Making A Diversity Statement A Model For The Profession

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Sweeney, would you tell our readers something about your background?

Sweeney: I grew up in Los Angeles, in a part of town now known as South Central. That term may have a pejorative ring because it is a part of the city that is largely minority and has a high crime rate, which, I should add, was not true when I was growing up. I went through the public school system and on to the University of Southern California, which is just a mile from where I attended grade school. From USC I went to Columbia Law School, in part because my grandparents lived in New York.

After law school I joined a large firm in Washington, DC for several years and went on to become a White House Fellow in the Office of the President. Following that experience I returned to California with several of my White House staff colleagues to start a venture in the transportation field. When sufficient funding failed to materialize, I joined a firm in Beverly Hills. In 2000 that firm merged with, and became the Los Angeles office of, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, now K&L Gates.

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

Sweeney: I started at a firm that represented clients before governmental agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Transportation. These were very large undertakings, and the legal team might have numbered ten or more attorneys. When I returned to California, the matters I handled were on a much smaller scale. That enabled me to develop ongoing relationships with clients and engage in much more counseling than I had at an earlier point in my career. Since becoming a partner at K&L Gates, I have been able to take on larger clients, and my earlier hands-on client experience has enabled me to serve as a principal interface with them. My practice today is a blend of counseling, trying substantial cases and supervising teams of younger lawyers in a variety of litigation matters.

Editor: You have also had a very active career in civic and professional affairs. Would you tell us something about that?

Sweeney: Growing up in a community where many people suffered from a lack of opportunity, I have always felt compelled to return to that community and help to develop ways in which people might access greater opportunities for themselves. Success does not happen in a vacuum; it results from having an opportunity to show what one can do. My participation in the White House Fellows Programs - at the very highest levels of government - was an opportunity of immense value and a gift. The civic and community organizations with which I have been involved allow me to repay what I believe is my debt to society.

I serve on the governing board of Public Counsel, the largest pro bono law firm in the country. It provides legal services to the working poor, people who do not qualify for legal aid but who cannot afford quality legal services either. The organization has a large staff of its own, and it supervises volunteers from a variety of firms. This service has a particular meaning for me because it enables me to share my legal expertise with communities that are very similar to the one in which I was raised.

Prevent Child Abuse America - where I also serve on the board - is a national organization with a mission to prevent the abuse and neglect of our nation's children. Many of the people in prison today suffered some form of abuse as children. I strongly believe that the children are our future. Unless we are able to correct child abuse - and provide opportunities to succeed - that future is not going to be very bright for any of us.

In addition to working with a number of local community organizations, I have been active with the American Bar Association's Minority Counsel Program, the International Association of Defense Counsel, the American Law Institute and a variety of other groups that address broad legal issues. I believe that we have a professional obligation to give back to the community and to do what we can to advance the principles underlying the profession.

Editor: The diversity initiative at K&L Gates is one of the celebrated programs across the country. Would you tell us something about the importance of the initiative to the firm?

Sweeney: As Chairman of the firm's Diversity Committee, I think I am in a position to say that it is an immensely important initiative. I have been involved in all of our diversity efforts from the beginning, and I work closely with Carl Cooper, our Chief Diversity Officer, and with Peter Kalis, the firm's Chairman and Global Managing Partner, who is also the principal architect of our diversity initiative.

I serve, in addition, as the head of the firm's Los Angeles office. One of the summer associates who will be with us this coming year, a Stanford undergraduate and Columbia Law School student, told us that one of the principal reasons she was drawn to the firm was the fact that having an African American as head of the office made a tremendous statement with respect to the firm's values. This state of affairs flows naturally, I think, from our firm's leadership, but it may not come naturally elsewhere. That makes this young person's comments particularly meaningful to me.

Editor: How does the firm relate to the law schools in its diversity recruiting?

Sweeney: With respect to every law school that our firm recruits from, we will conduct a session for the minority law student groups - the Asia-Pacific, Black, Hispanic and gay and lesbian organizations - either prior to our campus visit or during such a visit. We find that it is very helpful to address these groups directly so that they see we are truly interested in recruiting minorities.

We also put on a program, "Life for a Minority Attorney in a Majority Law Firm," targeted at minority law students where we bring them into the office for an evening to discuss common experiences and interact with our minority attorneys.

We make particular efforts at law schools with a predominantly minority student body, including Howard and Texas Southern's Thurgood Marshall Law School. We sponsor a lecture series at Howard in which we have a United States Supreme Court Justice speak at a luncheon, followed by a lecture from a prominent law professor. All of the students at Howard are invited to this event.

We have found all of these efforts to be very rewarding in our law school relationships because they demonstrate that our commitment to diversity is not simply going through the motions or window-dressing.

Editor: Is there a mentoring program at the firm?

Sweeney: We have a formal program where every lawyer is assigned a mentor. That mentor has the responsibility of interacting with his charge on assignments, work issues, relations with others - even personal matters that may have an impact on lawyer performance - on a regular basis throughout the year. We have superimposed on this structure a mentor coordinator for each office to make sure that the mentors are doing their job. At the national level, we have several people who ensure that the mentor coordinators do their job. We have training sessions for our mentors and a process for feedback from mentees. Our mentoring program is not something we leave to chance.

Editor: Everyone seems to agree that retention is a particular challenge these days. How is K&L Gates faring in this regard?

Sweeney: We are doing all right, but we should be doing better. Since we have made diversity a firm priority, we have focused a great deal of attention on retention issues. I think our mentoring program is having a positive impact. Nevertheless, we intend to improve on what we have accomplished to date.

Editor: Speaking of retention, on November 29th The New York Times published a front page story on a recent study that suggests that elite law firms may be setting up young African American lawyers to fail in the competition for partnership by hiring minority lawyers with much lower law school grades than their white counterparts. Needless to say, the article caused some considerable stir. Our readers would be most interested in hearing your reaction to this controversial study.

Sweeney: I have not examined the statistical information used in the study, so I am not in a position to argue with it. Speaking for our firm, however, I can say that we do not hire minority law students with much lower grades than their white counterparts. It simply does not work that way. Typically, we identify a grade range for a particular school, and we make offers to students within that range. We have some minority students at the high end of the range, and we have some at the low end. Of course, that is true of white students as well. We have a history with these law schools, and our experience is that students who perform within the range are likely to do well with us. And, like everyone else, we have had people with spectacular grades who have not succeeded with us.

Editor: Looking forward, what would you like to see accomplished at K&L Gates on the diversity front over, say, the next five years?

Sweeney: I would like to see greater diversity at the firm's partnership level and in leadership positions, and I have every expectation that will occur. What I would really like to see is the firm serving as a model for the legal profession, where people say, "Look at K&L Gates and what they have accomplished with their diversity initiative."

It is interesting to note that approximately 25 percent of all positions in the healthcare profession today are held by minorities. In the legal profession it is closer to 10 percent. If, and when, the legal profession reflects the composition of our society, we will see a greater respect for, and trust in, our legal system than exists today. We are becoming more diverse as a society, and all of our institutions are coming to reflect that diversity. I do not think the legal profession can afford to stay behind.

Please email the interviewee at paul.sweeney@klgates.com with questions about this interview.