An Early Pioneer In The Area of Diversity

Monday, February 1, 2010 - 01:00

Editor: Would you please tell our readers about your professional career? As a member of a minority, both as a woman and a person of color, what difference has this made in your career path, if any?

Willert: I commenced my legal career with the King County Prosecutor's Office in the late 1970s. At the time, I was one of a very few people of color who were employed in that public sector job. I believe that there were certain advantages to me, even in the late '70s, as there was a push to diversify the public offices at that time. I remained in the prosecutor's office for four years, and joined Williams Kastner in January 1982 - where I have remained. I suppose that makes me a rare commodity these days because now lawyers move from location to location on a fairly frequent basis. I was the first person of color to join the staff here at Williams Kastner. I joined the law firm to practice primarily employment law, which I continue to do today in addition to being the Managing Director of the law firm.

I believe that there have been some significant career advantages afforded to me, being a woman and a person of color. I think that people - including individuals who are responsible for hiring lawyers for their corporations - have a tendency to want to retain lawyers and law firms who have some understanding of their own needs and thought processes. In the last thirty years, women and people of color have risen up the corporate ranks and many are now responsible for securing outside legal respresentation - a benefit both to me and to my firm.

Editor: Why do you believe that diversity at a law firm is important, both to the firm and to its clients?

Willert: I think everyone is clearly aware of the Call to Action for corporations in the United States and abroad regarding whom they are looking for to provide legal services. Law firms, and law departments, should reflect the broad demographics of the populations served. It is very clear that there has been a demographic population shift in this country. For example, there are as many women as there are men in the workforce in this country and that demographic is taking hold around the world. I think that with respect to issues of diversity, it is important that we recognize that as the world becomes a much smaller place, a much more multicultural place, it is important for law firms to either at least keep up with that trend or, frankly, from my perspective, to get out in front of that trend, so that they will be the law firms that are selected to provide services not just to businesses here in the United States, but also to businesses around the world.

Editor: Do law firms have a special responsibility to promote diversity?

Willert: I know that there are people who do not believe that there is any responsibility to promote diversity. However, I think that, not only as good citizens, but also as good business people, law firms have a responsibility to their internal constituents and to the world to promote diversity so that they can be successful.

Editor: Would you please tell us about Williams Kastner's efforts, i.e., special recruiting or mentoring programs, to achieve greater diversity at the firm? What has been your role in planning and implementing its current diversity efforts?

Willert: For a number of years, Williams Kastner has been involved in minority recruitment programs. For more than 20 years, we have been one of the primary sponsors of a minority recruitment program in the city of Seattle. In addition, we have made substantial efforts to grant scholarships to various law schools and undergraduate schools in the state of Washington to educate minority students. We also do a fair amount of work outside of the United States - in Asia and in other parts of the world. We foster and support a firm culture that embraces cultural and ethnic diversity.

Editor: Do you have any special programs for Native Americans?

Willert: We do not have special programs for Native Americans per se, but we have perhaps one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Native American practice in the state of Washington. We have two members of this firm who are Native Americans and three or four Native American lawyers on staff. It's not a matter of targeted recruitment; it's a matter that this is an area of law in which we are focused. Hence, it's important for us to attract and retain Native American attorneys who understand tribal laws and matters important in "Indian Country," enabling us to better serve our clients. Native Americans, like all of us, are much more likely to hire individuals who understand their issues and perspective.

Editor: How do you measure the success of your diversity efforts? Has Williams Kastner received any awards or recognition relative to its diversity activities?

Willert: We measure the success of our efforts primarily by our ability to attract and serve clients. We have received a number of awards for our diversity efforts over the past decade. The most recent awards came in 2009 when we were given the Puget Sound Association of Legal Administrators 2009 Diversity Award. Additionally, in 2009, DRI, the largest association of civil defense trial lawyers in the country, named and established its diversity award as the DRI Sheryl J. Willert Pioneer Diversity Award. It is quite an honor both to me personally and to the law firm.

Editor: What impact do diversity programs have on recruiting and retaining lawyers, both for recent law school graduates and for lateral hires? What effect does a firm dedicated to diversity have in attracting clients?

Willert: Let me answer the first questions first. Like the shifting demographic with respect to males and females in law schools, there are an increasing number of people of different cultures and different ethnicities going to law school. While in the past law firms have traditionally focused on diversity from the standpoint of African Americans, they are now more focused on a broader concept of diversity including not only gender and ethnicity but also sexual orientation. Now law firms are more focused on insuring that their current body of attorneys demonstrate their firm's commitment to diversity - the proof is in your people. Again, law firms need to reflect the diverse demographic served. This focus will assist them in attracting clients.

Editor: Do you believe that the current recession will affect hiring of diverse attorneys or conducting diversity programs?

Willert: I think that if there's anything that the current recession should do, it should force law firms to evaluate their business models and the business models of the clients they seek to attract. They need to understand that one of the things they do not want to do is to cut back on their diversity efforts. Businesses are acutely aware of what is going on in terms of the changing demographics of the world. For them to be profitable, they need to be clear about attracting multicultural, multiethnic groups of individuals to their products and services. When they are looking for legal services, particularly in the trial arena, they are going to consider the demographics of a jury pool. With the shifting and ever-increasing number of different ethnicities and perspectives that are sitting on juries, they will want to have their lawyers reflect the same diversity.

Editor: What do you believe are the primary challenges for attorneys of diversity backgrounds who work at law firms? Are they different from those for in-house attorneys of similar backgrounds?

Willert: I think that one of the primary challenges for diverse lawyers who work in law firms is mentorship and business development, particularly where there continue to be attitudes either in the law firms or businesses that diverse lawyers cannot serve the business needs or the needs of clients because they are different. Similarly, attorneys in private practice may find mentoring difficult if there is an attitude that a diverse lawyer can only be mentored by a diverse lawyer. The challenges in corporate practice are not necessarily different except in-house lawyers generally have only one client - the corporation. However, even in those circumstances, diverse lawyers may be faced with challenges simliar to those in private practice and may need assistance and mentorship to be successful. However, I think that there continue to be challenges that simply are not unique to any ethnic group or any cultural group that just the practice of law presents. One must dedicate time and energy to be successful. To be a good lawyer, you have to be the best that you possibly can be and that takes a lot of work. In this regard, I wouldn't say that there are any particularly different challenges for in-house or outside counsel regardless of the color of their skin or their ethnic background or, for that matter, their gender.

Editor: MCCA has reported that a major concern of minority attorneys is that they feel that they have lesser access to mentors. Do you agree with this statement?

Willert: I think that it depends upon the perspective from which you are making that statement. If you are saying that there is less access to mentors because there are fewer people of color and fewer lawyers of different cultures in private practice, then yes, there are fewer mentors available, but this is a problem only if you believe that the only basis upon which mentorship can occur is by having someone who looks like you or who comes from your cultural background be your mentor. Having been the first person of color in this law firm 28 years ago, I didn't have a choice about whether I was going to have a mentor who was a person of color. It did not mean that there was a shortage of mentors for me. In fact I had multiple mentors. In most cases, they just happened to be white males.

Editor: What are your plans for the future of diversity programs at Williams Kastner?

Willert: As I said previously, we are a law firm that is reaching, not just within the city of Seattle or the states of Washington and Oregon, but into the Native American nations and across sovereign lines and oceans. So our programs will continue to focus not only on the recruitment, retention and development of lawyers who are U.S. citizens, but also on the establishment of relationships with lawyers of other cultures. We believe that the world is really a melting pot. With the Internet and other forms of electronic communications, the world is shrinking, and Williams Kastner must reflect all cultures, all colors, and all kinds of people to be successful.

Please email the interviewee at swillert@williamskastner.com with questions about this interview.