Early on in her career, Shannon Stokes was faced with an important decision.
After graduating law school at Howard University School of Law in Washington, DC, Stokes gained experience through a judicial clerkship before taking a job with Kirkland & Ellis’s litigation group, where she applied her skills to complex commercial litigation. To follow her intellectual curiosity and expand her skill set, she also contributed to projects in the regulatory group, antitrust matters, and international trade work.
By her fourth year at the firm, she was asked: do you want to be a litigator or a regulatory attorney? “I didn’t want to be boxed in because I knew it was more important to me to do diverse things and have a broad skill set at that point in my career,” she explains.
She wanted to gain hands-on investigation experience at the Department of Justice, but there was a government hiring freeze at the time. While waiting for the freeze to be lifted, Stokes was contacted by a recruiter for Newpark Resources, asking if she was interested in going back to her home state of Texas to take on a brand-new role as compliance counsel.
“I saw it as a good opportunity to pick up additional skills in a broad array of things and to be part of working on matters proactively instead of being brought in once they’ve turned into litigation,” Stokes remembers. “I also liked the fact that it was an opportunity to know a whole lot about one client, versus at the firm, where I only needed enough to represent a client and move on.”
In 2013, Stokes joined Newpark Resources, which is headquartered in the Woodlands, Texas, and is now associate general counsel and deputy chief compliance officer. She oversees the company’s global ethics and legal compliance program, including the development of compliance-related training and communication plans, policy implementation, and conducting compliance due diligence and internal investigations. In addition to compliance, Stokes also provides advice and counsel on employment law matters.
Stokes was hired as the first full-time dedicated compliance resource. “The general counsel wanted a full-time person to take ownership of the program and make it more robust and bring it to the next level,” she says.
Stokes has done that. When she joined Newpark, she was told there wouldn’t be a lot of hand holding, with one supervisor telling her it would be like drinking water out of a fire hose.
“I have had the benefit of supportive supervisors who have encouraged me to chart my own course. I’m self-taught in that I came in and really just built up my network of compliance professionals based upon my history of practicing in DC, meeting counterparts in Houston, and attending a lot of conferences,” Stokes notes. “Through that, I built up my compliance expertise and skill set and identified where there was for growth in our program.”
Her key accomplishments include drafting and implementing Newpark’s updated code of conduct, transitioning multiple processes from manual to digital, and implementing a third-party management platform.
Stokes’s leadership style is built on collaboration and allowing her team to develop their own solutions and ideas. “We all show our best when we have a vested interest and we can see the direct impact of our efforts and when our efforts align with our interests,” she observes.
She knows the value of that because she chose her own destiny at Newpark in many ways. When she was an individual contributor in her role, she was given the freedom to set the goals for the compliance program and prioritize the projects that she worked on.
“Every year, I prepare a list of the department’s goals for the year. Then I meet with my team, and I give them the first pass at picking which project they want to tackle based on where they think they could be most effective based on their natural talents and interests,” she explains. “I believe that people are happiest and most engaged in their jobs when they have some form of autonomy. At the end of the day, all of the work is going to get done. I just try to divvy up the projects and tasks in a way that works for everyone.’”
Stokes also wants to know her team members’ personal goals for their careers and what drives them to be successful—and no judging of their answers.
“A lot of people think it’s a trick question when you say that and think that they have to say that they have certain growth goals, but I’ve come to learn that some people perform well in their comfort zone and don’t want to go beyond that, and that’s okay, there is room for them. I’m not going to give you stretch opportunities if you’re not a stretch opportunity-type person,” she says. “That’s my approach and my style, and it works better with some than others. It takes a lot of reflection and self-awareness understand your skills and talents and to know how those align with your goals.”
Overall, Stokes is dedicated to making a difference, in fulfillment of a statement by Charles Hamilton Houston, who famously fought Jim Crow laws and who told his students at Howard University School of Law that lawyers can be either social engineers or parasites on society.
For instance, Stokes’s in volunteer legal work includes working voter protection during local and national elections, providing disaster recovery-related legal assistance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and serving on the Diversity & Inclusion and Campaign to End Homelessness and Hunger Committees of the Houston Bar Association. She also takes pride in mentoring young female lawyers and lawyers of color.
“I’m very passionate about doing that for female attorneys and attorneys of color, because we are underrepresented in the profession and it personally resonates with me, obviously,” she says. “We generally don’t have a lot of family members or friends who have a network that can put you in contact with an attorney for mentorship and networking. I’ve always believed that no one accomplishes success alone; everyone needs help. I have benefited throughout my life from really great mentors and guidance and advice from family, friends, peers, so I’m very big on sharing that breadth of knowledge with anyone it can help.”
And Shannon Stokes has lots of knowledge to share, indeed.