Diversity Matures At Law Firms: Ask Sarah Reid

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 01:00

Editor: You are the chair of Kelley Drye's diversity and inclusion committee and the first woman partner at the firm. How has the definition of diversity changed over the years?

Reid: Our understanding of diversity has deepened and become much more sophisticated. When I first started practicing law, diversity was very much tied to how you were perceived by others - what color was your skin, what was your gender? Diversity was a term that set you apart from the norm, but now we understand that diversity means something quite different. Diversity includes and values differences that often are not visible, and these can include cultural and religious differences and sexual orientation as well as gender and ethnic background. In today's more global economy, we no longer assume we know a person simply because we know what they look like. We understand that diversity comes in an infinite variety of forms.

Editor: Are there certain common challenges that incoming attorneys of diverse backgrounds face today?

Reid: The primary challenge is for all people to find a comfort zone at the workplace, and for that to happen, mentoring still is the key. Everyone needs a guiding hand when they start, but it can be more of a challenge for attorneys of diverse background to find that hand. So, Kelley Drye supports a variety of strong mentoring programs.

Editor: What are some of the mentoring programs in which Kelley Drye is active?

Reid: Many of our lawyers are active participants in the Practicing Attorneys for Law Students (PALS) program, which assists with career development in the legal profession. Through our partnership with PALS, 18 attorneys currently mentor minority law students from participating law schools in New York. As part of the PALS program, the firm sponsors the annual Mock Interview/Resume Workshop for law students of color. Kelley Drye attorneys role-play as interviewers during the workshop to give the students practice in honing career development skills.

Within the firm we have two different kinds of mentoring programs: one for any associates who do not have assigned mentors, and the other for the first full year of practice. For our unassigned associates, we have mentoring circles, where groups of associates meet regularly to talk with each other and to form friendships, which often last the entire time they are at the firm and for the duration of their careers. After associates are assigned mentors, we have a more formal program with partners and more senior associates, who meet regularly and work with junior associates on developing their careers.

Editor: In addition to mentoring, I understand Kelley Drye has a "generational differences" program that seems to be an innovative initiative. Can you describe this in greater detail?

Reid: For the first time, this year we are conducting a generational differences program in all of our offices to work on increasing effective communication among attorneys of different generations. It's part of our comprehensive awareness of increasing the comfort zone for all of the people who are part of the Kelley Drye community.

We are using a consultant, Dr. Arin Reeves, anexpert in the field of intergenerational communication. Her consulting firm specializes in diversity strategies for the legal profession, which includes generational differences. She meets with partners and associates in individual groups - partner groups, associate groups - to identify differences in communication styles. She then facilitates discussions in combined sessions with partners and associates. It has been fascinating. One particularly striking observation is that there are generational differences in the preferred ways of communication. The younger generation is much more comfortable with the new technologies of instant messaging, text-messaging, emailing, blogging and Internet social networking.

Editor: Addressing generational differences touches upon recruiting, which can involve lawyers in earlier stages of their careers. What are some of the diversity related activities you participate in with regards to recruiting?

Reid: In New York, Kelley Drye takes part in career fairs, such as the Northeast Black Law Students Association (BALSA) job fair, and the Lavender Law career fair, which is for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) associates. We also sponsor a New York City Bar diversity fellow. The fellowship program is highly competitive and places first-year law students from historically under-represented populations (including minorities and those of disadvantaged economic status) from 11 New York City law schools with law firms and corporate departments. In the firm's D.C. office, we participate in job fairs and host events such as the "Kelley Drye Mock Interview Week," a mock interview program for minority students at Georgetown University Law Center, Howard University School of Law and George Washington University School of Law. We also host an annual summer associate diversity reception. Kelley Drye takes many steps to get our name out in the community to recruit diverse attorneys and it has been very gratifying. We have received greater visibility and more inquiries, which is a good two-way street - for both Kelley Drye and the diverse candidates interested in pursuing careers in law.

Editor: I also recall that you have an innovative summer associate program with JP MorganChase. What does that program offer?

Sarah: We are continuing with a program, launched last year by JP MorganChase, to increase diversity among attorneys in the financial services area. Law students from diverse backgrounds in the summer associates program have the opportunity to spend five weeks at the firm and five weeks at JP MorganChase's legal department. The program provides people of different backgrounds with greater opportunities to enter careers in the financial industry.

Editor: Not only recruiting but also retaining quality attorneys in later stages of their careers can require specific attention. Are there other steps Kelley Drye takes to retain diverse attorneys?

Reid: We have a diversity administrator, Ayanna Ryans. While she is located in New York, she works with all of our offices to ensure that the diverse associates' concerns are being heard and met. Associates are an integral part of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, of which I am the chair.

Last year, we had several diverse clients speak to our associates about their experiences, providing perspectives and career guidance. The firm also has a very active women's affinity group, Women at KDW, comprising associate women lawyers, who have regular meetings and programs several times a year in D.C. and New York. We also sponsor and encourage our attorneys to participate in the New York and D.C. Minority Attorney Networking Series, which hosts quarterly events. At these programs, minority attorneys in both cities get together to hear distinguished speakers, and network and connect for mentoring, career and business development purposes. We make an effort to support diversity initiatives, especially the ones the associates bring to our attention. We also do our basic nuts and bolts work of keeping policies up to date and making sure work assignments are distributed appropriately, and just recently, in terms of policies being kept up to date, we've enhanced our parental leave policy.

We actively support various diversity networking organizations, beyond the recruiting phase. For example, we recently hosted a Cafécito that was extremely well-attended. ("Cafécito" is a series of informal networking breakfasts for Latina women attorneys in New York's public and private sectors, from the corporate, judiciary and academic arenas.)

The firm is a member of the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (ALFDP), an organization created to facilitate networking and to share best practices of law firm diversity professionals nationwide. Our membership assists us in staying on top of the issues, needs, and concerns of the diverse attorneys currently in the legal industry, as well as those still in the pipeline. In this way, we hope to proactively address these issues, instead of simply reacting to them.

Editor: In addition to supporting diversity at the professional level, Kelley Drye is active in diversity programs, starting in the high schools. What are some of the programs in which your firm is involved?

Reid: We have internships through the Cristo Rey corporate work-study program, where high school students come during the school year and work in various administrative departments at Kelley Drye to gain workplace experience and to help pay their school tuition. In the summer, we participate in similar arrangements with both the Inner-city Scholarship Fund Job Opportunity Program and the Thurgood Marshall Summer Law Internship Program. High school students work at Kelley Drye and gain exposure to the work of a law firm. It's important to reach out to those even younger than the college level - to the community. These programs help young people to see that there are opportunities going forward and that they can plan for college and for many career possibilities. The experiences teach them that "they can." They are bright and motivated and are an asset to the firm. They are mature, interesting individuals, and it's wonderful to have them here.

Editor: How has the country's economy affected the firm's commitment to diversity?

Reid: If anything, the economic turbulence that the global economy is experiencing has only added greater emphasis to our beliefs in the importance of diversity. We are all in this economic situation together. It certainly is not the time to retreat from our strong belief that diverse perspectives are essential to prospering in today's world. The global nature of today's economic challenges emphasizes our need for tapping into the pluralistic, multi-talented pool of lawyers.

Editor: Why is diversity so important to Kelley Drye?

Reid: We live in a world where, because of the Internet and the Web, we can communicate with someone in Africa or Asia as easily as we can communicate with someone in the office next door. Kelley Drye represents businesses all over the world, and the diversity of our attorneys is a big plus. Acknowledging our differences and using them as a value-added for our client needs is one of the keys to our firm's success.

Please email the interviewee at sreid@kelleydrye with questions about the program.