Diversity - Law Firms Bringing Diverse Resources To Bear On Clients' Diverse Needs: An Excellent Start

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Morris, will you give our readers some idea of your career?

Morris: I have been with Arent Fox since I was a summer associate in 1982. I returned the following year as a full-time associate, and I have been with the firm ever since. The focus of my practice has been employment and labor law.

Editor: Would you share with us the things that attracted you to Arent Fox?

Morris: I decided early in the process of selecting a firm that what differentiated firms the most for me was the sense of comfort they projected. I was looking for a firm where I could be myself, where I could grow both personally and professionally, where I would receive encouragement and support in my efforts and where I would feel comfortable. From my first on-campus interview for that summer associate's position, that firm was Arent Fox. That initial perception brought me to the firm, and its validation has kept me here all these years.

Editor: Please describe your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?

Morris: At the outset of my career there was a much more even balance between traditional labor work and the employment work that I do. The former involved union-management relations, the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements, addressing unfair labor practice charges and the like. The employment work included the broad spectrum of issues that were becoming more prominent among employers, such as employment discrimination claims, employment torts, wrongful discharge suits,and so on. With the passage of time, the balance of my practice has shifted toward the employment side.

My responsibilities have increased over the course of my career as well. In the beginning, my responsibilities were discrete and focused on specific projects. Today they are much more general. I supervise more junior lawyers with respect to a variety of projects. I am also engaged in establishing, broadening, and managing client relationships for the firm.

Editor: You are also active in civic and community affairs. Will you tell us something about these undertakings?

Morris: I have been involved in a great many community activities over the years. Some of the organizations I have served include the American Heart Association, the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, the Sidwell Friends School Alumni Board, the Society of Human Resource Managers, and the National Advisory Neurological Diseases and Stroke Council. I have been very fortunate over my life, and I find it deeply satisfying to give something back to the society that has been so supportive of my aspirations. That is one reason I am engaged in these activities. Another is that I find that taking on this work makes for a more well-rounded professional experience overall. The lawyer who is out in the community making a contribution - whether as a professional or simply as a well-intentioned volunteer - is going to be a better professional. He is able to hone his skills, he may have an opportunity to do things, some of them very important, that he might not see in a law firm setting, and he is exposed to a variety of people who may be important to his career and his personal development.

Editor: How do you manage to carry on with these activities and a busy practice at the same time?

Morris: It certainly helps to have a patient, understanding, and supportive family.

Editor: You also have a parallel career as a lecturer, writer and law school professor. Would you tell us about these activities?

Morris: I receive great benefit from this side of my career. I have been an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University School of Law, and while I am not doing that now, I still lecture there from time to time. I speak at other schools as well. This activity forces me to stay abreast of developments in my own practice, and the exposure to people just entering the profession - to their curiosity and their enthusiasm - is exhilarating.

Editor: It is very obvious that giving back to the community is something that matters a great deal to you. What does this kind of effort mean to the firm?

Morris: I am hardly alone at Arent Fox in my community involvement. The firm possesses a culture that fosters and supports such involvement.The Managing Partner and the Chairman of the Executive Committee are both engaged in this type of activity, and their example sends a clear signal to the firm as a whole. With respect to pro bono work, the firm credits pro bono hours when doing associate reviews, which serves to support our commitment to the community in a very concrete way. As a consequence, that commitment permeates the firm. As but one example, the firm has "adopted" a local elementary school, the Randal Highlands School, and a great many of our people participate in the relationship, with financial support, with tutoring and training and with mentoring. I think this effort has been of very great benefit to the children. It has certainly been of great benefit to us.

Editor: Is there a formal diversity committee in the firm?

Morris: There is. The diversity committee is still in the process of charting its program. We are trying to determine how to best go about fulfilling the firm's goal of increasing diversity, and we have a particular focus on recruitment and on retention. In recruitment, we have a long history of reaching out and attempting to attract people from diverse backgrounds. Every year we participate with a number of law firms in making presentations to the minority student groups at the major law schools on law firm careers in Washington, DC. We have a very good story to tell, and we have had some success with this effort.

In addition, we have attempted to forge a strong alliance with HowardUniversity School of Law. It has an excellent student body, and every year we send recruiters there to interview second year students for our summer program. That program, of course, very often leads to full-time associate status after graduation. Last year, in an effort to improve our bond with Howard, we sent members of the firm's employment committee to conduct a seminar on interview techniques. It has helped to raise our visibility at the school and, we hope, enhanced the relationship.

Editor: How are we going to increase the flow of minorities into the pipeline?

Morris: Such an increase has to involve a conscious outreach effort. We must send a very clear signal to let students know that we are interested in diverse populations and in having people join our ranks from those populations. The purpose of the recruitment road show in which we participate with several other firms is to increase the pool of talented minority law school students seeking positions in firms like ours. For the students, it represents an exposure to the opportunities that are available to them.

Editor: Obviously, diversity and a culture of inclusion are extremely important values to the firm. Why do they matter so much.

Morris: If these values are present - and I mean if they are a reality in the workplace, and not merely an aspiration - the firm is going to be a much healthier place than if they are absent. Not only does diversity make for a more pleasant work environment, it enhances a firm's ability to service its clients. Today clients wish to retain law firms which are able to bring diverse resources to bear on their diverse needs. In fact, they are increasingly insistent about this. If a firm is serious about attracting and then retaining clients it must show them in a very forthright way that it is serious about the issue.

Editor: Please tell us how a commitment to diversity helps with the firm's efforts to hire law graduates and young laterals. It is helpful in retaining them once they are on board?

Morris: Recruiting and retention are very important issues. At the moment, retention is attracting a great deal of attention. I would like to see more people like myself at Arent Fox and at other firms of similar stature, people who have begun their careers at the firm, stayed the course over time and entered the partnership ranks. We do not have all the answers here. People - whether minorities or from the majority population - leave firms for a variety of reasons, and the reasons are themselves complicated. We are trying to increase our pool of diverse lawyers both from the law schools and by way of lateral hiring. The thought is that if we can attain a certain critical mass, the firm will be more attractive to both groups of people. The more diversity we have - the more we demonstrate that we havean open and supportive culture in which people are comfortable working - the more diversity we will attract. That critical mass, I believe, will help us in our retention efforts - with respect to minorities and non-minorities alike - because of what it says about workplace comfort at the firm.

I have been with Arent Fox for 22 years, and I am far from being the most senior person here in terms of longevity. There is something about this firm that generates loyalty and makes for commitment over long periods of time. I would like to see a greater number of people from diverse backgrounds take advantage of such an environment.

Editor: Where would you like Arent Fox to be in, say, five years, in terms of its diversity?

Morris: I would like for Arent Fox to be a leader in the area of diversity in the same way that it is a leader in so many substantive practice areas. I would hope that we would be among those setting the standards here, a firm to which others look for guidance and direction on this issue. I believe we have made a excellent start in this direction.

Please email the interviewee at morris.h@arentfox.com with questions about this interview.