Carrying On A Commitment To Diversity

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 12:10

The Editor interviews Nancy Chung, a Partner in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. 

Editor: Please tell us about your professional background.

Chung: I’m a litigation partner at Akin Gump. I’ve spent most of my professional career at Akin and was promoted to partner from within the firm’s ranks as an associate. I know the firm’s culture, people and history well. My practice focuses on complex commercial, securities and regulatory defense work often involving investment funds clients and individuals.

Editor: Akin Gump has historically placed a high priority on diversity. Can you speak about that?

Chung: I can attest to the fact that the firm’s commitment to diversity has been steadfast. Ever since I was a young associate at Akin, it resonated deeply with me that the firm was committed to diversity at the highest levels of leadership. Our chair Bruce McLean has been an outspoken advocate of the importance of law firm diversity even before law firms and clients made it a priority as they do today. For Bruce, achieving diversity wasn’t a lofty goal, but something discussed openly and regularly as critical to the success of our firm and for the legal profession. To this day, Bruce has presided closely over the recruitment and promotion of minority and women attorneys.  His commitment to diversity goes hand in hand with his passion for improving his community and to providing pro bono legal services.

It’s a fitting tribute to his legacy that the firm’s next chair is a woman, Kim Koopersmith. Kim is also “home grown” in that she has been the U.S. managing partner for a number of years and a litigation partner in the New York office before that. We’re thrilled and proud to be among a very small group of international firms with a woman at its helm.

In showing the firm’s commitment to diversity at the highest levels of leadership, Kim has helped pioneer many of Akin Gump’s efforts to enhance diversity and attract and retain the very best talent. She has overseen the creation of the Women’s Professional Development Initiative and the creation of the firm’s Reduced Workload Policy.  Kim has already been recognized for her efforts as the 2011 recipient of InsideCounsel magazine’s Thomas A. Mars Pathmaker Award, presented annually to a law firm leader who “has carved a groundbreaking path and laid a new foundation to accelerate the economic empowerment of attorneys of color or women.” She was one of Law360’s “Innovative Managing Partners” this past year. And this is all before she’s been chair of the firm!

Editor: Please share with our readers your experience with Akin Gump’s Diversity Committee, which you chair. What do you see as your mission in that post?

Chung: As chair of the firm’s Firmwide Diversity Committee, I am dedicated, together with the committee members, to ensuring that our efforts to promote diversity have a meaningful impact and measureable results on a firmwide basis. The Firmwide Diversity Committee comprises partners from our domestic offices who are further supported by diversity committees of partners and associates who are based in our local offices and who best understand the specific needs and challenges of their local market. We understood early on that what may work in Washington may not be the solution in Texas, Los Angeles or New York.

That being said, the focus in our mission to promote a diverse cultural environment in which we practice law is threefold: (1) direct outreach in law schools and pipeline programs targeting high schools and colleges; (2) internal programming and initiatives within the firm; and (3) client and community partnerships. I wish there were a “secret sauce” to making a law firm as diverse as it can be. But there is no substitute for hard work and active participation. What has proven to be most effective are the continued efforts across Akin Gump by our attorneys in the recruitment and retention of diverse attorneys in our firm and in the legal profession.

Editor: How is the work of the committee integrated into the firm?

Chung: Akin Gump’s diversity committees on both the office and firmwide levels offer the opportunity for attorneys and personnel to proactively communicate questions, concerns and ideas to firm management and to recommend additional means by which the diversity of the firm can be enhanced. The local diversity committees in the U.S. offices are responsible for the development and implementation of diversity-related initiatives internally and externally for their location or region and for coordination of their diversity efforts in furtherance of the firm’s diversity goals.

Akin Gump’s management supports the firm’s diversity efforts with a budget that allows for growth and creativity in initiatives from year to year. Each of the firm’s offices has a budget for diversity initiatives, and the firm has an additional budget for firmwide diversity efforts.

The firm has put its money where its mouth is. In 2012, the firm earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars for sponsorships with our community partners; internal diversity events and programming; diversity conference attendance; and the firm’s annual conference for African-American partners and general counsel. Funds are also allocated for new initiatives to be developed throughout the year. Needless to say, in challenging economic times, a financial commitment to diversity may not be high on the list of priorities. At Akin, the firm has been steadfast in ensuring that it maintains its financial backing to promote diversity, which you can’t just put on hold.

Editor: Are there particular educational and/or training programs that have helped create a culture of inclusion at Akin Gump?

Chung: Absolutely. Akin Gump has developed a robust and comprehensive professional development program with the sole purpose of enhancing the professional development of our attorneys. We recognized the significance of comprehensive professional development programming in retaining a diverse workforce. The firm’s competency-based approach to professional development provides our lawyers with clear expectations, the opportunity to develop their skills and the benefit of receiving the most meaningful evaluation of their progress.

Additionally, the firm strives to foster an inclusive environment with a goal of creating a positive work experience for our minority and female attorneys. Our diversity committees are also focused on these efforts and have offered a number of programs in the past year that have reinforced the firm’s message of inclusiveness, including programming related to cultural diversity such as 2012’s celebrations of Black History Month, the Chinese New Year, Hispanic Heritage Month and LGBT Pride Month.

Editor: Please tell us about the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity program and the Akin Gump Scholar program. Have these pipeline programs been benchmarked over time?

Chung: Akin Gump is a leading supporter of pipeline programs such as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, and we are really proud of how our support of SEO has grown over the years. Our participation in the SEO program is extensive. In the summer of 2012, we hosted SEO interns in our New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, DC offices. We see SEO as a long-term commitment. In terms of benchmarking our success, we’re starting to see the direct results of our participation in SEO since our firm began participating in 2008.

In the summer of 2008, our New York office hosted SEO intern Sakisha Jackson. Sakisha returned to Akin Gump as a summer associate in 2009 and 2010 and received an offer to join the firm as a first-year associate. In 2011, she joined the firm as an associate in the New York office’s investment funds practice following her graduation from Harvard Law School. Cynthia Perez, an SEO intern in our Houston office, will start at the firm as a first-year associate in the fall of 2013, following her graduation from the University of Texas Law School. For summer 2013, the firm looks forward to welcoming back SEO interns from prior years as well as four new SEO interns.

Editor: Does the firm have active affinity and/or networking groups? Have there been recent additions to the roster? Please tell us about any group initiatives that have been (or are being) developed.

Chung: Our Women’s Professional Development Initiative, established over a decade ago, provides a forum for the firm’s female attorneys to network and discuss issues such as retention and professional development. Women’s Professional Development Initiative committees are active at both a local office level and on a firmwide basis. Besides our year-long programming efforts, our marquee event is a two-day retreat in Washington for all female lawyers in the firm’s domestic offices that includes seminars on topics such as leadership, communication skills, mentoring, work/life balance and client development. Our last women’s forum was held in 2011, and we hope to plan another event soon.

At the office level, the local Women’s Professional Development Committees have hosted events from a D.C. luncheon series with female partners who speak about their career paths to quarterly Poker Nights with clients in Dallas to a program in New York presented by the deputy general counsel of a major Fortune 500 company. The committees in the L.A., New York and D.C. offices also hosted events during their summer programs to bring together female attorneys and summer associates and provide an opportunity for networking. For example, the New York committee has partnered with the New York Women’s Foundation for several events, including a planning breakfast for the NYWF’s Girls Leadership Day. Female attorneys from the New York office also volunteered for the event

LGBT attorneys at Akin Gump maintain an informal firmwide affinity network for the purpose of fostering dialogue and discussion about legal issues pertinent to the LGBT community, pro bono engagements and recruitment of LGBT attorneys and law students. LGBT partners meet annually at the firm’s partner retreat to discuss mentoring, leadership and networking issues. Significantly, Akin Gump has been a leader in benefits to domestic partners. The openly gay partners in the Washington office were instrumental in developing the firmwide domestic partner benefits program many years ago, long before other firms had taken this step. In 2012, the firm began providing a “gross up” so that those paying health care premiums for same sex domestic partners are treated the same as those with spouses from a tax standpoint. I’m very proud to say that, in 2012, we received our sixth consecutive perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

We also partner with community organizations and student affinity groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project; the Lambda Networking Reception; the Human Rights Campaign; GAYLAW; and Southern Methodist University Law School’s OUTLaw student affinity group.

Editor: Where do you see the work of the Diversity Committee headed in the coming year?

Chung: We’re really excited about our diversity initiatives for the coming year. One major initiative in the works as we speak is creating an Akin Gump-initiated 1L diversity scholarship program. Our firm has been successful in its launch of the 1L Pro Bono Scholars Program, and we’re applying the same level of enthusiasm and innovation to the diversity scholarship program.

In addition, we plan to expand our participation in pipeline programs such as SEO, expand our participation in the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity, expand our internal programming and continue to offer speakers and programs that educate and encourage discussion about diversity and continue to engage the local office diversity committees and work with them on ways that they can expand the diversity efforts in their office.

Please email the interviewee at nchung@akingump.com with questions about this interview.