Hailing from Guyana, Joan Clarke-Narcisse was first exposed to the field of law by her father who served as a judge in the South American country’s military.
“He would pick me up after school and I spent the afternoons either in his office or in the courtroom,” she remembers fondly. “I believe those formative years not only exposed me to the law and made me curious about pursuing a legal career, but also helped me appreciate the value of operating with integrity and ethics, as well as treating all people with dignity and respect.”
Today, Clarke-Narcisse serves as counsel and head of employment and immigration law at Aflac, a Fortune 500 company that provides supplemental health insurance products to millions of policyholders in the US and Japan. Although she immigrated to the United States at the young age of thirteen, the attorney carries many of the lessons she learned as a child growing up in Guyana.
Additionally, she brings a wealth of experience to her role, both in the private and public sectors. Most recently, she was senior assistant city attorney for the City of Atlanta, where she provided employment counsel and handled employment litigation matters. Clarke-Narcisse also worked in private practice at the Tucker Law Group LLC, Ballard Spahr LLP, and the now-dissolved Miller, Alfano & Raspanti.
Modern Counsel spoke with Clarke-Narcisse about her accomplished legal career, passion for employment law, and commitment to diversity.
I would imagine that moving to the US was a very significant transition. What was that like for you?
Fortunately, I spoke English, so that transition was a little bit easier if I’m to compare myself to non-English speaking immigrants who have transitioned to the US. I also moved into a predominantly West Indian community in Brooklyn, New York, so I was surrounded by people who looked like me and spoke with an accent. There were immigrants from all over the world in my middle school and high school, so we were all from a different culture and a different environment.
The experience also taught me the importance of being resilient and recognizing that, in order to be successful and survive in a new environment, you have to learn how to adapt very quickly. It’s one of the reasons why it’s somewhat easy for me to move to different cities and new roles because I had such a diverse experience as a child. It also is one of the factors that drew me to a company like Aflac, which prioritizes diversity and providing opportunity to women, particularly women of color.
How have your life experiences impacted the lawyer who you are today?
As an immigrant and as a Black woman operating in a legal environment—that tends to be predominantly male and predominantly white—I’ve always struggled with the idea, whether real or imagined, of being an outsider. It was really important for me in my roles to ensure that I was in an environment that allowed me to be my true, authentic self.
I am really proud to work for a company that celebrates and champions diversity, and recognizes the value in having people with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different ideas. It is something that’s celebrated within the company, and it’s celebrated within our legal department.
I also served as cochair of Aflac’s Legal Department Diversity Initiative, which was created to help foster and maintain a more diverse and inclusive and equitable environment for the lawyers and professionals on the team as well as improve our diversity among our external legal partners and suppliers.
How has your personal management style evolved over the course of your career?
I’m a new leader at Aflac, and I’m humbled by the level of trust that Assistant General Counsel Tom McKenna and General Counsel Audrey Tillman have placed in me. I view the ability to manage lawyers, especially young lawyers, as an immense responsibility, and I take that role very seriously.
I believe in leading by example. My goal is to empower and to coach my team. I want to ensure that they’re not only developing their substantive and technical legal skills, but also their soft skills needed to be successful in their careers. Given the nature of our work, the level of confidentiality required in our role is very crucial. It’s important for me that I create a safe environment where we can have very open and frank discussions about employee relation issues and share lessons learned.
How have you maintained work/life balance as you climbed the corporate ladder?
I inherited a strong work ethic from both of my parents and my grandmother, so the term “work/life balance” was not something that was part of my vocabulary. However, I am more balanced today than I was when I was a younger attorney. It’s also something that I actively practice and try to encourage my team to maintain some balance within their lives and prioritize their family or other personal endeavors.
I believe in starting my day with the right mindset. I start with prayer and meditation, which really helps set the course for my day as well as the right energy, tone, and focus. I believe in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and prioritize my family by setting boundaries with my time. As a company, Aflac values employees’ personal time and encourages us to take time off without interruption to unplug from work.
What advice do you have for immigrants who aspire to enter the corporate world?
Be bold, be open to new experiences and development opportunities, and take calculated risks. When I started my journey, I never envisioned being in my current role. I thought I would be a successful attorney, because I have that drive that I learned from my father, but allowing myself to be open and move to different cities to take on different challenges and roles allowed me to grow in ways that I’ve never imagined.