Diversity - Law Firms Diversity: Meeting The Challenge In Today's Legal Environment

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Bennett, will you tell our readers something about your career?

Bennett: I am a Director at Lowenstein Sandler and Chair of the firm's Diversity Initiatives Committee. I was born and raised in the New York metropolitan area, and when I graduated from law school I joined the Newark office of a national law firm that specialized in insurance coverage. Eventually, my career path lead me to a firm in New York, where I continued my insurance practice, until I was ready to come back to New Jersey.

Editor: How did you come to Lowenstein Sandler?

Bennett: There were really three reasons. First, I knew that I wanted to have both a career and a family. I recognized that a New York practice was not particularly conducive to such a plan. Second, Lowenstein has the premier insurance coverage practice in New Jersey, and I was anxious to be part of an evolving practice at the very highest level. Finally, because it is a full service firm, Lowenstein provided me with an opportunity to diversify my practice. I saw opportunities there to build my expertise and my own practice through access to other types of complex commercial litigation. At present, I would define my practice as that of an insurance coverage litigator and counselor. I represent a considerable number of commercial clients and assist them in securing insurance coverage for all types of liability. I also represent commercial clients in connection with mass tort litigation.

Editor: You have been involved with diversity initiatives at Lowenstein for some time. Can you tell us how the firm determined that diversity was a value to be encouraged and then developed an appropriate strategy? What is the history of diversity at the firm?

Bennett: Diversity has been a core value at Lowenstein since the firm was founded in the 1960s. We have historically led New Jersey firms in terms of both recruiting and promoting minorities and women. However, we have recognized in recent years that the competition for qualified diverse candidates has increased. About three years ago the firm management formed the Diversity Initiatives Committee, of which I am the Chair, and charged us with the responsibility of evaluating and improving the firm's existing policies with respect to diversity. In addition, we have been challenged, and encouraged, to develop new initiatives to further promote diversity in the firm.

Editor: Why are these initiatives so important to Lowenstein?

Bennett: First and foremost, I think everyone benefits from a diverse work environment. Among other things, seeing issues from diverse perspectives, seeing them through different eyes, makes us better lawyers. In addition, today's legal market demands diversity. We are well aware that our clients are attuned to how their matters are being handled, and whether diversity is a part of it. They are increasingly interested in, and, in fact, insisting on women and minority attorneys being given opportunities to handle high profile matters. Client satisfaction requires that we substantiate our assertions of being committed to diversity.

Editor: Would you tell us something about the current diversity initiatives that are underway?

Bennett: In addition to a host of programs we have sponsored over the years, we are particularly excited about the Lowenstein Sandler Fellows Scholarship Program, which was launched just recently. This year we will award two $10,000 scholarships to first year students attending either Rutgers University Law School - Newark or Seton Hall University Law School. The minority scholarship recipients will also receive a full paid summer clerkship with the firm at the end of their first year of study. The scholarship and a second clerkship may be renewed at the end of the second year.

Editor: What is the firm trying to accomplish with this effort?

Bennett: We are attempting to reach out to a very talented group of students by easing the financial burden associated with a legal education. The cost of law school has increased dramatically in recent years, and this has been particularly hard on minority communities. In addition, we are trying to develop a meaningful way to connect with minority attorneys at an early point in their careers. We place significant emphasis on including the recipients in our summer associate program, in addition to providing scholarship funding, in order to connect them to our attorneys at an early point and to assimilate them with our firm culture.

Editor: And the mock trial program that you have undertaken at a number of Newark high schools. How does this work?

Bennett: Last November we had the first of what is to be our annual mock trial for a group of Newark high school students who had expressed an interest in law. Several of our associates "performed" as the attorneys, the witnesses, and even the bailiff. We also had a retired judge preside over the proceedings. The students acted as jurors. It was astonishing how quickly the students took to the process and how engaged they became. Many of them drew from their own life experiences in attempting to determine what was fair and just under the circumstances. Later we spent some time describing our practices and some of the day-to-day realities of life as a lawyer, and we gave them a chance to ask questions. The interaction was very lively. As a result, we are going to meet with the Newark Public Schools Office of Schools Career and College Initiative Development to further what looks to be a very promising partnership.

Editor: You are also reaching out to a number of local law schools and, specifically, to their minority students. What are the relationships that you are attempting to build? Are these undertakings helpful in the firm's recruiting efforts?

Bennett: We have initiated a number of programs with local law schools and their minority student leaders. The programs range from skill-building workshops on subjects such as writing a resume or handling a tough interview to dinner presentations where our attorneys discuss the ways in which to have a successful summer internship or clerkship. We are trying to connect with these students and to convey an image of the firm that reflects our culture and the value we place on diversity. And, yes, these undertakings are helpful in our recruiting. This summer, about half of our summer associates are going to be minorities and about half women. This represents an increase for us, so we are pleased that our programs are having a positive impact.

Editor: How do you staff these efforts?

Bennett : We try to involve a group that is as broad and as representative as possible. We have young associates who participate and who, of course, are in a position to relate very well with law students. But we also bring partners, and even senior partners, into the picture for the purpose of addressing more long-term career issues with them.

Editor: I would be very impressed if I were a Seton Hall law student and a senior partner from Lowenstein appeared on campus.

Bennett: Indeed, we enjoy visiting the students on campus. However, we also hold many of these programs in our offices so that the students are able to take in something of the atmosphere and culture of the firm.

Editor: The competition for outstanding minority law students and young lateral hires must be pretty fierce, even for a firm of Lowenstein's reputation, in light of its proximity to New York and Philadelphia. How do you go about addressing this competition?

Bennett: It is a challenge, and we have yet to find the magic bullet in addressing it. We recognize that we are not likely to be able to compete with the salaries that the large New York and Philadelphia firms offer, but we do believe that we come across very well as a consequence of things such as our scholarship program, our relationship building initiatives and the lifestyle benefits that are associated with a New Jersey practice. I think, in addition, that we distinguish ourselves from other New Jersey firms through our strong commitment to pro bono activities. We have found that having a firm culture which encourages giving back to the community is something that is very important to our minority attorneys.

Editor: You have indicated the value of your diversity initiatives in recruiting young minority attorneys. How about retaining them once they are in the door?

Bennett: Retention is a significant challenge. To help us deal with this challenge, we have instituted a formal mentoring program. This program will continue to be a priority for us in 2005 as we seek additional ways to improve our retention.

Editor: How does the firm's mentoring program work?

Bennett: We structure the program as a kind of latticework, which begins with our summer program. When the law students arrive, we assign each to an associate mentor, who is to support them in their day-to-day workplace issues, and a partner mentor, who is charged with the responsibility of addressing firm culture issues and the more long-term issues of career development. Later, when they join the firm as junior associates, the mentoring focus is on training. We are striving toward providing each junior associate the skill sets necessary to become an excellent attorney. At a certain point, mentoring shifts to a different area, and we assess the person's long-term career opportunities. We assess whether they are going to make a partnership run or whether they might consider moving to a boutique firm or to an in-house position. With respect to all options, we try to evaluate the extent to which we as a firm can be helpful. I believe we are the first firm in New Jersey that has an associate life and training administrator, whose sole job is to ensure these various programs run smoothly. We also have alumni events, which allow people who have been members of the Lowenstein Sandler family at some point in their careers to remain connected with each other and with us.

Editor: How about clients? How do the firm's diversity initiatives resonate with them?

Bennett: Our initiatives have been well received by clients, and we are currently developing an initiative that will include a panel discussion comprised of existing and prospective clients regarding the importance of a diverse work environment. We are always looking for opportunities of this kind.

Editor: Diversity has both an external side - which is concerned with the firm's public image - and an internal, which has to do with its culture and morale. Can you say something about the impact these diversity efforts of yours have on the firm's sense of itself and the values it seeks to encourage?

Bennett: As I previously mentioned, diversity is one of the core values of Lowenstein Sandler. I think as a result of the formation of the Diversity Initiatives Committee, we have successfully raised the profile of this issue both within and outside the firm. This raised profile and energy combined to create a certain momentum, and we are conscious of building on that momentum and success.

Editor: Lowenstein's record in this area is impressive. There is always room for improvement, however. What remains to be accomplished?

Bennett : We are thrilled to see the positive impact our programs have made. However, despite our many achievements, there is always room for improvement. My greatest goal would be to improve our retention. This involves building a pipeline so there are mentors all the way from the firm's entry level to the top. We are building such a pipeline, and we do have senior level minority and women lawyers. As this development accelerates, I am certain our retention rates will continue to improve.

Editor: As Chair of the Diversity Initiative Committee do you have closing remarks?

Bennett: I am proud of the firm's commitment to diversity, and pleased with the result we have seen thus far. I am certain that our focus and programs will continue to make a positive impact.

Please email the interviewee at lbennett@lowenstein.com with questions about this interview.