From Entry Level To Partnership Career Promotion: A Diversity Initiative That Touches All The Bases

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Sullivan, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Sullivan: I am an antitrust lawyer. Following law school I enrolled in the Honors Program of the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice. I was there for 11 years working on criminal and civil cases. In my final two years I was engaged in the divestiture of AT&T, where I was lead trial counsel on all of the post-divestiture issues before Judge Green. After the Justice Department, I practiced at two others firms for a total of eight years before joining King & Spalding in 1995.

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

Sullivan: I was a prosecutor in the first iteration of my professional life, and private practice has enabled me to work on a much broader range of cases, including fraud-related matters. I have also been able to expand my practice into the international arena and now handle both mergers and criminal matters in a variety of jurisdictions around the world. I have appeared before the European Competition Commission, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission and the Korean Competition Authority, among others, and this dimension of my practice has been both interesting and an ongoing learning experience.

Editor: You are head of the firm's diversity committee as well. Would you give us an overview of the committee and its work?

Sullivan: The committee is comprised of partners, associates and key staff personnel and includes two members of the policy committee, which is the firm's governing body. The diversity committee's mission, quite simply, is to promote diversity throughout the firm from recruiting and initial transition into the firm through all of the issues of retention and on into career promotion issues for our partners.

All of the firm's U.S. offices are represented on the committee, and the intention is to use the committee as a means to promote our diversity agenda throughout the firm on an office-by-office basis as well as on a firm-wide basis.

Editor: Is there a single firm-wide diversity initiative, or does each office have its own initiative?

Sullivan: We do both. Our part-time policy - one of the most liberal in the industry, by the way - is firm-wide, and we take considerable pride in it. This enables our people - both associates and partners - to move to part-time status on the basis of a clear agreement concerning compensation, promotion opportunities, goals and objectives, and the like, thereby enabling the participant to really manage his or her part-time experience with the firm. If the person's commitment is to work 1,200 hours a year, for instance, and that goal is exceeded, compensation increases on a commensurate basis. This idea is to eliminate one of the major concerns we have seen over time, namely, that the part-time attorney is part-time in name only. It is designed to make the part-time experience a successful experience and one that enables the person taking advantage of it to continue to make progress within the mainstream of the firm.

Let me add, most of the attorneys who have utilized this policy are female associates, and their participation often revolves around having a child. Some of our young male associates have taken advantage of it, however, and for similar family-related reasons. We have had a number of people, male and female, associates and partners, use it when faced with a family illness. We have even had a more senior partner use it at a point in his career when he wished to continue to make a contribution, but not on a full-time basis. We believe that it is important to make this kind of option available to our lawyers because it allows us to retain top quality legal talent, enhances the quality of the workplace experience and because it is the right thing to do.

Editor: Do you have relationships with law schools in connection with diversity recruiting?

Sullivan: We have both firm-wide and office-specific initiatives with law schools and minority law student associations throughout the country. For example, in DC we developed a unique program where we work with the Black Law Students Association, BLSA, and a number of area law schools on a writing course offered minority students on an annual basis. BLSA is a key organizer of this program, and a King & Spalding faculty teaches writing skills to minority young people signed up by BLSA. Howard University likes the program so much that they have requested that one of our partners conduct the course for their students unable to make it to King & Spalding. The program has been so successful that we have expanded it our Atlanta, Houston and New York offices.

Editor: Does the firm's summer associate program have a diversity dimension?

Sullivan: We have made diversity a key component of our summer recruiting. We have had a minority 1L summer clerkship program for more than ten years in some of our offices, and one of our Houston partners is the co-chair of the Houston Bar's minority summer clerkship program. We offer a 1L fellowship through the MCCA's Lloyd Johnson scholarship program. We thought the initiative was so important that, beginning with the 2007 summer class, we have instituted our own diversity scholarship program involving separate grants and summer employment to four individuals. For the coming year we have around 200 applicants already.

Editor: In light of the firm's connection with BLSA, I gather you have relationships with a number of minority professional associations.

Sullivan: One of the things I have done is to encourage our attorneys who wish to get involved in minority bar associations or diversity-related activities - and our firm has always been very active in this regard. For example, Harold Franklin, an associate in our Atlanta office, is the incoming president of the Gate City Bar, which is the Atlanta chapter of the NBA. We wish to see our lawyers work for these organizations - the Asian Bar Association and the National Bar Association among them - and to take leadership positions. We look upon these activities as a long-term commitment on their part, something important to their career development.

Editor: How is the firm doing in the recruitment of lateral minority attorneys?

Sullivan: All things considered, we are doing pretty well. We were able to recruit a number of female partners and a minority partner in 2006. I hasten to add, however, that there is a great deal of competition in this particular arena. We are working hard to improve our record here, and we believe we are heading in the right direction.

Editor: Please tell us about mentoring at King & Spalding. How does this work?

Sullivan: Mentoring is handled as both a firm-wide initiative and as an office-specific undertaking. At the firm level, we have a Link Program that pairs incoming associates, including laterals, with an experienced associate and partner. In the DC office, where our partners are on the road more than their counterparts in other offices, we found that the linkage arrangement was not sufficient and added specific mentoring responsibilities to ensure that the appropriate assignments - and a range of assignments - are being made.

Editor: Many of these programs are meant to address what everyone appears to agree is the principle issue these days, that of retention. How is King & Spalding faring in this regard?

Sullivan: We are doing all right, but not as well as we might wish. There is a great deal of attrition at law firms, and given the competition for minority lawyers, the opportunities that come the way of minority associates are often greater than those that might tempt other associates. We are hopeful that our mentoring efforts, including our retreat for minority attorneys, may prove helpful in retaining these valuable young people.

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 has caused some considerable stir. Our readers would be most interested in hearing you reaction to this controversial study.

Sullivan: I find studies like this sometimes miss the forest for the trees. They certainly make for debate. I do not believe that having lower law school grades - even assuming that is true - sets people up for failure. By graduating from law school, these young people have proven themselves to be bright, curious and capable of succeeding. From their perspective, and from that of the law firm, communication is the central issue, and that, I submit, has a great deal to do with being channeled into the right training experiences and getting the right opportunities at an early point. It is for that reason that we at King & Spalding put so much effort into mentoring. Law school grades may play a role at entry, but success over time is the consequence of a great many factors other than grades. I find it very interesting to see how many of the very finest lawyers were not at the head of the class in law school, and, as a result, I do not see the correlation that the study cited in the Times article appears to make.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts of what diversity and a culture of inclusiveness adds to a law firm.

Sullivan: The practice of law today is now global. We are dealing with issues that we could not have foreseen 15 years ago. In addition, the U.S. economy is far more diverse than it was, reflecting the increased diversity of the population. And international commerce, too, is fundamentally different today. This means that clients now are serving a very different base of customers - and law firms must understand these transformations in culture, legal systems and international trade in order to better meet their clients' needs. While it was never appropriate to deny opportunity to anyone on the basis of race, gender or religion, it is simply not possible to do so now and expect to be successful in a service business. The more diversity within a law firm, the better able it is to understand and address the immense variety of issues that its clients face. A diverse firm can bring a variety of perspectives to a project, and that adds value to the services that it provides its clients. That is certainly the case at King & Spalding, and the diversity we possess enhances our ability to serve our clients.

Editor: Looking forward, what would you like to see accomplished over, say, the next five years?

Sullivan: I think we need to improve our retention rates. Over the next few years I hope we will be able to see retention rates between minority and white attorneys at the same level. I would like to see more diversity at the partnership level, including both minorities and women. One major step forward involves dedicating more resources, including partner level resources, to this issue. My successor as chair of the diversity committee will devote the majority of her time to the firm's diversity plan and initiatives. We believe that bringing that kind of focus to bear on diversity will take this initiative to the next level.

Please email the interviewee at ksullivan@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.