Practicing Diversity: A 25-Year Tradition At Weil

Monday, February 1, 2010 - 01:00

Editor: In 2009, Weil, Gotshal celebrated 25 years of maintaining a diversity policy, the first major law firm to adopt such a policy. How do you account for this early emphasis on diversity for the Firm?

Moore: In many ways, it is the history of the Firm. Back in the 1930s, Weil was founded by Jewish attorneys because established, white-shoe firms were not hospitable places for Jewish lawyers. The Firm created an environment of inclusion and equal opportunity, which effectively was its own diversity policy. Over the years many of the partners were very involved in the larger issues around establishing diversity within the profession. In fact, Ira Millstein, a Senior Partner, was chair of the "Millstein Committee," one of the New York City Bar's early committees designed to address issues of gender and racial/ethnic minority diversity in the profession. Weil served as a demonstration project for this committee's development of diversity policies and training.

Editor: You mention that a Diversity Training Program was developed. Please tell our readers some of the history of this program and the current direction it is taking.

Moore: Historically, we didn't label it "diversity;" it was referred to as "professional conduct," although both address essentially the same issues. The overarching framework created a culture of professionalism and respect for all attorneys and staff irrespective of demographics or background. The composition of law school classes was not the driving factor then. The major motivation was fairness and equal opportunity. Now it's not only about being the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do. The top talent coming out of law schools is incredibly diverse. Our clients are incredibly diverse and ask us to report to them on our diversity and inclusion efforts. Initially, it was much more focused on giving opportunities to underrepresented groups to launch their careers. The focus has expanded now to developing and advancing the diverse talent that we have.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the affinity groups at the Firm. What are some of their goals and projects?

Moore: For a number of years we have had five professional development affinity groups: Women, Asians Americans, African Americans, Latinos and LGBT. Each has a mission statement, and each is charged with recruitment, retention, advancement, development of their members as well as strengthening client relationships. The groups have had periodic retreats and strategic planning sessions where they indentify priorities for the future. For example, recently Asian Attorneys at Weil and Women@Weil have focused on increasing client development skills. Latinos@Weil, WEGALA (LGBT), and the Black Attorneys Affinity Group have leveraged pro bono and community service opportunities to simultaneously foster group bonding and giving back.

Editor: Tell us how the affinity groups and the Firm as a whole have responded to current challenges.

Moore: Our diversity policy is very broad and all encompassing - looking both inward at our Firm's culture and outward to client development and community service. Annually, the diversity committee reviews our successes and looks ahead to how to address the current challenges. For example, as we were entering the difficult economic climate last year, we decided to focus on two primary areas: community and client service. We redoubled our effort to help the disadvantaged in the communities in which we live and work, particularly those who were most heavily impacted by the declining economy. Our affinity groups and the Firm as a whole participated in numerous hands-on community activities. For example, we hosted two groups of Girl Scouts from middle schools in the South Bronx for career days through their Career Exploration Program. We coached them about different job opportunities in law firms, the value of studying and the importance of staying in school. Also, for the first time, we hosted Girls Inc. College Shower for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who are going to college and need assistance to pay for basic supplies. We also participated in Disability Mentoring Day, where New Yorkers who have disabilities ranging from mental to physical disabilities "shadow" attorneys and staff to learn about different careers at the Firm. An additional benefit to this activity is that our attorneys and our staff bond with each other while giving back to the community.

Editor: Are the affinity group members involved in other pro bono activities?

Moore: Many of our affinity group members are active participants in our pro bono legal activities. These efforts supplement the legal services we provide, allowing both attorneys and staff to give back in additional ways. Our affinity groups spearheaded these activities to foster networking and mentoring relationships within the Firm.

Editor: How do the affinity groups strengthen client relationships?

Moore: Our second area of focus this year was to connect more meaningfully with clients through our diversity efforts. Our Asian affinity group and our Women's affinity group held strategic planning sessions where they identified business development as an important priority for members of those groups. We conducted informal focus groups and surveys to develop a customized three-part series on business development for each of these groups (and over time will expand this series for the rest of the Firm). The interactive sessions were delivered by a video conference to members in offices across the Firm. The sessions included modules on understanding the Firm expectations of associates with respect to business development; identifying the Firm brand; identifying your personal brand; leveraging networking opportunities with clients of your demographic group; networking effectively across race and gender; how to work a room; and creating a business development plan for your appropriate career stage. Both affinity groups' series culminated in a client event where our lawyers had the opportunity to utilize the skills learned.

Editor: What role does the Diversity Committee play at the Firm?

Moore: The diversity committee is a Firm-wide committee composed of partners, senior associates, counsel and senior staff, with global representation. The Committee provides oversight to our diversity and inclusion efforts, shares the different perspectives of groups across the Firm, assesses our opportunities and challenges, and identifies recommendations for future efforts. Many offices also have office-specific committees that examine issues within their jurisdictions.

Editor: You call your program, "A Global Diversity Program." Why the emphasis on global? Please tell us about how you have developed the program globally.

Moore: We emphasize "global" because we are a global law firm, and diversity and inclusion are issues that affect us all. Although our diversity and inclusion efforts began in the U.S. and then spread to the UK office, we have extended these programs to all of our offices worldwide. In addition, we host a biennial Diversity Week globally. Our most recent diversity week held in 2008 featured over 70 events across the globe.

Editor: Do you find that your European offices are as advanced in practicing recruitment, diversity training programs and encouraging women's leadership groups as in the States?

Moore: Although the European business community has only recently embraced the topic of racial diversity, they have focused on gender and cultural diversity for some time. Even so, our Firm always has prided itself on being at the forefront of these issues, and we see our formal initiative as something that separates us from other firms in those jurisdictions. Furthermore, we have mindful not try to simply export a program based on what we have done here. Our interviews, focus groups and surveys allowed us to customize our efforts based on the realities in each of those offices.

Editor: Have you continued to pursue innovative pilot initiatives such as the New York Life/Work Taskforce? Please tell us more about this project and how it has developed. What other flexible work/life balance programs does the Firm support?

Moore: Life/Work balance is indeed a very challenging issue for the legal profession. We have maintained our focus on our flex-time program for associates, counsel and partners, and we have expanded our parental policy to cover both women and men who are new parents, including adoptions. Our goal is not only to have policies on the books but to ensure that we have a culture where attorneys can utilize these programs without fear of stigma.

Editor: The Firm probably is unique in having a Diversity Supplier Program. Please describe this program, which has been in existence for some time.

Moore: Yes, it has existed for over a decade, and we were for many years the only law firm that had such a program. We see it as part of our larger efforts to provide opportunities throughout the community. We are members of a number of different non-profit groups that focus on supplier diversity. In the past two years, we have been the founding members of a European initiative to increase supplier diversity, and we are the only law firm that is a part of that group.

Editor: Please summarize the results of the 25-year program. Where do you expect this program to be in another 25 years?

Moore: Certainly a lot has changed in the last 25 years, both in the profession and at Weil. Nearly one-quarter of our partners are women, and our percentage of racial/ethnic minority and LGBT partners has increased at all levels. The business case for diversity is really understood as the right thing and the smart thing to do. What also has changed is the constant expansion of the definition of diversity. It keeps expanding with newer emphasis on issues related to disability, immigrant status and heritage, and religion. For us, diversity is everybody. We are proud of our progress over the last 25 years, but certainly not complacent. There always will be a need to focus on including groups from different backgrounds, although who those groups are will change over time. We continue to work hard to sustain an inclusive work environment where all our attorneys and staff can go as far as hard work and talent takes them.

Please email the interviewee at meredith.moore@weil.com with questions about this interview.