Weil’s Culture Of Inclusion: A Tradition That Grows Stronger With Time

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 15:27

Editor: Please tell us about your professional background.

Bernstein: I came to Weil right out of law school and stayed for three years, at which point I went in-house. Five years later I came back to Weil on a part-time basis (or “flex-time” as it’s called today at Weil) so I could spend time with my young son. This was in the early ’80s, and it was not common to have flex-time lawyers. The firm was very accommodating, and there were no limits on the kinds of assignments I was given, which was quite unusual for the time. I had tremendous opportunities for professional growth and worked on a flex-time basis for a number of years – first three days a week, then four days a week, and then however many days it took to get my work done. I started as a flex-time associate, then became a flex-time counsel and eventually became a partner. Having had the experience of working flex-time, I can appreciate what young lawyers face today in terms of career development, family, and work-life balance. Having a successful flex-time arrangement is somewhat like a marriage -- it requires that each party give more than his or her 50 percent share. I am not sure that it is the answer for everyone, but it worked for me.

Editor: Would you share with our readers your experience on Weil’s Diversity Committee, which you now chair?

Bernstein: I have been the chair of the Diversity Committee for a number of years and have witnessed a sea change in its focus. In the early 1990s, Weil was the first New York City–based firm to institute a firm-wide diversity assessment and training program, executing it as a demonstration project for the New York City Bar. In keeping with the era, our efforts were focused on awareness and were designed to address what I call the “thou shalt nots.” Since then, we’ve made great strides, and our focus is now on inclusion as much if not more than on diversity. As we look to the future, we recognize that our vitality, competitiveness and leadership in the profession require us to continue our efforts to seek out and develop the best talent in an open and inclusive environment. Our diversity and inclusion efforts reflect our unfailing commitment to create an environment where everyone can succeed to the best of his or her ability without any artificial barriers to success. And doing so enables us to better serve our clients who, like us, are global enterprises with employees from a multitude of cultures and backgrounds.

Editor: How has the firm been able to create a culture of inclusion?

Bernstein: We’ve been working very hard at it for a number of years. We recognize that talent comes in all different shapes and sizes, and by creating an environment where people are appreciated for who they are and what they can do - as we say, “One Firm, Many Faces” - we can capitalize on all our talent and expand our cultural competencies.

We are now in our third wave of diversity training – the first having been in the early 1990s and the second in the early 2000s, which we exported to our global offices. Designed to keep the issues of diversity and inclusion at the forefront of everyone’s minds, our newest diversity training consists of a two hour session to be held annually that teaches solid skills on which participants can build. About six years ago, we initiated a bi-annual global Diversity Week, where an entire week is dedicated to the issues of diversity and inclusion in each of our offices around the world. Over time the program has grown increasingly substantive and is eagerly anticipated at the firm. Diversity Week continues to involve an ever-expanding broad range of personnel, and shortly after one Diversity Week is completed, the next one is already in the works!

We are extremely proud of an initiative we started this year in our New York office - Weil Pays It Forward. Through this program, Weil provided $1,000 in seed money to teams of employees who used that money in support of a nonprofit organization of their choosing to raise awareness and raise funds for their cause, either by donation, using the money to raise more money, or some combination of the two. The concept was brought to us by one of our associates who had attended a similar event sponsored by Morgan Stanley (and inspired by Oprah Winfrey, no less). The associate was so impressed that she contacted the Morgan Stanley managing director, got buy-in from a group of partners at Weil and took the idea to Barry Wolf, our executive partner. Weil staff, summer associates, associates and counsel all joined together and submitted proposals. Initially, our goal was to identify 10 proposals, but the proposals that were submitted were so compelling we ultimately chose 26 projects! Partners were invited to be team advisors, but not to lead the teams - that was left to the rest of the firm. The program exceeded our expectations. Through events, donations and drives, more than 1,100 employees participated in Weil Pays It Forward. It created a tremendous sense of community and pride in being part of Weil, and given the firm’s size, that can be hard to achieve. We are delighted to be exporting the program to other offices, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Editor: Can you give me an example of one or two?

Bernstein: One program sponsored a baseball league in Harlem that had lost its funding. They were using pizza boxes as bases and didn’t have enough mitts or gloves for all the players in the field. A group of summer associates formed a team and raised funds with a plan initially to support one particular baseball team, but ultimately they were able to help the entire league. It was truly rewarding for the Weil team because they could see the impact the program made on the lives of these children.

In total, Weil Pays It Forward raised more than $175,000 for charities supporting a wide range of causes. From providing free daily accommodations for 50 patients at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in New York City to sending 18 Cambodian girls to school for one year, the donations benefited initiatives around the world. Nearly half of the teams were able to raise funds without even spending any of their seed money by working with vendors who donated their time and services.

Editor: It sounds like this project fit well within the firm’s goal of inclusion.

Bernstein: It did. Respondents to a diversity survey we conducted two years ago told us there was a need for inclusive activities, and this project spoke to that need. At some point “diversity fatigue” starts to set in: things don’t appear to be changing outwardly because the first major shift has already happened, and subsequent growth is pretty subtle and gradual. It became clear to us that the message really needed to be more about inclusion and building community than about diversity and difference.

This year’s training discusses unconscious bias. The next module might address cross-cultural communication, since as a global firm everyone comes into contact all the time, internally and externally, with a variety of cultures.

Editor: Pipeline programs often play a role both at law firms and diversity-minded corporations. Please tell us about Weil’s participation in these.

Bernstein: We’ve recently announced a diversity fellowship for 1Ls, which starts this year. The fellowship is open to current students at ABA-accredited law schools; the recipient will be awarded a $10,000 scholarship, along with acceptance into our U.S.-based office summer program. We are very excited about this program and are eager to welcome our first fellowship recipient!

We also participate in many pipeline programs such as the SEO (Sponsors for Educational Opportunity) program and the Posse Foundation, through our DC office. In addition, our Latinos at Weil affinity group helped establish an ongoing relationship with local New York City-area low-income high school students through a nonprofit organization called Summer Search. Through Summer Search we hosted career panels, skills workshops and speed-networking sessions to introduce high school students to the interview process. Through Latinos at Weil we also got involved in an initiative with the Latino American Law Student Association, where minority 1L students from more than 10 law schools attended a “boot camp” here at the firm that is designed to demystify law school, interviewing and summer job recruitment. Weil has hired from that group of young Latino law students, so I know it’s a very successful program.

Additionally, further down the pipeline, we regularly host a Girls, Inc. college shower and a Girl Scouts career exploration day. At the first college shower I attended, about 15 high school seniors were going off to college – many of them the first ones to do so in their families. For many of these young girls, going to college was a dream that they never expected would materialize, and we were happy to play a small part in making their dream come true.

Editor: I have read that your firm is a leader in promoting supplier diversity, providing greater opportunity to women- and minority-owned businesses. Would you explain how this works?

Bernstein: As the first law firm to have such a program, we consider supplier diversity to be incredibly important. We provide opportunities for women, racial and ethnic minorities and now LGBT-owned businesses, and we’re very proud of this effort.

Editor: Have the specific challenges women attorneys face at law firms changed?

Bernstein: I think they’ve changed just by the virtue of numbers. I came here years ago in part because Weil had a high percentage of women at the firm, a clear indication it was doing something right. Nonetheless, when I started practicing law 35 years ago, I was usually the only woman in the room, and I was often thought to be a secretary. That wouldn’t happen today. Shortly after becoming a partner I recall working on a transaction where my client, opposing counsel, her associate and her client were all women. My male associate said that he felt weird being the only man in the room and asked me, “Is this what your life is like?” I replied, “Welcome to my world.” It was an excellent teaching moment. Although we’ve not reached the numbers we want, in the past seven years, 45 percent (and on occasion more than half of the new class) of our new partners are women. We’ve doubled the representation of women on our management committee, with two being women of color.

But we still have progress to make. Women need to project themselves confidently, a necessary prerequisite for business and career development. Through our Women@Weil affinity group, we’ve reached out to our women lawyers and are introducing programs to help them with business development strategies, personal strategies and negotiation skills. Through our Mentors Across Borders program, female associates who travel to other offices get to spend time with the women partners in those other offices to broaden their network. We’ve also run a speed-networking event to encourage interaction among women across practice groups, as well as workshops on men’s and women’s different communication styles.

Editor: How are inclusion efforts with LGBT employees proceeding?

Bernstein: I’m glad you asked. In 2011 we announced a new benefit program for our LGBT employees and became one of only a handful of law firms that offer a tax gross-up for employees whose same-sex spouse or domestic partner is enrolled in our healthcare program. We hosted a client networking event last year to kick off Pride month, and we had members of our WeGALA affinity group (for gay, lesbian and transgender attorneys) in Miami and Dallas join our New York group for this event. Along with networking opportunities, we held workshops (with video conference, so all members could participate) creating game plans, writing an “elevator speech,” figuring out how best to follow up with clients and the like. We’re looking forward to more activities in that area. 

Please email the interviewee at andrea.bernstein@weil.com with questions about this interview.