"As We Promote Diversity In The Firm, We Promote It In The Profession - That Is Both An Obligation And A Privilege"

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00
Abbott, Simses & Kuchler
Janika D. Polk

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Abbott: I graduated from Tulane University School of Law in 1972. After working for two firms for several years, I decided to start my own firm in 1980. I am a trial specialist and have now tried 157 cases to verdict or judgment all over the country.

Polk: I am a lifelong resident of New Orleans. I received my undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University and my juris doctorate from Southern Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Editor: Please tell us about Abbott, Simses & Kuchler. What is the origin of the firm, and how has it evolved over time?

Abbott: Since our firm was formed in 1980, it has grown to 42 lawyers with offices in New Orleans, Houston, Jackson, Mississippi, and Covington, Louisiana. In the early days the firm had a primary focus on maritime law because of the volume of that business in Louisiana. In time, that market began to shrink in the mid-1980s, and many lawyers throughout Louisiana moved into other practice areas.

Our firm has always had a strong emphasis on trial work. We have cases in 34 states today, and they are very broad in scope, including commercial, employment, environmental, toxic tort, class actions, products liability and a variety of other types of cases.

Incidentally, Janika Polk recently obtained a judgment at trial, involving an environmental release, for a Fortune 500 client.

Editor: How did the firm fare with respect to Hurricane Katrina?

Abbott: As a consequence of Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans firms laid off many, many employees, from support staff to attorneys. We decided not to do so. All of the people at our New Orleans office - many of whom lost their homes in this tragedy - were offered jobs in our other offices and, when we were able to return to New Orleans, came back to their former positions.

Many of our people who went to the Houston or Jackson offices arrived, quite literally, with only the clothes on their backs. They were taken in, made to feel welcome and, in many instances, taken into the homes of our Houston and Jackson employees. If there is a good side to such a terrible event, I think it lies in the fact that it can bring out the best in people. As a firm, we have certainly benefited from the intense loyalty of those from our New Orleans office who have been the recipients of the generosity of their colleagues in our offices in other states.

Editor: Ms. Polk, how did you come to the firm? What were the things that attracted you?

Polk: I clerked at several firms while I was in law school, and experienced some unpleasant working environments where I was often the only female and/or person of color. I wanted a more diverse working environment. I did research on firms in New Orleans and was genuinely impressed with Abbott, Simses & Kuchler's commitment to diversity.

I took the initiative and contacted the firm to request an interview, which led to my joining the firm. I found the diverse environment that I was looking for, an environment where my contribution is valued and where I can be true to the person that I am. Thereafter, I became a shareholder/owner in the firm.

Editor: The firm has an outstanding reputation for its commitment to diversity and its culture of inclusiveness. This did not just happen. How did this come about?

Abbott: At the moment, 47 percent of our attorneys are women; 30 percent are minorities. Of our shareholders/owners, 36 percent are women and 8 percent are minorities. Notably, we do not have any special "of counsel" categories where a person is a shareholder/owner in name only. Rather, our commitment to diversity is real.

I believed in diversity when I started the firm and have never thought that a business setting was a place for differentiation of any kind based on gender or race. Promoting diversity is simply the right thing to do.

It is also good business sense. As the firm evolved, and we began to try cases all around the country, we realized that we were before very diverse juries. We were quick to realize long ago that having attorneys who looked like the jury pools in our cases gave us a competitive advantage.

Editor: Ms. Polk, you serve as chair of the firm's diversity committee. Would you tell us about the committee and its mission?

Polk: Our mission is to promote inclusiveness in the broadest possible sense. We seek to recruit the most talented women and minority attorneys available, and we have a particular focus on retaining them. The committee is also engaged in community activities. We have scholarship programs, including one at Loyola University in New Orleans, where each year a minority student is the recipient of one of our scholarships. We also interview at all law schools in our region with a large population of minority students. It is essential to be proactive in such initiatives. We also make an extra effort to attend minority job fairs, such as the DuPont Minority Job Fair. This is not just lip service for us. We actually hire from these valuable recruitment opportunities. All of these efforts serve to enhance our ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest attorneys.

Editor: Does the firm have a formal mentoring program?

Abbott: Yes it does. Every associate has a mentor, and every shareholder is assigned associates to mentor. We have an open door policy and encourage the associates to bring their concerns to their assigned mentors. Of particular importance is the responsibility that the shareholder has to the firm for each mentoring relationship, including responsibility for the development of each person they are assigned. We have attempted to build accountability into the process, and it appears to be working.

Editor: One of the principal challenges that most firms are facing today has to do with the retention of its talented women and minority associates. How is Abbott, Simses, & Kuchler faring in this regard?

Polk: I think we are doing a good job. One of the complaints you here from women and minority attorneys is that they feel that they are just a number. That is not the case at Abbott, Simses, & Kuchler. We make an effort to provide opportunities for career development, marketing, and the promotion of client relationships for our women and minority attorneys. Leadership opportunities are available to them to the same degree as anyone else. This fosters an environment of inclusiveness and because of these efforts, our retention challenge appears to be less acute than what may be the case elsewhere.

In fact, we have a large group of women and minority attorneys who have been at the firm since graduating from law school, myself included. I cannot imagine being anywhere else. I have friends who have jumped from firm to firm looking for that sense of inclusiveness that we have, which has certainly contributed to our success in retention.

Abbott: As to retention, Debbie Kuchler, one of our name shareholders, has been with us for her entire career. She became a shareholder, incidentally, while a part-time attorney. Sarah Iiams, the next ranking attorney at the firm, has been with us since the day she graduated from law school, as has Monique Weiner, the next-ranking attorney, who also became a shareholder while working part-time.

Editor: The firm has long been committed to the principles of the DuPont Women Lawyers' Network and involved in that network. What has belonging to the network meant to the firm?

Polk: We have been working for DuPont since 1984. When DuPont started its convergence program in the mid-1990s, we became the PLF - the Primary Law Firm - for all of Louisiana and Mississippi, and part of Texas. When the DuPont Primary Law Firm Network was established, one its principal purposes was to promote women in the profession, which is something that is central to our firm's culture. Once the DuPont Women Lawyers' Network was formed, we became, and remain, very active in it.

Abbott: Both the DuPont Primary Law Firm Network and the DuPont Women Lawyers' Network have been extremely important to the firm. There were a number of firms which had worked with DuPont for as long as we had but were not selected for the DuPont Network. Being a DuPont PLF represents a vote of confidence in our work and in our values on the part of one of the world's great companies. That has given us great credibility in the markets we serve.

Having our female attorneys participate actively in the DuPont Women Lawyers' Network has brought immeasurable professional growth and development to each of them.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about what a commitment to diversity means with respect to a firm's morale?

Polk: It means a great deal to everyone at our firm. It means that you have a place, that you are not just a number and that you are valued for your contribution. It also means you are part of a team that provides a better product to its clients by virtue of its diversity.

Editor: What about the future? Where would you like to see Abbott Simses with respect to its diversity initiatives in, say, five years?

Polk: As a shareholder and owner of the firm, I understand its pulse and know where we are going. Our diversity efforts will stay the course. Abbott, Simses & Kuchler will continue to contribute to the growth of our profession by enhancing the opportunities available to women and minorities. As we promote diversity in the firm, we promote it in the profession - that is both an obligation and a privilege.

Please email the interviewees at larry-abbott@abbott-simses.com or jpolk@abbott-simses.com with questions about this interview.