Meet 7 diversity leaders who are fighting for equity and inclusion in Big Law and the advice they have for firms

For women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, the legal industry has historically been a tough place to succeed, with Big Law, the group of top law firms in the country, remaining a “boys’ club” for mostly straight white men.

The industry has improved in recent decades in regard to diversity and inclusion: In 2018, minority associate representation increased to 24.2% in law firms, up from 19.5% in 2010, and women have made up about half of law-firm associates for at least a decade, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

But there is still a long way to go: While many law firms tout the racial and gender diversity of their summer associate class and early-career ranks, firm partnerships and leadership teams are still overwhelmingly white and male, and well-known LGBTQ attorneys remain few and far between.

Law firms in the past few years have faced pressure to address these concerns, from clients who want their legal matters staffed with a diverse team to law-school groups demonstrating outside law offices to former attorneys alleging gender and racial discrimination in highly publicized lawsuits. They have also been called on to publicly address important social issues such as police brutality after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police last year.

Internally, law firms are now turning to diversity experts as vital members of the management team who can shape firm policy, work with associates from marginalized groups, and ingrain diversity and inclusion into every level of their organizations. Mostly lawyers themselves, these executives are working to make the $795 billion global legal industry a more equitable place.

To recognize the increased importance of these executives, Insider has selected seven of the most influential diversity and inclusion leaders at the country’s top law firms. Each was chosen based on initiatives they’ve spearheaded, conversations with legal-industry experts, and how their current and former firms stack up on industry surveys such as Vault’s Best Law Firms for Diversity.

Six of the diversity professionals shared with Insider their unique strategies to diversity and inclusion at a Big Law firm and what they were focusing on in 2021.

Maja Hazell, White & Case’s global head of diversity and inclusion, is working to move the conversation beyond just diversity and inclusion to equity and belonging. T499_Hazell_Maja_Pub_c Maja Hazell



It’s time for firms to think beyond diversity and inclusion and create a true feeling of equity and belonging within law firms, said Hazell, who spearheaded Fried Frank’s diversity and inclusion efforts for more than six years before moving to White & Case in 2014.

The legal industry is still too focused on the idea of meritocracy, where everyone is given opportunities to succeed and the best will naturally rise to the top, she said. But that works only if everyone comes to the table with equal footing, which is almost never the case if you’re working to bring a diverse group of people into your workforce.

“You can bring in diverse numbers at the junior ranks and be super inclusive, with initiatives to include them, events to acknowledge who they are, and diversity committees,” she said. “But if  you don’t feel like you belong in that environment because you don’t get certain signals to feel like you belong, you won’t feel like you fit in and do your best work.”

With Hazell at the helm, White & Case achieved Mansfield Certification Plus status last year, a gold standard in the legal industry that law firms can earn if they have considered women, attorneys of color, people in the LGBTQ community, and lawyers with disabilities for at least 30% of leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client-pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions.’

Read more: Rumblings of racism at a famous civil-rights law firm highlight the lack of diversity at the firms that are supposed to fight for the oppressed

The firm is also one of 10 best law firms for diversity, according to Vault.

Hazell said one thing she was focusing on was teaching leadership and management skills to partners and empowering them to lean into uncomfortable conversations, like the history of slavery in the US and that people in the country are treated differently based on their skin color.

“It’s not just including you, it’s cultivating a sense of belonging,” she said.

Genhi Givings Bailey, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Perkins Coie, has focused on diverse recruiting and retaining at all levels, which has helped her firm land big clients like Microsoft. Bailey.Genhi (color) Genhi Givings Bailey



Bailey has helped Perkins Coie win big clients like Microsoft and Intel, which expect their issues to be staffed by a diverse set of professionals, through her efforts to increase the number of diverse attorneys at all levels at the firm.

Microsoft recognized Perkins Coie as the top-performing firm in its 2020 Law Firm Diversity Program and said the firm’s partnership was made up of nearly 44% women, ethnic minorities, people in the LGBTQ community, and lawyers with disabilities. This representation is up 10% from five years ago. 

Bailey says she’s most proud of the work her firm has done to increase the diversity of lateral hires: In 2018, 58% of lateral hires were women, lawyers of color, and people in the LGBTQ community. In 2020, the percentage grew to 72%.

Read more: An inside look at how Big Law firm Perkins Coie built up a diverse attorney base, winning major clients like Microsoft and Intel

“The other part of that win is that we’re starting to see the benefit of that diversity: With critical mass comes more contacts and a better ability to attract and recruit even more diverse talent,” she said. “We’re increasing our ability to do that outreach and can better attract and retain attorneys by the number of people we’re recruiting to the firm now.”

Perkins Coie also earned a Mansfield Certification Plus in 2020, which only 67 other firms received.

Going into the new year, Bailey said she was focusing on including law-firm staff, like secretaries, business-side professionals, and paralegals, in diversity initiatives so everyone is represented.

“Law firm DEI initiatives have historically not included staff, which is a missed opportunity,” she said.

Anna Brown, Baker McKenzie’s global director of diversity and inclusion, says when a firm has offices around the world, it’s important to tailor its approach to the needs and cultures of different regions. Anna Brown cropped Anna Brown



With 77 offices in 46 countries, Brown’s role at Baker McKenzie extends beyond US issues — even in a year like 2020, when protests over the police killings of Floyd and Taylor grabbed international headlines. She says global diversity and inclusion work isn’t one-size-fits-all but that many issues, like gender, race, and doing work to champion underrepresented groups, are experienced worldwide.

“The issues are the same, but how we address them are different because cultures and experiences are different,” she said. 

This can be challenging to coordinate, especially after the coronavirus pandemic halted most travel. Brown says it’s key to make sure you’re not “exporting” US problems and solutions but rather being mindful of regions that have different cultures and contexts for issues to brew. 

“People don’t always realize there are D&I discussions happening around the world, so it’s important to be a part of what’s already taking place,” she said.

Her approach has paid off: Baker McKenzie in 2019 was named the best international firm for women in business law for the third year in a row by Euromoney, and the firm achieved Mansfield Certification Plus.

Brown said that as everyone began working from home in early 2020 because of the pandemic, she was proud of the way members of the global mentorship program for younger minority lawyers continued to work with one another and create a “culture of sponsorship” at the firm, even virtually.

“It’s important, even during COVID, that we are still reaching out, engaging people, and making sure they are getting good opportunities,” she said. “This has helped us be strategic in terms of a good range of work to do, learning, and progressing.”

Yusuf Zakir, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Davis Wright Tremaine, communicates regularly with other D&I professionals and is involved in external organizations, which helps him shape his own work. Yusuf Zakir Yusuf Zakir



Zakir is using his network and experience working at a handful of Big Law firms to drive momentum at Davis Wright Tremaine, where 71% of practice leaders are diverse and half the firm’s management committee is minority lawyers.

Zakir, who joined the firm in October from Holland & Knight, recently finished a two-year term for the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, the go-to organization for fellow Big Law diversity executives and a space that fosters communication and collaboration in the industry. He held this role while working full time as a diversity and inclusion professional.

“The organization provides a family of D&I professionals who can rely on one another and support one another,” he said, adding that the group shares ideas freely and offers monthly seminars and continuing education opportunities.

“If one of us is succeeding, everyone is succeeding, and this is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “We’re trying to change the way a profession thinks about these topics and what they commit to.”

Zakir says these resources will be crucial to continuing the momentum of Davis Wright Tremaine’s diversity efforts: In addition to its share of minority lawyers in leadership positions, the firm earned the Mansfield Certification Plus last year.

Read more: Big Law career guide: The top trends to watch for the legal job market, from what practice areas are faring the best to how they’re stepping up on diversity

After seeing what was possible in corporate America, Sylvia James, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Winston & Strawn, took that blueprint into law firms. James_Sylvia_DC_Color_Cropped Sylvia James



James says law firms are decades behind corporate America in regard to diversity and inclusion. But that has an upside: There are opportunities to see what’s already working at large companies and use that knowledge to make law firms a better place.

That’s how James approached making the switch in 2006 from being a lawyer in Holland & Knight’s corporate-diversity counseling group, where she advised Fortune 500 companies and large organizations, to tackling those same issues for Big Law firms. 

“My approach to law-firm diversity was influenced by the comprehensive ways corporations looked at diversity and the work I did with them when I was still practicing,” she said, adding that by working with clients over multiple years, she saw them try different things, adjust their approaches, find what worked, and then see the results of that work.

That got her excited about doing the same thing at a law firm.

Read more: The 25 best large companies for diversity in 2020, according to employees

After nearly 11 years at Baker Botts, where she started the firm’s diversity group “without a job description,” James moved to Winston & Strawn in 2017 and has since helped the firm promote a new partner class, of which 46% of new partners were women and three were women of color, and recruit a summer associate class where 47% of participants were racially and ethnically diverse and 20% were Black.

“Something I’m most excited about is the strength of our current pipeline and the high-performing, high-potential women and racial-minority associates,” she said. “When I think, ‘Who’s up next?’ there’s a deep bench of people.”

Leslie Richards-Yellen, the global director of diversity and inclusion at Debevoise, has made data a hallmark of her work. RichardsYellen_Leslie Leslie Richards-Yellen



Richards-Yellen has been at Debevoise for only six months, but her work has long caught the attention of recruiters and consultants. Before the move, she was a diversity director at Hogan Lovells for four years, and she was a diversity leader at Hinshaw & Culbertson while practicing full time as a partner for nearly a decade.

Though Richards-Yellen was unavailable for comment, Dustin Laws, a managing director at the recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, told Insider her hire was “quite a win” for Debevoise and that she and her team at Hogan Lovells were known for taking a data-driven approach to diversity and inclusion.

“It’s about looking more holistically and comprehensively at changes that can be made that affect the softer side of how firms operate and engage with clients,” he said. He added that while collecting diversity and inclusion data was only a starting point, the numbers were a “means to motivate and change the way a firm thinks.”

During Richards-Yellen’s time at Hogan Lovells, the firm increased its percentage of female partners globally to 26% and racially and ethnically diverse partners to 12%, according to the firm’s website, up from 23% and 8.4% in 2016, respectively.

Additionally, 44% of the firm’s new partner class in 2020 were women, and the 2018 summer associate class was 53% racially and ethnically diverse.

Read more: Female partners in Big Law make $332,000 less than male partners on average. But 1 change has been shown to increase women’s salaries by more than 40% — and boost their happiness as well.

Kathy Bowman-Williams, the director of diversity and inclusion at Baker Botts, said that years of handling discrimination and harassment claims in corporate America made her passionate about the D&I profession. kbw profile pic (2).JPG Kathy Bowman-Williams



Bowman-Williams began working at Verizon in 2006 handling discrimination and harassment matters, and she said the experience introduced her to the diversity profession.

“I ended up in diversity and inclusion because I was young and saddened that my caseload of discrimination and harassment claims continued to grow,” she said. “People didn’t know how to engage and interact with one another.”

Now at Baker Botts, Bowman-Williams says she’s most excited about her firm entering a three-year partnership with Official Black Wall Street to provide $10 million in legal services to a network of 5,500 Black-owned businesses. Since moving to the legal industry, she said she found law firms were primarily focused on partners and clients, unlike in corporate America, which has more outward-facing initiatives.

But with partnerships like the one with Official Black Wall Street, which was finalized in September after months of planning following the Floyd protests, she said Baker Botts could be a leader in broadening the way law firms think about diversity and inclusion.

“We could have taken the easy road by making a donation to a legal-defense fund, but we decided to take a stand to see how else we could help the African American community,” she said. “This is a commitment that went beyond the idea of ‘social justice’ and asked how we could help grow and develop a community of individuals.”

Bowman-Williams spent eight years as a leader on Verizon’s diversity team before moving to Morgan Stanley in 2014 as a vice president of diversity and inclusion. She then headed diversity and inclusion at the law firm Day Pitney for a year and a half before moving to Baker Botts in April 2018.

“It’s my passion to support and serve people as well as my organization and make sure people are given the right opportunities and chances to succeed as everyone else,” she said.

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