the room.”

Ascending the Ranks: overcoming imposter syndrome

When asked what he considers one of the biggest barriers for minorities as they progress in their careers, Highbaugh is clear and immediate with his response. “One of them is overcoming imposter syndrome,” he states. “It’s the feeling that you don’t deserve to be where you are and that you don’t belong. I still fight it myself and I’m a 53-year-old!” Highbaugh has regular conversations with KIPP alums about it. “I tell them, ‘You can do this and you’ve earned the right to do so. You did the work. You got into college, you graduated.’ But I get it, because they’re there with folks from different backgrounds who are probably a lot more privileged. In law school I would estimate that at least 40% of the students I studied with came from families that had lawyers in them, so they knew the game, but from my perspective I had to get in there and take advantage of the opportunities and believe in myself.”

Imposter syndrome is nonetheless something that still affects Highbaugh, so how does he tackle it? “I go to mindfulness – it’s the Northern Californian in me! I think ‘what’s real and what’s in my head?’ If I know my head, it’s usually the doubters.” It’s a fact that we’re naturally programmed to pay more attention to the negative (and mindfulness is indeed great for rebalancing this negativity bias), but combine this with – as Highbaugh returns to an earlier point – the formative experience of “being told that you have to be better, and it puts a lot of pressure on you. You always have a lot of doubt, and that way of thinking seems to have worked for you your whole life, so you still do it, but it’s such a hard way to do things.”

That sense of pressure and need to be better “makes you afraid to fail because you think that you’re only going to get one chance based on who you are and the way that you’ve been portrayed. That holds you back from really being bold and taking charge.” For Highbaugh, that acute fear of failure is not so marked in the privileged, who have more of a sense that failures are a) normal and b) won’t cost them everything. Highbaugh’s approach to overcoming this fear is to change the thoughts surrounding what it means to fail. “You’ve got to get out there and just go for it, and if you fail, OK, that’s life – sooner or later you’re going to fail.” However, Highbaugh does acknowledge that it can be “easier said than done,” especially for those in socioeconomic circumstances that mean “the pressure is very real, because often they’re not just supporting themselves – they’re also supporting their family.”

Coming Full Circle: the need to keep building community

“I’m starting to feel like one of the old timers,” Highbaugh jokes. He points to some of the success stories he’s seen emerge from KIPP’s work: “It’s wild to see someone and think ‘I knew you when you were in fifth grade – now you’re at Baker Botts!” Many of the students that come through KIPP’s schools want to practise law, and many are interested in areas such as immigration and family law. “I’m finding that they want to go back to the community. But I also tell them that there’s nothing wrong with making some money – don’t feel bad if you get the gig where you make some money. You’re a producer, so do it!”

It doesn’t matter what area of law or career that his KIPP alums go on to pursue, the important thing for Highbaugh is that they go on to give back to their community by providing the encouragement and example for future generations. Highbaugh recalls recently meeting a real trailblazer in the Bay Area, Belva Davis, who was the first African American woman to become a television reporter on the U.S. West Coast. “She’s now 86 and one of the things she said to me was ‘You guys are really lucky, you get to live the life you want and do stuff,’ and I was like ‘but that’s only because of you! And only because of my grandparents and parents, who sacrificed and made it so I could do it.”

Hence why Highbaugh’s thoughts turn to those who are coming up after him: “We need our KIPP alums, and we need them badly. We need all of them to continue to grow this. We have over 33,000 alums now and we want to pass the baton. Who is better to do this than the people who have been through it and can say, ‘Yes, I grew up in these circumstances, but because of my teachers, because of my school, because of the attention paid to me, I was able to do this and now I’m living my dreams.’” And as can be expected from Highbaugh, we depart on a final note of positivity and hope: “I just want to emphasise that I’m 100% community made, so let’s keep building that community so other folks can do it too.”