Law Firm Diversity Professionals Roundtable

INSIGHT Into Diversity spoke with three law firm diversity professionals who weighed in on issues currently affecting the legal profession. 

They offered recommendations on how law schools and firms can attract underrepresented students and produce well-rounded lawyers.

Michelle P. Wimes serves as the director of professional development and inclusion at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC — one of the nation’s largest labor and employment law firms — where she leads the firm’s efforts to attract, develop, retain, promote, and advance a diverse group of attorneys in its Kansas City office. She is also a nationally renowned presenter on professional development, diversity, and inclusion issues.

Sheryl L. Axelrod is the owner and founder of The Axelrod Firm, PC, in Philadelphia, where she is a trial lawyer. She is a nationally published author and speaker on diversity and unconscious bias, and she serves on the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Gender Equity and the National Association of Women Lawyers’ Diversity and Amicus committees.

Michael J. Hernandez is a partner at the law firm of Franczek Radelet in Chicago, where he also serves as the firm’s diversity officer. His background is in constitutional and civil rights law, including affirmative action and desegregation matters. He has also served as general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Education and deputy general counsel for the Chicago Board of Education.

Q: According to data from the National Association for Law Placement, in 2014, women represented 21 percent and minorities represented 7.33 percent of partners at U.S. law firms — an increase of about 19 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from 2009. Where can law firms focus their efforts in order to increase top-level diversity, and why is it critical to have women and minorities in leadership positions at law firms?

Wimes: I think there are three areas that have to be addressed when you’re talking about increasing women and minorities in positions of authority within law firms. One is that we’ve got to make the path to success more transparent. Many women and minorities don’t know what the unwritten rules of success are; they don’t share affinity with the people who are in charge in these law firms: white men. So the knowledge doesn’t get transferred to them that gets transferred to people who share that same affinity: younger white men. wimes

At our firm, we’ve developed labor and employment benchmarks that outline what skills and experiences we expect you to have at each level and what you can be doing to make sure that you’re progressing in a way that helps you develop and meet client and law firm expectations.

I also think equipping women and minorities with sponsors is critical. Sponsors are people who are willing to put their own reputation on the line to support the advancement of another lawyer. You need that strong person who is there to support you and share the unwritten rules of success with you and, more importantly, advocate for you.

The third thing is really training law firm leaders on unconscious bias, and then training minority and women lawyers on how to combat and deal with the bias that is inevitably going to come their way.

Axelrod: This is critical, and our profession needs to get it right. What firms should do is, first of all, start by auditing their books and asking: Are we equally paying women and minorities? Are we equally promoting women and minorities? And if they are not, they need to change.

One of the ways to fix this is to start making the people who are in charge of promotions a more diverse and inclusive group and putting people in charge of meeting their numbers.

For instance, if you have partner distribution, you can look across the board and audit, and find out who the partners are who did the best job of retaining and promoting women and minorities and reward them financially. And you can look at the partners who did the worst job, and you can penalize them financially for their failure to perform. I guarantee you things are going to change rather quickly if you do.

Hernandez: At our firm, we probably have one of the highest representations of women — we’re almost 50-50 — and it’s made us stronger because you’re bringing in different perspectives on how to run a business and how to administer. hernandez

We have worked hard to recruit diverse candidates through either internships or through our own diverse program called LEADS. We also have to make sure they are being supported and mentored and that we can include them in decision-making. (LEADS — Legal Education for the Advancement of Diversity and Scholarship — is an eight-week summer fellowship program designed to fill the legal pipeline with highly qualified and diverse candidates.)

Q: According to the 2014 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, only 62 percent of law school students participated in a clinical or pro bono project as part of a course for academic credit, and 44 percent never worked with faculty members on activities other than coursework. How can faculty better bridge the divide between theory and practice, and why are both essential to the practice of law?

Wimes: I remember doing an immigration law clinic when I was in my third year of law school, and it was essential because I learned how to interact with clients. I learned how to take what a client expects of me and turn it into something practical that could actually help solve their problem. So, I think there has to be a better connection between the theory that students are learning and what the actual practice looks like.

It used to be that back in the day, there was this apprentice model for law schools; you would graduate, and then you would go and apprentice with a lawyer and learn the practicalities of practicing law. I think that we need to move back toward that model. In fact, I think there are law firms using this kind of apprentice model where they don’t have a billable hour requirement for recent law graduates.

Axelrod: The practice of law is a practice, and it’s not pure theory, so it is incredibly important for students to actually start to learn the practice. First of all, they’re going to feel far more comfortable if they have gotten some practical experience when they are working in the field because it won’t be so alien to them.

axelrodIn terms of how law schools can better engage students, if you ask me, it’s really on the students versus the law schools. They should look for practical experience. So you can, for instance, intern at a nonprofit [organization]; you can try to get work at a law firm; you can offer your services and say, “Look, I’ll work for minimum wage. I really want experience.”

Pro bono is another way to get some really critical experience. [It’s] a fabulous way to get the kinds of cases that it may otherwise take you years to touch.

Hernandez: Unless you are going to be purely a transactional lawyer and will not touch a courtroom in any way, you should have this type of experience.

What I liked about working both as an assistant district attorney in New York and working in a clinic is that I got hands-on experience working with clients immediately — and with the courts, social systems, and other attorneys. So when I went into an interview, not only did I have the assumed skills with respect to the knowledge and whatever courses I had taken, I also had other more practical skills as well.

Q: What are potential clients looking for in a lawyer — what types of qualities, experiences, education, and so on? And do you consider this when making hiring decisions?

Wimes: I think they’re looking for responsiveness — lawyers who get back to them fairly quickly; lawyers who actually answer the questions that are being asked and do it in an efficient and effective manner; lawyers who have great work ethics. I also think that they’re looking to get the best bang for their buck. They’re looking for good legal service in the most efficient, cost-effective manner that it can be delivered.

Honestly, I don’t think that education is necessarily so important to clients. Of course their lawyers have to have law degrees, but I think, after a certain point, it really doesn’t matter if you went to Harvard, Stanford, or UCLA.

It used to be that in order to come into a law firm, you just had to be smart and be a good fit with the firm and its clients. But I think now there are a lot of other things that law students are going to have to be: somebody who has business literacy, somebody who can give a client practical business judgment and understand what the client’s business is and what the client’s needs are. And top writing skills; you’ve got to be a great critical thinker who can synthesize a large amount of data in a short amount of time. I also think being a global citizen, really having an inclusive mindset and recognizing that our clients … may be being sued in different jurisdictions in different locations around the world.

Axelrod: Clients are looking for a couple of things. I would say the number one and two things are probably likability and talent. You have to be a likable, engaging person who enjoys talking to people; you have to be good at what you do; you have to know your stuff — know where to find the answers to the questions and know the questions to ask.

In addition to that, I think what clients look for are people who they can identify with. The best lawyers are the ones who … have really good judgment and can take a [client’s] problems, break them into the small parts they’re made up of, work through them, and really solve the issue for their client and take it off their client’s shoulders.

Hernandez: The clients want someone they can relate to; it has to be someone they get along with. So irrespective of where you come from, people skills [are important]. And then, I always encourage people to get as much experience as possible.

Sooner or later, you’re going to focus; you’re going to say, “OK, I think I’m good in the following areas.” That will come. And [at my firm], we have found that our ability to serve clients is really supported by people who have a wide variety of experience, including clerkships. For example, a number of our attorneys who do education law were teachers, did Teach for America, or were superintendents. That unique experience that separates you from the crowd is always helpful.

Q: When you are looking to fill a position, what do you look for in a candidate? How does diversity play a role in your search and in the final decision?

Wimes: Diversity is certainly one of the factors that we take into account when we’re looking for new hires, but we’re also looking for a number of other things.

We’re looking for a positive attitude; we’re looking for demonstrated resilience — people who have bounced back from setbacks. And we find those things out by asking behavioral questions. We’re looking for work ethic, initiative, the ability to communicate and write effectively — and someone who has critical thinking skills. So, really, the substantive lawyering skills they would have picked up in law school, in a clinical experience, through a directed-research experience, or maybe in a clerkship.

Axelrod: We have to be careful because we’re not allowed to discriminate against anyone on any basis, so you have to look for the best person for the job. With that being said, what I would say is the way to get the best talent is not to constantly interview the same people all the time. What law firms and other organizations should be doing is making sure that they are not just getting the word out there about the job opening to the same people they have always made the job available to.

You want to make sure that a cross section of the community, instead of one homogeneous group, hears about the opening. And of course, you want to interview the best candidates from a cross section of the community. If you ask me, the way diversity plays a role is in how you make sure the message gets out.

Hernandez: There are a lot of different ways beyond just grades. Were they committed to some long-range projects, out-of-the-box projects, clinical work, and items that might show their skills? How are their communication skills? Those are important.

There’s always a different perspective that we’re looking for out there that someone can bring, from the white male to the woman minority. We’re looking for someone who’s doing some interesting things, who’s been out there, who’s well read. We’re looking for someone with various levels of skills, and not just focused on grades, but someone who can really get along with our colleagues, because it’s a team approach.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

For an additional questions from this interview, read our online extra edition.