Atlanta Meeting Focuses|on Law Firm Diversity

     ATLANTA (CN) – Corporate law firms have made much of their interest in diversity , yet their efforts have been far from fruitful, particularly for black female attorneys, according to the founder of an organization advocating for those lawyers.
     “Over the years, there have been multiple pronouncements about these commitments,” said Trish Treadwell, president of the Leadership Institute for Women of Color Attorneys and chair of its 11th annual conference, which was held recently in Atlanta.
     Treadwell was referring to a 1999-2000 statement of principle and subsequent call-to-action by Fortune 500 companies.
     “Yet, as of even March 1 of this year, we still see a lack of women of color in large law firms and in in-house legal departments. Focusing on identifying specific action items for the development of leadership strategies was my biggest goal of the conference,” she said.
     Since the mid-1980s, more than 40 percent of law school graduates have been women, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.
     Yet a 2015 survey by the organization revealed that women only account for eighteen percent of equity partners in the Am Law 200 firms ranging in size from 150 to 4,000 lawyers and revenues from $85 million to $2 billion.
     The survey also found women also earn only 80 percent of what their male colleagues earn.
     “At the end of the day, regardless of one’s desires, business is business, and they’re going to do what is best for the business at the moment,” Treadwell added.
     Treadwell is a full-time partner at an Atlanta law firm, a wife, and mother to an eight-month-old. All of the work she does for the Leadership Institute is volunteer.
     “We don’t have women of color attorneys who are well trained and in positions of power. If we don’t have these women who are already in the position to step in when a leadership role opens up, then that’s not going to be the choice that’s made,” Treadwell said.
     The Leadership Institute and its annual conference help to prepare women of color attorneys so that they are on the shortlist when a position opens up.
     “Right now, women of color attorneys are not on the shortlist. We help attorneys find the network and the contacts so that they can get there. You need to know the executive committee members at your law firm, you need to fully understand all aspects of the business you may have been hired as an employee lawyer, but you need to understand the whole business. It’s these kind of things that allow a person to grow as a leader in their organizations,” Treadwell said.
     Charles Huddleston, who is of counsel for Nelson Mullins, was on the conference’s men’s panel, which featured senior male attorneys who gave their perspectives on building allies across genders, as well as pitfalls women must avoid to pursue career goals.
     Huddleston told Courthouse News “I think they’re a lot of law firms who are and have been trying to build diversity, but the numbers show that they’re not making much progress. Corporations need to incentivize their senior attorneys in power. For instance, big law firms need to tell partners and high-level employees that they need to integrate women of color, or they will not receive their year-end bonuses.”
      Courthouse News reached out to a large, Delaware-based corporate law firm, Potter Anderson, to see what the firm has done to encourage diversity. William Chapman, the firm’s chief talent and diversity officer, said the firms understands the importance of diversity.
     “For example, we annually sponsor and participate in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast and Day of Service hosted by the Delaware State Bar Association, in addition to numerous other local events. Internally, our active Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosts programs throughout the year,” he said.
     Chapman said the firm invited Dr. Lozelle DeLuz, one of the first blacks to own a McDonald’s franchise, to speak to firm employees.
     “[Additionally], one of our associates, Bindu Palapura, is a board member of the Southeast Asian Bar Association of Delaware, and was chosen for the 2016 class of Leadership Council on Legal Diversity Pathfinders, a new program to train early-career attorneys in critical career development strategies.
     The institute is one of the only organizations in the U.S. that is national in scope and spotlights women of color in the legal profession. Held in Atlanta, one of the most thriving cities in the U.S. for women of color attorneys, many conference attendees currently live and work at law firms in Atlanta. Others traveled from cities across the U.S.
     “Overwhelmingly when studies are done on women of color attorneys in the workplace, it’s found that these women often feel isolated because there are very few people like them in their organizations,” Treadwell said. “At this conference, attendees have the opportunity to connect with potential clients, future employers, and with each other. This conference serves as a kind of a touchstone to see that, ‘I’m not crazy. This happened to you too?’ This is an opportunity for women to connect and to know they’re not alone.”
     The conference’s keynote speaker, Lori Lightfoot, flew in from from Chicago where she serves as chair of the Chicago Police Board, and as a trial attorney, investigator, risk manager, and partner at Mayer Brown.
     Lightfoot was raised in Ohio by parents who were blacks from the Jim Crowe South.
     “My parents raised me to know that nothing can hold me back except me,” Lightfoot told an enthused and receptive crowd at the Ritz Carlton over lunch.
     Lightfoot later told Courthouse News that this mantra is both “nuanced” and “complicated.” When Lightfoot graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1989, in Chicago there were many blacks who had college educations going back generations, she said.
     “Yet, many believed their destinies were very much defined by race. We’re talking upper middle class black folks who believed they could only do so much or go so far because they were black. My parents raised us in a very different way. I am not naïve, but I was raised not to let race or gender hold me back.”
     Lightfoot continued: “I didn’t see much optimism about being able to build bridges and overcome obstacles. But I’m just not wired that way. I see hurdles every day, but I develop strategies to overcome those hurdles. It’s so important to define success on your own terms.”
     Later, Lightfoot reflected on why she feels events like the conference are important.
     “To bring women of color in from big firms, small firms- it’s a wonderful and affirming opportunity that eliminates the feeling of isolation,” Lightfoot said. “This is even before you get into the content of the conference itself. It’s helpful for the women to see other women, particularly women of color, who are very successful; to have role models that have walked the same path.”

%d bloggers like this: