Winstead PC: Starting At The Top, A Total Commitment To Diversity

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

Editor: Denis, as the new chairman and CEO of Winstead, what are your goals concerning the firm's diversity efforts?

Braham: My hope is that Winstead will be regarded nationally as a model for what an effective diversity program should accomplish. We will focus on diversity both with respect to recruiting as well as developing opportunities in the law firm for female lawyers and those with diverse ethnic backgrounds to rise in the firm and really prosper and flourish. A focus on encouraging ethnic diversity as well as gender diversity in our leadership is very important to us. I believe that message has to come from the top of the law firm and it is a top down as well as bottom up process.

Editor: Why do you consider diversity a must for your firm?

Braham: First and foremost, it is the right thing to do. Law firms in general have tended to become ivory towers that separate themselves from the rest of society yet we live in a very diverse society in which the communities are diverse. The importance of women and ethnic minorities in the workplace is significant. You see it all around in companies as well as socially in the business and civic community. We need to be reflective of the communities in which we work. It is also important from the perspective of our clients who expect us to bring diverse teams to the table representing them in matters of controversy or transactional matters. I do not want to have the firm just keep up with our peers in respect to diversity. I want us to be a leading firm in this area.

Editor: Tom, as chair of the firm's Diversity Committee, please describe some of the committee's recent efforts.

Forestier: This past year, we retained the services of a nationally recognized diversity law firm consultant in Chicago with the R3 Group. She has reviewed all of our statistical data to make a quantitative analysis of how well we are doing in recruiting and retention. She will also conduct focus group interviews in the Dallas, Houston and Austin offices and speak with attorneys who have left the firm to find out what motivated them to leave to address the retention issue, which is probably the biggest issue that firms around the country are wrestling with.

Other efforts by our Diversity Committee include implementing new programs that give our female attorneys more opportunities for client contact such as weekend retreats. In our recruiting efforts, the Diversity Committee is working to make sure that our incoming class of lawyers continues to reflect the student population at the schools where we recruit. That requires us to be more competitive with other firms who want to attract the same superstar lawyers that we are trying to recruit.

We are able to show recruits how serious we are about diversity through real life progress. For instance, we recently elected a female shareholder to our executive committee. We believe that these results will generate more interest among female attorneys because they know they can reach leadership positions at our firm. I think that sets us apart from many of our competitors.

Editor: Michelle, as a female shareholder and one of the newest members of Winstead's Executive Committee, would you tell our readers what attracted you to the firm?

Rieger: I was attracted to Winstead's entrepreneurial spirit. When I interviewed with two Winstead lawyers, I knew almost immediately that I wanted to practice law with them. They were young, enterprising and excited about practicing law together. What was particularly inviting was that they talked almost constantly about how, working as a team with the other Winstead lawyers, they would make Winstead a highly successful business law firm. While helping build the construction practice here at Winstead, I have been involved in various Winstead programs and efforts including recruiting, working with the Diversity Committee and chairing the Dallas office of the Litigation Section for a number of years. I am really looking forward to new challenges as a member of our firm's Executive Committee for the next several years.

Editor: In order to attract a diverse group of talented individuals firms have broadened the scope of their recruiting efforts. Have you found that top-level graduates from second or third tier law schools are as able to succeed as their counterparts from prestigious law schools?

Rieger: Absolutely! We always want the best and the brightest just as other law firms do. We know they can be found in a variety of different settings for many different reasons. I went to law school in my hometown of Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. My first day as a Winstead associate, I met a female associate who graduated from Harvard and we became good friends. We obviously ended up at the same firm despite the very different paths we took to get here. The beauty of going to law school is that the cases from which we generally learn the law are available equally to everyone. We studied Hadley v. Baxendale and Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. much like I understand the students at Ivy League law schools did (at least according to my friend from Harvard.)

Editor: Commentators have suggested that the inability to retain minority attorneys within law firms is due to a lack of key factors including: (1) adequate training, (2) mentoring relationships, and (3) exposure to important clients and projects. How does your firm's diversity program integrate these factors into its work environment?

Braham: Winstead has always been merit based in its approach to encourage people to stretch and grow professionally and personally. Our internal structure allows people to rise to the best level that they can regardless of their background. In that context we are very proactive internally about offering our associates the kind of services that will allow them to succeed, whether it is in-house continuing legal education, mentoring, or coaching and training. This firm is focused on making sure that within our practice groups, people have the opportunities to grow professionally.

Rieger: It is almost second nature to the shareholders at our firm that we continue to expose young lawyers to important clients and projects as soon as possible. In our litigation section, for example, we assign associates to supervising shareholders whose job is to make sure the associates are getting quality work and becoming more involved with various clients' legal issues. This leads to the associate drafting and finalizing the letters, memos, and pleadings themselves and attending the hearings with shareholders as second chair.

We have also developed a formal mentoring program that allows the new associate to choose a mentor from a list of shareholders who are not in the same practice area. We meet with our associate-protg at least monthly to listen and discuss what is happening in their professional lives. Sometimes I think I gain more from the process than my protg!

Editor: How important do you think the diversity efforts of your firm are to your clients?

Braham: Some clients are very focused on diversity and I expect more will see it as an important factor when retaining a firm. Many of our institutional clients are under their own pressures through their general counsels' offices to ensure that the teams working on their matters are diverse in all respects. They have pressure from their own boards, shareholders and in some instances the government.

Forestier: One of our clients, a major energy company, is very interested in seeing results. They get irritated when firms staff matters in ways that improve their statistical numbers but do not offer real world opportunities to the minorities or women working on the matter. For example, having minorities work on document review projects generate good statistics for some firms, but it does not assist in the professional development of those associates. Ultimately that will affect retention at those firms.

Editor: How does the Diversity Committee measure the success of its efforts?

Forestier: First, we participate in every survey that we receive. These focused questionnaires give us an idea of how we are doing statistically from one year to the next and how we are doing relative to our peers.

Secondly, by analyzing the results of our diversity consultant's study, we will have a better idea of how well we have been doing. We expect to have a long-term relationship with the consultant as we move forward. The numbers are part of that analysis, but it is more important to find out if the people are pleased and satisfied with the job that our firm is doing to make us a leader in the diversity area.

Editor: What are some of the things that law firms can do to promote a more diverse workforce?

Forestier: It is imperative that firms reach out to the various minority law student associations at the law schools. Winstead sponsors and participates in various events at the local universities such as the Third Annual Excellence in Diversity Weekend hosted by the University of Texas Law School. This gives us a chance to meet with students and develop and foster relationships that will lead to employment opportunities down the road.

Winstead is also looking at what we can do to encourage the students of color coming out of undergraduate programs to pursue law school. This past year, we partnered with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a charitable organization which provides four-year scholarships to minority youths for higher education. What impressed us most about this Foundation is that they don't just dole out money. They have developed a program that focuses on integrating the alumni with the younger scholars. Each year, all the scholars meet in New York City for a networking conference and to share their experiences. Winstead has joined with one of our clients to co-sponsor a scholarship that will be administered by the Foundation and we plan to encourage Jackie Robinson scholars to pursue law degrees through our continued partnership with the Foundation.

Please email the interviewees at dbraham@winstead.com, tforestier@winstead.com or mrieger@winstead.com with questions about this interview.