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'I Shouldn't Be the Only One Moving Forward'

Clarence M. Belnavis on the importance of mentorship

Published in 2020 Oregon Super Lawyers Magazine

Back when he was a baby lawyer in the mid-’90s, Clarence Belnavis and a colleague from the Owen M. Panner American Inn of Court were asked to coach the mock trial team at Jefferson High School in Portland. Jefferson was—and is—the only school in Oregon with a majority African American student body, and its mock trial team had been dormant for decades. “At some schools, everybody’s mom and dad is a lawyer,” Belnavis recalls. “But it takes a few third-years to coach at ‘Jeff.’” 

Belnavis only coached the team for a few years but pushed them in the right direction. During the 2018-2019 school year, Jefferson was able to field three teams at the regional competition.

Now regional managing partner at Fisher Phillips, Belnavis believes strongly in the power of mentorship. That includes honest, constructive feedback. “If the work wasn’t good, you tell them,” Belnavis says. “If it was good, then you reward it. As a whole, lawyers are not very good about giving feedback on projects. That’s critical when you mentor somebody. You don’t want to pull your punches or sugarcoat it; you give them the good, the bad, and the ugly so they can become better from that process.”

Belnavis, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the U.S. just before he turned 9, was influenced by an uncle—a lawyer and legal educator—as well as his parents, who taught him what he calls core Caribbean values: “You’re responsible for your own success, and there’s no substitute for hard work.” It was during his time in law school at Howard University, with its storied history, that he recalls being lit on fire for mentorship. He was constantly reminded, he says, “to make sure I create opportunities to bring others up behind me.”

During his early years at Stoel Rives, where he was the first African American partner, Belnavis began developing what he calls his “third dimension” beyond work and family. “I shouldn’t be the only one moving forward,” he remembers thinking. 

Belnavis has served on several local boards, including that of Morrison Child and Family Services, DoveLewis animal hospital and the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society. At a client’s suggestion, several years ago Belnavis joined the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Columbia Gorge. He was moved by that organization’s capacity to change lives. “Approximately 20 to 25% of students in Oregon don’t graduate from high school. Our graduation rates are among the lowest in the country,” he recalls. “Graduation rates for BBBS mentees is close to 98%. BBBS makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

The lack of diversity, both in Oregon and in the legal community, also influenced Belnavis’ motivation to get involved. “I think there are a lot of younger lawyers out there who need mentoring,” he says, “and there’s an acute need among lawyers of color.” Belnavis mentors young lawyers both within and outside his firm.

“There are people around you who need help, day in, day out. You don’t need to look that far for who needs help.”

Belnavis himself has benefitted from having strong mentors. One who made a difference was Judge Owen Panner. “He was the consummate professional—a firm guy who could laugh when he needed to,” Belnavis says. “Back when we were on the historical society board, he encouraged me. He was always positive and willing to give a kind word.”

Earlier this year, it came full circle: Belnavis was given the Owen M. Panner Professionalism Award from the Litigation Section of the Oregon State Bar Association. 

“I received an award for being polite, courteous, respectful, and making sure I treat others the way I’d like to be treated,” he says. “That’s what my mother taught me.”

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