Online Edition: 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. In this online-only portion of the roundtable, they discuss law schools’ decreasing enrollment and the importance of cultural competency in the profession, as well as offer advice to law school graduates. 

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 the firm’s 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: In 2014, law school enrollment was down 7 percent from the previous year, marking the fourth year in a row in which enrollment dropped, according to data released by the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. What factors do you believe play into this decline, and what are some ways law schools can address this predicament?wimes

Wimes: I think that much of this started with the economic downturn of 2008, and I think it continues to this day. I think that, in general, jobs — especially legal jobs — are more scarce, and I think the competition is more fierce. I think there is a perception among law students, too, that they’re not getting a return on their investment, that law schools aren’t helping them find the jobs that they want — the high-paying jobs that will enable them to pay back their student loans. I believe that law students are recognizing that, and they’re not going to law school in the numbers that we’ve previously seen.

Law schools really need to do a better job of preparing students for different jobs other than just law firm jobs. I think as law schools start to educate people more about the different options that are out there, maybe law students can begin to look more broadly at opportunities outside of law firms.

Axelrod: I can tell you that for women in particular, the numbers had for a while been going up. Around 55 percent of the entrance classes of law schools were women. But unfortunately, our profession has so disenfranchised women that fewer and fewer are going to law schools, because they have been hearing from women who are practicing that this really is not a very hospitable profession for women; it’s not a hospitable profession for minorities either.

I would imagine that people of color are also hearing that it is not the most inclusive and welcoming profession. And so, if you’re going to invest three years of time, you might want to do something else. We have to change that. We are a much better profession when we have the best and the brightest talents, and the best and the brightest talents come from all walks of life.

hernandezHernandez: We have to get our economy back up so that people who might not be as advantaged can go to law school. I had to work my way through undergrad, and I worked through law school. Right now, it’s just not enough.

From what I understand from discussing with my colleagues, law schools are recognizing two things: that they’re not getting enough diverse candidates, and they’re also just not getting enough students. So they are enhancing the scholarships available for students interested in going to law school.

Q: A culturally competent person is one who takes into account individual cultural perspectives that may affect a person’s behavior. Knowing this, why is it important that lawyers possess a certain amount of cultural competence? And can a lack of cultural competence actually inhibit you in the courtroom?

Wimes: I think cultural competence is linked with emotional maturity and emotional intelligence, and lawyers who possess cultural competence have the qualitative skills that enable them to help foster a nuanced and inclusive environment. That includes their ability to talk across differences, to engage in dialogue and create cultures and teams that are based on varied experiences and identities. So it’s important when you’re trying to put together a client service team that can actually service a client, that you have different perspectives and people from multiple backgrounds and experiences.

I do think it can inhibit your ability in the courtroom. If you’re not culturally competent, it can impact the jury selection process — what you are picking up on, what you are not picking up on. If you’re not culturally competent and you don’t understand the nuances of difference, it can negatively impact your performance as a lawyer.

axelrodAxelrod: It’s important to have cultural competence because you’re far more likable and attractive … when you are [culturally competent]. And it helps you grow a client base, seal deals, settle cases. When you try cases, it makes you a better lawyer and better advocate, more liked by the judge and by the jury.

One thing I think juries are extremely good at is judging people. So, if you come into the courtroom and you really are a very open and inclusive person who would never treat anybody differently, that’s something that translates positively to a juror.

We all come from different backgrounds; we are men and women from different cultures, religions, races, and sexual identities, and it’s important for us — if we want to build a client base — to understand that the people who are communicating with us want to feel, first and foremost, like their lawyer understands them and their concerns. And it’s really not going to happen, the relationship’s not going to be built and grow, if the [client] doesn’t feel like their lawyer is connecting with them.

Hernandez: At my firm, we view diversity to be inclusive of cultural competency as a standard of excellence, so for us it’s like any other standard of excellence — knowledge of the law, knowledge of the facts, being aware of any other social changes. We view it as part of a big picture for an attorney.

We think to the extent that you have that knowledge — and not just baseline knowledge, but a pretty deep understanding of issues of diversity, of how they affect your client or how they might affect the court’s view or a jury’s view — that makes you a better lawyer.

Q: What is the best advice you received in law school, and what advice do you have for current law school students and graduates searching and interviewing for jobs? How can they make themselves more employable and stand out amongst their peers?

Wimes: I think the best advice is the advice I probably gave myself after my first year of law school, which was basically to loosen up and really try to enjoy the process. I hated my first year of law school, and I almost quit because it was really difficult for me. I was just so concerned with my grades that I wasn’t really enjoying the process and learning for learning’s sake. Once I loosened up, I started to enjoy the process; I got much more out of the experience and, ironically, did much better academically as well.

I think my best advice for people who are graduating and interviewing for jobs is they need to get a copy of this book by Richard Susskind. It’s called Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future. I would suggest that every person who’s about to graduate law school read this book because it allows them to learn about the pressing issues that are facing the legal industry right now.

Axelrod: I don’t think I got this advice, but I’m going to give the best advice I can give to people who are graduating. This is the advice I always give out, and that is that you will become successful in direct proportion to the number of people who care about you, believe in you, and want to see you succeed.

You also obviously need to be good at what you do. But the two components you have the most control over are both of those things, and most people concentrate on the first one, which is getting good at what you do. But I would submit that you’ve really also got to concentrate on building that group of people, and it should be an ever-expanding circle of those who believe in you, care about you, and want to see you succeed. People use the word networking, and it scares some because it sounds so formal. Networking is really about building relationships. It’s professional, quote unquote, friendships, and actually, these can be very dear friendships.

What you want to do is get to know the people in your class, get to know your professors, get to know the people with whom you’re interviewing. You want to get to know them and follow up with them, keep that growth happening. … Don’t think that the job you have now is a reason to stop doing that.

The last thing I would add is, when people ask you for a favor, do it — to the extent you possibly can — because you are teaching them that you are a great counselor and you’re a great adviser. And one day, when they actually need to hire a lawyer or they need to recommend somebody, they’re going to come to you because you were the person [with whom] they sought counsel for all these years, and you always gave them great advice.

For more questions and answers, check out the Lawyer Roundtable from the July/August issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.