Diversity - Law Firms Embracing Diversity In A Superlative Law Firm Culture

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 01:00
Wildmann, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP
Sarah L. Olson

Editor:What types of cases do you handle?

Olson: I am a complex tort litigator, which means that I handle industry-threatening and company-threatening sequential or mass tort cases for a fairly wide range of industries, including industrial equipment, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, chemicals (including for DuPont), firearms, alcohol and other consumer products.

Editor: What experiences do you bring to your legal practice?

Olson: For about eight years after college, I had a wide range of industrial and office experiences. One was working at the University of Chicago Hospitals administering their Institutional Review Board, which is the faculty body that reviews human experimentation. The contacts in the medical world I developed, as well as my appreciation for the innovations and contributions that research scientists make, have carried over to my legal practice.I also worked full-time through law school, which has always made the practice of law seem relatively easy!

Editor: How did you come to practice at Wildman Harrold?

Olson: I feel very lucky that I found a professional home that really suits me. I earned my degree at the Chicago Kent College of Law, which is affiliated with the Illinois Institute of Technology. I came to Wildman Harrold as a summer associate. Because I really loved what I was doing, I talked the firm into giving me a full-time job while I was still in law school and continued here when I graduated.

Editor: Why have you continued yourpractice with Wildman Harrold?

Olson: I enjoy the superlative intellectual environment. Working with clients whose products are under attack because of their inherent characteristics has given me the opportunity to address challenging legal issues on the boundary line between tort litigation and public policy.And I worked (and work) with attorneys whom I genuinely respect and like.

I have also stayed here because this firm makes a genuine effort to support each lawyer to find and develop to their fullest professionally, even if it means going into a practice that is not traditional or entails non-traditional working arrangements. Our philosophy attracts people from very different backgrounds with a diversity of experiences.

Editor: How does your firm's culture welcome diversity?

Olson: When I came to the firm about 20 years ago, the firm already included women partners and associates, many of whom had children. Unlike many other firms at the time, about half of the associates entering with me were female.The firm had partners and associates of color.Our commitment to diversity stems from our founding philosophy:this firm is committed to helping each of its lawyers to be the very best that they can be. Treating people as individuals, we work to meet their needs so that they can practice at their highest level.Partly because of this, we define "diversity" and set our goals for diversity in the widest possible manner, meaning "differences and similarities in culture, background and experiences that all people bring to their workplace, including for example, age, race, ethnicity, gender, education, culture, religion, disabilities, family status, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, and job responsibilities."We weave our goal of greater, sustained diversity at all levels of the firm into every business decision.It informs how we build a healthy law firm in every respect, including work allocation, business development, leadership roles and everything else.We put our money where our mouth is on this issue; visible, consistent efforts to improve the firm's diversity play a role in compensation at every level.

Editor: How does your firm's commitment to diversity dovetail with DuPont and your other clients' interestin diversity?

Olson:DuPont and our other clients' interest in diversity has contributed to our determination to address diversity at a more conscious institutional level.We have always been aware of the importance of diversity, for lots of reasons.One is that we represent highly visible, sometimes controversial clients, all over the country. With this kind of practice, you quickly realize that you need to learn how to communicate effectively and consistently with people different from you. Sometimes, it is as basic as language differences. Having attorneys and support staff from many different backgrounds really create a better legal team, more capable of evaluating risk and finding real solutions that fit the culture of the case.

Recognizing this, about five years ago, we initiated a review of our diversity efforts, institutional policies and business practices.We organized a Diversity Committee and performed a self-assessment with the help of Verná Myers & Associates, a diversity consulting firm from Boston.Based on the feedback, we have made institutional decisions about continuing, discontinuing and starting a wide range of programs.

Editor:How do PLFs benefit from DuPont's encouragement ofhaving attorneys with diverse backgrounds in highly visible and influential positions?

Olson: There are many ways, but I'll give you just a couple of examples. Being able to speak effectively with local and state legislators and other political leaders on behalf of our other clients requires not only a political diversity within our firm but also a diverse workforce that has credibility within their respective communities. Having DuPont's support for our diversity initiative has helped us to build a firm which is much more effective in those legislative and political arenas.For another example, it has been helpful to have access within the firm to lawyers from different countries, who are knowledgeable about business, law and cultural climates there.DuPont's support for its Women Lawyers Network and Minority Lawyers Network has given our attorneys access to people, support systems and new ideas.

Editor: Do your diversity policies help men as well as women?

Olson:Absolutely.One of our associates, who happens to be male, made an early career decision to split his time between law and another career path. With our blessing, he has worked about 50:50 in both fields and has been a wonderful asset to us.Men with small children, and others who have had a chronic illness or other medical conditions, have benefited from our alternative work arrangement policies and technical sophistication, so that they can work pretty much wherever they are.

Editor:Please give us an example of your current diversity initiatives.

Olson:Over the last five years, we have implemented or deepened a number of programs aimed at broadening the diversity of our firm.Some of these build on traditional elements, such as improved recruiting and mentoring programs.But we are also looking beyond the traditional building blocks to creative efforts to retain valuable attorneys. We do not hire and train our lawyers just to lose them. Retention is critical.

So, we are looking at why people actually leave firms.We are looking for ways to encourage people to take advantage of the supportive programs we do offer.For example, our parental leave policies are gender blind, but women seem far more comfortable using these benefits than men.We are creating ways to support and engage our attorneys in a more general way, so that they understand that the firm is committed to them and feel more comfortable committing to the firm as a long-term professional home, not just an office sharing arrangement.One example of this approach is our Women in the Practice of Law group.

Editor:How has your Women in the Practice of Law group evolved?

Olson:One of the things our self-assessment made clear was that women in the firm would benefit from greater contact with each other. To address this issue, we formed Women in the Practice of Law, which meets monthly. While the issues discussed are always specific, focusing on women's experiences, the group is open to anyone and fairly often male attorneys come.

When the group began, it focused on morale building through inspirational speakers and networking. Over time, the group became more of a forum to discuss internal matters, such as how our policy on family leave might be improved. I believe that people have felt that these discussions have had a constructive impact on a variety of policies and work-related issues.Most recently, the group has shifted towards an outward focus with women working together on legal and community issues.We developed a guide book for legal and community groups in Chicago that focus on women's issues, and a number of us have started working in these organizations.Among the benefits of the group is that it is a good leadership training ground. It boosts the sense of citizenship among people who attend.It has given us a structure for lawyers at different points in their careers to interact and help each other. It has unleashed some great energy.

Editor: What do you see on the horizon for the legal profession's next generation of women?

Olson: Diversity has an age related component. Different generations see things differently. Young lawyers coming into the law firms now articulate different concerns and issues than when I came into the practice. It never even crossed my mind when I was hired in 1985 to ask about parental leave policy or flexible schedules. Law students today ask about work/life balance and how our firm ensures that lawyers are developed as all-around human beings.

It is heartening to me to see this greater interplay between professional and home lives.There are many ways in which developing a well-rounded life will help make you a better lawyer.For example, teaching a child that it has to accept "no" for an answer can really hone those negotiation skills.Being involved in your family and community teaches you how to keep things in perspective, how to lead, prioritize and organize, when to delegate and when not to.

I am delighted to see the upcoming generation of new lawyers embracing broader perspectives, which are sure to enrich our profession.