The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession is well-documented. Over three decades of practice, I’ve concluded that—while policies, D&I initiatives, affinity groups, and corporate directives are all important—the only way we will meaningfully make change is to do it ourselves. In practical terms, this means that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) attorneys, and those who choose to champion them, can’t wait for institutions to make change and give us a slice of the pie. We need to make more pie.
It is so easy for us to help each other succeed, get promotions and better jobs, land business, win awards, and just plain be better and more successful lawyers. But most folks don’t think they have time, or that they yet have the resources.
Are you early in your career and feel you’re barely treading water? You can still lift others. Whether you were just sworn in, have been practicing a few years and don’t know where you fit, are gunning for partner, or are a major rainmaker, newly in-house, or working your way up the corporate ladder, you can make a difference.
When I was a second-year lawyer, I met a really nice first year, Lupe, who was grinding it out in BigLaw like me. But I had twice as much experience! Lupe used me as her sounding board in the discovery battles typically on a young litigator’s docket. I always made time to help, not because I wanted anything from Lupe, but because I enjoyed the strategy and talking with my friend.
A few years later, after I started my law firm, Lupe called. She said she’d gone in-house and hired me for a small matter, which led to bigger matters, which led to more work from other lawyers at the company. There’s a lot more to this story, but the point is that 30 years ago I helped Lupe because I could. Later, she opened a door for me because she could. I still had to do great legal work, but without her opening the door, I would never have had the chance.
Because I know so many folks, I’ve helped many law firm associates land in-house jobs, and some in-house lawyers land better jobs. There’s a perspective that having done so, I should expect them to send me work as outside counsel. I don’t even ask. If they are able and want to, I figure they will. If they can’t—for whatever reason—I certainly don’t want them to feel bad. But I’m shameless in asking them to help other folks by mentoring, telling them about available jobs, or providing career success advice. If they won’t do that, I will definitely hold a grudge (just kidding, a little). I do this because increasing opportunity for lawyers of color is important to me. Magically, lots of folks want to send me work or otherwise do well.
If you hear about a good event, or read a good article, share! You get invited to speak and can’t make it, share! If you hear of a job or career opportunity that isn’t for you, share! If someone is seeking business or a job from someplace you have intel, share! Help others succeed. Build a community around you of lawyers who help others succeed. This is how we make more pie. If you’re in-house and want to help increase opportunity for diverse lawyers in law firms, you can find ideas here.
An associate I mentor asked a delicate question. “If I help my competitors, won’t that mean less opportunity for me?” That’s a common view held by lawyers who complain about how its someone else’s fault they can’t develop business. Sure, the deck is stacked against us as lawyers of color in BigLaw or at minority-owned law firms—there’s not enough pie. The solution isn’t to grab at the last piece and whine that there’s no more.
The solution is to make more pie!
I mostly represent Fortune 500 companies. I’ve seen Calls to Action and Letters to Law Firm Leaders by General Counsels. I’ve been to a gazillion “diversity mixers” sponsored by corporate law departments. And I’ve seen Rooney Rules, Diversity Hackathons, Diverse Counsel Lists, and innumerable other efforts to increase opportunity for lawyers of color in major law firms. And I’ve seen them all make little change for lawyers of color, which is mostly lost with each recession, like the one we’re in now.
I’ve seen that efforts by individual lawyers to share opportunities are what make the difference. All day, every day.
How do you do that, even if you feel you have no power, network, or influence?
First, own the responsibility. Mentor young lawyers and law students of color. Share opportunities. Celebrate one another’s success. On LinkedIn you’ll see me congratulating direct competitors for awards, trial wins, and other successes. Their success doesn’t preclude mine; their success means I have many successful friends. Don’t worry about competition. Just focus on building your skills (both as a lawyer and at client service) AND creating opportunities for others. And like biblical bread upon the waters, it will come back to you. Does it work in the real world? Yes! My whole career is built on this. My law firm is built on this. Also my broad and powerful network of professional friendships is built on this. My Fortune 500 client base is built on this.
Let me tell you about one of my competitors. We both do the same type of work in California, compete for the same clients, and our rate structures are likely pretty similar. Not only that, but she’s at a large full-service firm and handles a broader array of matters than I do. She’s an excellent lawyer; she’s smart and funny, a powerful public speaker, and a major rainmaker. Like me, she’s an employment trial lawyer. We are both active in the National Employment Law Council (NELC), an amazing network of minority, management-side labor and employment lawyers. Did I mention we compete for the same clients?
Her name is Laura Maechtlen. She’s been active for many years in the Hispanic National Bar Association, LGBT Bar, and NELC. Any time I have ever asked her to mentor a young BIPOC lawyer or to speak to a group of diverse law firm associates in the NELC Academy about business development (or anything else for that matter), Laura has immediately said yes.
Unlike a lot of my successful lawyer friends and acquaintances who do the same work I do, if Laura sees a LinkedIn post I’ve done, she will comment on it, amplifying my voice to her network, which is even bigger than mine. In other words, like me, Laura isn’t worried about the competition. Laura is a powerful advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion within her law firm—Seyfarth Shaw—and the ranks of their partnership and leadership are proof of her success. Laura lifts others. We need more Lauras in this world.
Laura and I are in the business of making more pie even as we take care of the business of our law firms. That is why I’m talking about her here. We need to celebrate champions like Laura, so they have even greater opportunities to champion others.
Maybe you’re wondering if Richard and Laura are besties or have been tight for decades. Nope. We’ve never had a one-on-one meeting, never went to school or worked together. But I’ve known her for years and had ample opportunity to see who she is and what she does, and I want her to have a bigger voice, more clients, and more influence. Because we are making more pie.
Pitch in. Help us make more pie.
This is my first blog post. There will be more every few weeks. You can find them, and some other things I hope will be helpful, at www.ColorOfLaw.US. We’ll talk about how to land clients, deliver amazing client service that will get your clients (and partners or business partners) raving about you. We’ll talk about going in-house, changing firms, getting laid off, and having difficult workplace conversations. And we’ll talk more about how creating opportunities for others advances your career.
This blog is targeted toward young lawyers of color, based on what I’ve learned the hard way and mentoring scores of young lawyers. I will be brutally honest. I’ve seen too many young lawyers of color told they are doing fine and to just keep doing what they’re doing—right up to the point where they are out of a job or find that they are miserable grinding it out in a job they detest. I will give you the real deal from my perspective.
My goal is for you to find your place in our profession—where you feel valued and accomplished and are doing work you enjoy. It is only my perspective, though, and I’m eager to learn; if you think I’m missing something or got something wrong, please let me know.