Markita Morris-Louis is in the business of empowerment.
In her work as senior vice president of community affairs and general counsel at Clarifi, a nonprofit which focuses on financial literacy and housing issues, the Drinker Biddle alumna has seen the difference good financial advice has meant in the lives of clients.
New clients often come to Clarifi with boxes of unopened mail and won’t answer phone calls at home, living in fear of creditors or collection agencies. Many of them are not talking to family members or friends because they are ashamed of their debt. When a client leaves Clarifi, Markita sees a new person.
“They feel a strong sense of control,” Markita said. “They finally feel like they’re in control and they also have a sense of hope that they can pull themselves out of the mountain of debt that many of them find themselves in.”
Markita has been with Clarifi since 2013 and was previously an associate in Drinker Biddle’s real estate practice group from 2004 to 2013 in Philadelphia. In 2015, Markita was honored by the Philadelphia Business Journal as a Woman of Distinction.
Today, she oversees all of Clarifi’s community outreach efforts, which includes maintaining and developing more than 170 strategic partnerships, and strategic fundraising and grant initiatives. As general counsel, she also negotiates contracts with co-recipients of grant funding, which includes nonprofit and for-profit partners and provides counsel on regulatory and compliance issues.
Clarifi provides more than 300 free, personal financial management workshops annually and works with community partners interested in integrating financial literacy into their programming. The nonprofit also operates a six-month intensive financial bootcamp, which includes group sessions with a certified financial counselor who works with clients on how to handle issues such as paying down debt, establishing a savings account or improving credit. The core of Clarifi’s services is one-on-one financial counseling in crisis areas like foreclosure prevention and bankruptcy but also in preventative services including pre-purchase counseling for first-time homebuyers, and counseling around budgeting and credit, student loans and unsecured debt management.
Although mortgage foreclosure issues have faded from the headlines, Markita said there’s a large segment of society that is still feeling its impact because of lack of employment. When Markita first joined Clarifi, one of her first projects was developing the governing documents for an affiliation between the nonprofit and the Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC). The affiliation provides a holistic approach that impacts clients. For instance, Clarifi participated in a study with the University of Pennsylvania during the foreclosure crisis that showed the strong connection between physical health and wellness and financial health.
“A good number of [our clients] met the clinical definition for depression and were also not taking prescribed medication because they couldn’t afford to or felt like they couldn’t afford to, and they were choosing instead to use their funds to pay for shelter,” she said. “When you see something as significant as that it helps us inform the lending industry about these things…Lenders have the misconception that clients weren’t calling them back because they were either lazy or they didn’t care.”
Markita said the best part of her job is the different people she gets to meet and working on strategic partnerships. She first became interested in fair housing issues while working at the Washington D.C. Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and a law school fellowship at New York University with the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project. When Markita joined Drinker Biddle, she continued doing pro bono work focused on housing issues and joined the board of Regional Housing and Legal Services, which she has now chaired for the past six years.
Developing contracts and partnerships while juggling multiple clients and priorities were a regular part of her work at Drinker Biddle, Markita said, and prepared her for her current role. She said lawyers interested in pursuing careers outside of private practice should assess how their legal skills can be utilized in different settings so that they’re confident in advocating for themselves before a potential employer. The work you do as a lawyer isn’t just about clients, matters and cases, she said, but the skills you’ve derived from this work over your career.
Between balancing work with family life, raising two young boys with her husband, Markita still finds time for her own interests like a weekly West African dance class and the housing board. It takes some planning and flexibility to make everything work logistically, she said, and it’s up to each family to find out what works for them. She encourages all lawyers to consider donating or volunteering with nonprofits to give back and connect with people in the community with different life experiences.
“We (lawyers at a large law firm) are very privileged to work in a place where even though it’s tough, even though we’re working hard, it’s good for us to see that there are people who are also working hard and often under really challenging circumstances. For some, one bad decision can dictate the rest of their lives and how they deal with and live with their finances. A lot of our clients are responsible for multiple generations of their family,” she said. “It’s good to get some different perspective.”