Epstein Becker & Green Promotes Diversity At The Firm And Beyond

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

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

Bonnefil: I was born in Port Au Prince, Haiti, and left in 1964 because of the unstable political situation. My father worked for the UN, and we traveled a great deal during my younger years, which exposed me to a number of cultures and different ways of thinking.

I decided to go to law school after working as the Official Court Interpreter at the Immigration Court in Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, where I focused on Haitian immigration cases. I also worked with the Executive Office For Immigration Review at the Varick Street Detention Center in New York City, where I acted as the court's chief administrator for four years. My exposure to immigration led me to believe that this was an important area in which to practice law, and that my language skills and comfort level with different cultures and backgrounds would constitute key advantages.

I attended law school at night at St. John's University School of Law. Following graduation, I was selected as a USINS [US Immigration & Naturalization Service] General Attorney through the Attorney General's Honors Program at the Department of Justice. This involved a considerable amount of trial experience. Afterward, I went into private practice at a small firm and later moved to a midsized firm for 11 years. I joined Epstein Becker & Green in May 2006.

Editor: What were the things that attracted you to EBG?

Bonnefil: The firm has a fantastic immigration department with a national reach. They have a great reputation for their work product and for their zealous advocacy on behalf of their clients. During my interview process, I came to realize that the firm has a strong focus on diversity, which I found very attractive. I believed that it would be a great place to work, and I have not been disappointed.

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

Bonnefil: When I first started doing immigration work, it was not seen as a mainstream practice area. Today, immigration is a part of our daily life and figures in every political discussion. At EBG we assist a great number of companies with their immigration issues, which range from complying with the legal and regulatory framework to bringing employees into work situations here and sending others overseas. With globalization, all of these matters have become center-stage and mainstream. In order to remain competitive, almost all major law firms today must have a business immigration capability.

Editor: In addition to your professional career, you have had a parallel career speaking and writing on immigration law. How has this helped your immigration practice?

Bonnefil: Speaking and writing helps me to stay abreast of all of the changes in my practice area. This is crucial because the immigration area is changing constantly. In addition, it keeps me in the public eye - Spanish-language television reaches out to me on immigration issues, for example - and that is a major boost for my career.

Editor: You mentioned EBG's commitment to diversity. Please tell us about the origin of this commitment.

Bonnefil: Diversity has been an issue of great importance at EBG since its establishment in 1973. EBG's co-founders have all actively promoted diversity, both at the firm and beyond. Steven Epstein, for example, has supported the creation and growth of the Institute for Responsible Citizenship, which runs an internship program for male African-American college students. Jeffrey Becker has been a supporter of programs such as the Chappaqua Summer Scholarship Program, through which minority youths from New York City high schools can attend school in Chappaqua, while living with families in the community. Jeff also supports the Workshop in Business Opportunities, a non-profit group that serves small business owners and entrepreneurs in underserved communities. And co-founder Ronald Green headed the Division of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Labor, pioneering the earliest enforcement of the federal affirmative action requirements. The firm's Managing Partner, George Sape, early in his career served in the General Counsel's office at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and remains committed to a work environment that promotes diversity.

From its founding, the firm's leadership has been committed to promoting diversity, and that heritage is very much with us today.

Editor: Would you give us an overview of the firm's Diversity Committee?

Bonnefil: EBG's efforts are led by its Diversity Committee. There are 16 members of the committee, which includes EBG partners from each of the firm's 11 offices throughout the country. The committee is chaired by Ken Standard, the firm's General Counsel and a past President of the New York State Bar Association. Ken is also a member of the American Bar Association's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and continues to lead efforts in New York and nationally to improve the advancement of minorities in the legal profession.

While the commitment to diversity is of course a firm-wide value, each office has a certain autonomy in implementing initiatives, which often reflect the culture of that office. Information about these efforts is shared among all the offices.

Editor: Do the firm's offices have relationships with some of the historically black law schools or with some of the minority bar and professional organizations?

Bonnefil: Yes, absolutely. The firm's Dallas and Houston offices employ a number of graduates of historically black colleges and universities, and the firm's offices around the country hold receptions for minority law students, participate on career panels at law schools, and provide counseling on employment and education opportunities in law for minorities.

EBG maintains ties with minority bar and professional associations and with the major bar associations for the purpose of channeling minority young people into a variety of fellowships, internships and scholarships.

The firm has sponsored and otherwise has regularly supported various minority bar and minority judicial associations' activities. It also has established an Hispanic Business Group. The firm is also a sponsor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Ken Standard and the firm actively support Street Law, a pipeline initiative for inner-city students, as well as other pipeline programs.

The New York office is proud to support the New York City Bar Association's Minority Fellowship Program and is a signatory to its Statement of Diversity Principles.

I should also note that that the firm's diversity initiatives very much include the recognition and support of women attorneys. We strive to increase the number of women attorneys at the firm through our recruiting and by partnering with clients, bar associations, and community organizations that cultivate similar ideals. EBG has founded a Women's Initiative, which includes seminars, conferences, and training sessions at locations throughout the country. Additionally, the firm is a founding sponsor of the Women Business Leaders of the U.S. Health Care Industry Foundation and supports part-time and flex-time employment for attorneys and staff.

Editor: Retention appears to be a significant issue for just about everyone. How is EBG faring in this regard?

Bonnefil: EBG faces the same challenges concerning retention as the other AmLaw 200 law firms. I think that's because, at least in part, these days there's a lot more churn among law firm partners and associates. It is no longer common for an attorney to spend his or her entire career at one firm. In addition, EBG and all firms face a limited supply of minority attorneys because of the shortage of minorities attending law schools. There are pipeline issues which affect retention.

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.

Bonnefil: Since EBG doesn't recruit directly from law schools - the firm has grown from lateral hires - this issue has not been a direct concern for us. However, I would suggest that when a law firm does recruit new law school graduates, it takes into account a great deal more than their GPA. It is cognizant of their backgrounds, activities and interests, their likely affinity for the firm's culture and their ability to "fit" into that culture and participate in the life of the firm. It takes into account their prospective relationships with others, both attorneys at the firm and the clients to whom they will be exposed. All these factors figure in a myriad of ways in a decision that is certainly subjective and relies less on whatever objective comfort can be derived from law school grades than some would think. To suggest that the system by which firms recruit young minority attorneys sets them up for failure is a pretty strong statement. I can't imagine that any law firm would go to the effort and expense of hiring law school graduates knowing they are going to fail, or that there is a good chance they will fail, in the competition for partnership. That seems to say that firms are going through the motions, that these diversity initiatives are simply window-dressing for the benefit of clients, and I cannot believe that is the case.

Editor: There are not enough minorities to go around, and the competition to hire them away from a firm must be pretty intense.

Bonnefil: It is. Lawyers leave firms for a variety of reasons, and very often they are not leaving because they are dissatisfied. A better opportunity may come along, or a different opportunity. In my experience, opportunities in community or non-profit service, opportunities in government and opportunities in the academic sphere are particularly attractive to many minority lawyers. Commentators on attrition have not really pinpointed why many new lawyers choose not to stay the course in the competition for partnership.

Editor: Looking forward, what would you like to see accomplished at EBG so far as diversity is concerned over, say, the next five years?

Bonnefil: The firm is on the right path, and I think it is important to continue doing what is now underway. As we become better known as a firm that embraces diversity, recruiting a diverse workforce and retaining that workforce should become easier. A firm that projects a true image of diversity to the clients it is attempting to reach and to the general public is a firm with good expectations for the future. In fact, EBG is now in the process of retaining a diversity consultant to enhance its diversity efforts.

In 2006, EBG's diversity achievements were recognized by MultiCulturalLaw magazine, which ranked the firm 18th in its annual list of the Top 100 Law Firms for Diversity. EBG is proud of this accomplishment and remains committed to building on this success and to increasing the number of minorities and women in the firm and throughout the legal profession in the United States.

Please email the interviewee at pgbonnefil@ebglaw.com with questions about this interview.