WolfBlock: A Firm's Commitment To Opportunities For Everyone

Sunday, February 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Will you give our readers something of your background and experience?

I am a partner at WolfBlock's Philadelphia office, in the employment services group. I have been practicing employment law for 17 years. For the first half of this time I was principally engaged in litigation. I now focus primarily on preventive counseling, training and policy development in a number of areas, including diversity. In my practice I represent a great variety of clients, including a number of law firms, and I have also provided training throughout the country to federal and state judges on different employment issues, with diversity being a central one.

Editor: Please tell us about WolfBlock's commitment to advancing opportunities for women and minorities. What is the evolution of this commitment?

Let me provide you with a little background. First of all, the firm has been in existence for 100 years, and one of its core values is equal employment opportunity. Over time there has come to be a recognition that this value is grounded in basic fairness and that it enhances the business case, in addition to being part of the legal framework within which our society operates.

The firm has a number of policies and practices designed to ensure that our commitment to attracting and retaining women and minorities is a reality and not merely a nice theory to which everyone pays lip service. We have an EEO committee, for example, which is responsible for not only resolving complaints, but also for making proactive recommendations to increase diversity within the firm. In that regard, the firm provides training to both lawyers and non-lawyers on harassment as well as discrimination. There has been special training provided to the associates committee on conscious and unconscious bias relative to the appraisal process. In addition, the firm has an HR partner, who is also an employee relations lawyer, who shares in the responsibility to oversee the ways in which diversity can be made to fit within the life of the firm on a day-to-day basis. The firm's Executive Committee also takes a hand, and I have met with the committee on a regular basis to make recommendations. It is also worthy of note, I think, that, in assessing partners' compensation, a commitment to diversity is evaluated. That is, if a partner has been supportive of the firm's efforts in this area, if he or she has helped advance the firm's diversity agenda, that is taken into account in setting compensation. Were a partner to be unsupportive in this regard - and I hasten to add that a negative attitude toward diversity really runs counter to WolfBlock's basic culture - that would have an impact on his or her compensation as well. I can think of no more direct way of showing how important diversity is than to tie it to partners' compensation.

One of the mistakes that I see law firms make is to treat diversity as a separate and distinct initiative. Rather, diversity must be woven into everything the firm does. Hiring is obviously a high-profile diversity matter, but there are many, many other areas of a law firm's life in which diversity matters. In recognition of this, we have developed a whole range of policies which attempt to make the firm more accessible, such as some flexibility in hours, telecommuting to work, part-time arrangements and so on. The firm has resources to help in the care of the elderly as well. A few years ago many of these things were simply not available, and it took a commitment to diversity to develop them.

Editor: It sounds as if WolfBlock has a number of policies that are intertwined and supportive of one another rather than one formal diversity policy.

That is correct. And as I have indicated, those policies are meant to accomplish things. Diversity as a value in hiring does not mean much if diversity does not exist in the positions of authority in the firm. Mark Alderman, our Chairperson, is very supportive of advancing women and minority lawyers to positions of real authority in the firm, and as a consequence he insists on putting substance into these policies. There are two women who are members of the firm's Executive Committee and one male partner of color. In addition, the managing partner of our New York office is a woman, as is the managing partner of our Norristown office. All of this contributes to a real sense of the power in the firm being shared by a diverse group of people.

Editor: Would you tell us about WolfBlock's firm-wide diversity training program?

Our training takes place at a couple of different levels. First of all, there is ongoing training of all partners and associates with regard to their rights and their responsibilities under the firm's equal employment opportunity policy, with a particular focus on the obligations of partners. We expect our partners to act affirmatively in exercising those responsibilities. It is not enough for them to be passive in the face of inappropriate behavior. We expect them to respond proactively. At another level we engage in a continuing program of training for non-lawyers, again with regard to their rights and responsibilities but with an emphasis on their right to a comfortable work environment. We have also engaged in the training of the firm's Executive Committee on the business imperative of diversity, and this extends to the various practice group chairs. The role of diversity in how we market the firm and its services is interwoven in the training we provide at all levels with respect to the marketing function.

Editor: How does the firm go about recruiting qualified and highly sought-after women and minority law graduates?

Before attempting to answer the how, let me say something about the why. There are a number of reasons why a law firm should attempt to increase its diversity by attracting women and minorities to its ranks. There is simply too much talent in diverse communities to ignore, and it is having an impact on the pool of talent available to the law firms. Putting this another way, the demand for top-notch talent exceeds the number of white males in that exclusive pool of talent. If the law firms do not reach out to women and minorities, their level of talent will drop, and they will find themselves increasingly unable to compete.

Secondly, the firm must be concerned with its client base. Increasingly, corporate clients understandably desire to work with law firms that show diversity. The absence of diversity can be fatal.

Another factor contributing to why firms should work to improve their diversity is the recognition that diversity in the firm's ranks underlies diversity in perspective and, in consequence, a better quality of advice or service. People from different backgrounds bring fresh ways of looking at things to the table, and that results in a better work product.

Competing for qualified women and minorities is difficult. Everyone wants them. To a certain extent, success in this competition entails having some diversity already in place. That is, you need diversity to get diversity. As a firm begins to develop a critical mass, recruiting to enhance and then maintain it becomes easier. We have a great many talented attorneys at WolfBlock, and they include women and people of color. As I have indicated, the firm has developed diversity not only at the entry level, but also up to the very top of the firm's power structure. People coming out of law school and considering their career options hopefully see this in WolfBlock. I think it is something they factor into the decisions they make. They weigh the opportunities they have to make a contribution on the basis of the evidence before them, and I think this has worked to our benefit in what I concede is a very tough competition for their skills and talents.

Editor: What happens after these graduates join the firm? Is there a mentoring program or some support mechanism in place?

We have a number of mechanisms in place which are applicable to all of our lawyers. Every summer associate is assigned an advisor, and we have a formal orientation and advisor program for new associates. Just last year we developed a lateral attorney program in which we pair a lawyer from within the firm to a newly-arrived lateral. These programs apply to all lawyers, but are particularly important to women and persons of color who face additional hurdles in the legal profession.

Editor: What are the things that remain to be done to insure appropriate diversity in the profession?

For starters, I think the law schools - since that is the entry point for the profession - need to reach out to minority communities in particular to encourage young people to apply for admission. Then the law firms, which are already engaged in fierce competition for minority graduates, need to look beyond the high-profile Ivy League institutions which are often their primary recruiting grounds. These schools are very expensive, and as a result many very gifted young people cannot afford them and choose to attend schools of "lesser" reputation. The law firms are overlooking an extraordinary pool of talent if they limit their efforts to the "top tier" of law schools. For example, we interview at Howard University. Finally, corporate counsel need to make clear to the firms they retain that they expect their firms to provide excellence in diversity as well as service. In fact, I think all of these things are underway. It is necessary to accelerate the pace, however.

Editor: What about the future? Do you think we will ever get to the point where a commitment to diversity is unnecessary?

No. I hear people say that we need diversity programs to remedy the effects of prior discrimination, which implies that there is no discrimination at the present time. I am afraid there is still discrimination in our society, substantial discrimination, and it is most often found in terms of access to positions of authority. Diversity means, among other things, sharing the power more equitably. We have made substantial progress in recent years; we still have a long way to go.