Midwin Charles. The attorney. The media personality. The powerhouse.
Upon graduating from the American University, Washington College of Law, Ms. Charles got her legal start working as a law clerk for the U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Judge, Eric L. Clay. She continued to make remarkable professional strides, landing an associate role at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, and later, founding her own boutique law firm, Midwin Charles & Associates.
You may have seen the legal maven giving her opinion on social issues and pop-culture on primetime media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and Bloomberg TV. Aside from her work-related dealings, Midwin has served on the Dean’s Diversity Council for her alma mater, American University, the board of Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network, the Civil Rights Committee for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and more.
Ms. Charles spoke with Her Agenda about her career journey, overcoming professional obstacles, and gave advice on persevering as a woman climbing the corporate ladder in a man’s world.
Her Agenda: Have you always known you wanted to be an attorney? Was there an instance or person that inspired you to pursue a career in law?
Midwin Charles: I think I knew early on. I would say around high school. Reason being is I would see a lot of people take advantage of family members and people I knew because they weren’t from here, so, they didn’t understand the laws and they didn’t understand the culture. That incensed me. I have what I would call a burning desire for fairness and justice. Even when I would get into fights with my sister, I always needed to say my point.
Her Agenda: What’s a typical day in the life of Midwin Charles?
Midwin Charles: There is no typical day, everyday is different and that’s just how I like it. I walked away from a high paying job at a big law firm because I wanted to be my own boss. I also did not want monotony. I do not like monotony in my professional life, I want everyday to be different. Some days I’ll wake up and go to court, have lunch with a client or a colleague, then I’ll probably hit a television station or radio station and do a talk, then head to the office, and then possibly a gala. I’m very active in the New York City scene.
Her Agenda: You’ve had many accomplishments throughout your career, what was your “whoa, I’m actually doing this” moment?
Midwin Charles: I would say the moment CNN signed me in 2009. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, “wow, this is exactly what I left my job for.” That was sort of the gamble. To be paid, working in TV. I would say that was my whoa moment.
Her Agenda: We’ve watched you give your opinion on public issues on multiple media outlets, we’ve read them in Essence and Huffington Post. Recently, we read about Elizabeth Warren being silenced by her male colleagues. What would you say are the biggest challenges being not only a woman, but a Black woman with a voice? How do you overcome said challenges?
Midwin Charles: I work in a profession that’s dominated by men, so I deal with a lot of mansplaining. Men trying to explain things to you as if you’re an idiot or a fool. As if you haven’t studied as they have studied. There is also the issue of age. When you’re an attorney, clients generally look at you as though you’re too young, you don’t have any weight on you, you don’t have any experience. A lot of times you have to prove or exert yourself and it’s tough. One of my favorite things to do is to look people in the eye with that look. I don’t believe in meeting people where they are. Sometimes men will yell, and a lot of times I’ll just look at them and stare.
Her Agenda: What character traits would you say contributed to your success?
Midwin Charles: I would say the refusal to take no for an answer. I would say perseverance and diligence. I also have this sense that it’s mine. I’m supposed to have it. I work from that perspective. It’s mine. Why not? I’m not saying it’s easy. People will look at my resume and say “wow, you’ve done so much,” but every achievement you see, I had to scrape for. It was a lot of work; a lot of hoops to jump through, a lot of disappointments, and a lot of failed starts. None of it was easy.
Her Agenda: As a female attorney, how important was the presence of mentors in terms of your overall growth and success?
Midwin Charles: It was critical. I come from a family where I’m the first generation here in America. There weren’t any lawyers in my family. I didn’t know any lawyers when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. So, not having anyone to talk to, guidance, or how to go through the process, I had to figure it out on my own and pick up mentors along the way. I couldn’t do it without them and I still rely heavily on my mentors.
Her Agenda: What’s a common misconception of success?
Midwin Charles: That it’s easy maintain. Once you become successful, you can’t rest on your laurels. It takes work to remain successful.Sometimes I think the work it takes to remain successful is just as hard, if not harder, than trying to become successful. Which is why it’s so important to take the stairs, because what you learn during that process, it builds strength, character, and fortitude. So that once you get to the level that you say you want to get to, you’re prepared for the things that will come at you. You’re prepared to battle and fight for it to stay there. You cannot take the express elevator to the top. You’ll find that most people that do, they falter. You see it with celebrities and a lot of people when they rise too quickly. They can’t handle the pressure and they crack.
Her Agenda: How do you manage a healthy work/life balance between running your practice, TV and speaking engagements, things in your personal life, etc? What routines have you implemented in your day to day to maintain a level of structure?
Midwin Charles: I’m still trying to get better at that. I have not ‘arrived.’ I would say the biggest revelation I’ve had with respect to structure is that it becomes even more important when you work for yourself. I have days of the week that I earmarked for certain things, and I find that, that allows me to get stuff done. Saturday morning it’s grocery shopping, get the car washed, pick up the dry cleaning; I know it’s going to get done on Saturday. If I skip a Saturday, I don’t try to kill myself to get it done until the following Saturday. I found that it’s the easiest way to do things. People want to catch up and I’m like, “it has to be Sunday brunch.”
Her Agenda: What advice do you have for young women looking to enter a male dominated industry?
Midwin Charles: Well, they have to be really good at what they do. They have to work twice as hard. And, chances are even if you work twice as hard you may get half of the praises and accolades that they get. It’s very important to have outside mentors to give you strength and push you, because it’s going to be hard. Be prepared for that. You’re going to face opposition in a lot of ways, in micro-aggression ways. You may not get the better assignment even though you’re the better person for it. Be ready for that. Be ready with a strategy of how to deal with it. Which is why I love my mentors because they helped me prepare for those instances that you get as a woman working in a male dominated field, and help you deal with it in a way where you’re not popping off. That’s a skill. Because we all want to pop off when things aren’t going our way. Get ready for that and be armed with ways to deal with it.
Her Agenda: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Midwin Charles: Run your life or it will run you. Manage your life. That means with your personal life too. I think as women we fall victim to being pushed around a lot by friends or family. “Can you do this or that?” And, before you know it, you’re stretched very thin so it’s important to manage that as well. It’s human nature for us to push someone until they say no. When I say run your life I don’t just mean professionally. I mean personally as well. I’m learning the art of pushing back.
[Editor's note: This interview published on July 3rd, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]