Wiley Rein: Making A Workplace Environment Comfortable For Everyone

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 00:00

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

Tatum: Before going to law school I worked as a teacher. I put myself through law school teaching French at Rice University. I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 1980. Being fluent in French, I was interested in an international practice, and I joined Baker Botts because I believed it had the strongest international practice of the Houston firms with which I was familiar. Thereafter, I moved to Washington and worked in the corporate transactional practice of Lane and Edson. In 1986, I moved to Akin Gump, where I worked for 14 years. I have been at Wiley Rein since 2000.

Editor: What were the things that attracted you to Wiley Rein?

Tatum: In early 2000, a friend who had moved to a new law firm encouraged me to interview at her firm. While I was considering whether I wanted to interview at my friend's law firm, I received a call from a head hunter asking if I was interested in interviewing at Wiley Rein. I did not know much about the firm, but thought, at a minimum, it would be a good opportunity to brush up on my interviewing skills. During the interview process I met some very impressive people, including Dick Wiley, who convinced me that playing more of a leadership role in a transactional practice with fewer lawyers but with high profile clients doing complicated transactions would be a satisfying career development for me. It has been a very positive experience.

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

Tatum: I started doing transactional work at Baker Botts as a young associate and liked that work. When I moved to Washington I looked for a transactional practice, and I have continued doing both transactional and general corporate work over the course of my career. There has been considerable variety to my work, however, depending on the focus of the firm at which I was working. At Lane and Edson, I did leveraged buyouts for Wesray Corporation. At Akin Gump, I worked on deals for large public companies, including acquisitions, IPOs and a variety of financing transactions. It was a great educational experience. Akin Gump also represented international clients, and I was fortunate to be able to do some interesting transactions for them. One client bought a refinery from a French-speaking country and the deal included negotiations in French with the Minister of Finance.

At Wiley Rein - as a consequence of the nature of our practice - most of our transactions are in highly regulated industries. We work on transactions for government contractors, healthcare providers, insurance companies, FDA-regulated companies, communications companies and a wide range of media enterprises. We work closely with our regulatory practices in most of these deals. I feel very fortunate to continue to have the opportunity to work on interesting, high profile transactions.

Editor: You are also Co-Chair of Wiley Rein's Diversity Committee. Would you give us an overview of the committee and its mission?

Tatum: At Wiley Rein, we care a lot about the culture of the firm. We work hard, but we treat others respectfully, and we like each other. We don't hire people who we feel will detract from the collegiality of the firm. Being inclusive is essential to a good firm culture.

Each practice group at the firm has a commitment to diversity, and it is the practice groups that implement the policies that promote this culture of inclusiveness. The Diversity Committee is a forum for discussion on how best to advance diversity in the firm. We gather information on what other firms are doing, discuss the activities that the firm should promote, address diversity issues as they relate to recruiting and retention, and communicate our recommendations to the firm. We act as a kind of focal point for the entire firm on diversity matters.

I should add that the committee is composed of a wide range of people, from entry-level and junior associates to senior partners. There are people of diverse backgrounds on the committee as well, including cultural, ethnic, racial and lifestyle diversity. That gives us a broad range of perspectives.

Editor: You mentioned recruiting. Please tell us about the firm's recruiting efforts in the diversity area. Does the firm have relationships with any historically black law schools, for example?

Tatum: We have an excellent relationship with Howard University Law School, and we interview every year at that institution. A first-year associate in my practice area is a very impressive graduate from Howard. We will continue to look to Howard for outstanding young lawyers.

Over the past few years we have expanded the group of law schools at which we recruit on a regular basis to include those that have a higher number of diverse students. For example, we have added the University of Texas in Austin and American University in recent years. These schools have higher percentages of diverse students than other institutions.

Editor: How about a mentoring program?

Tatum: We have several formal mentoring programs, and we have informal mentoring as well. On the formal side, a first-year associate is assigned to two associate and one partner mentors. Beginning in the fall, we have a number of mentor-mentee events for the new incoming group. These formal relationships remain in place for 18 months, but of course they often evolve into ongoing relationships of an informal nature.

We place a great deal of focus on mentoring with respect to lateral associates. Typically, lateral associates have five mentors, two partners and three associates. The intention is to help the new arrivals integrate into the firm, both socially and professionally. As I mentioned above, we care about our workplace culture, and that is of enormous benefit in making newcomers feel welcome. The atmosphere is open and friendly. The example comes from top management; Dick Wiley, for one, knows the name of everyone here, and I don't mean just the lawyers. When we received the Blackberry settlement money last year, every person at the firm shared in the proceeds.

There is a variety of informal groups at the firm. The women attorneys get together frequently for different events. We have people who gather for political discussions and for Bible studies. We even have sports teams. The informal mentoring that goes on in connection with these activities is an excellent way to ensure that the workplace culture remains one of the strengths of the firm.

Editor: One of the principal challenges that all law firms seem to face today is that of retaining their young minority associates. How is Wiley Rein faring in this regard?

Tatum: When I began my practice, most young attorneys looked for a firm where they would stay for their entire careers. That is not the way the profession works today. We experience people moving from firm to firm, as all firms do. In all of our practice areas our associates and partners are in a position where they are sought after for important government jobs or for general counsel or other in-house corporate positions. This is simply the way it is today, and it is not entirely a bad thing for the firm: they may retain us as they move into an in-house position and they may return to us at a certain point. I think Wiley Rein is faring well in an environment that is very different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Editor: Speaking of retention, on November 29th The New York Times published a front-page story on a recent study by UCLA law professor Richard Sander 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 Times story has caused some considerable stir. Our readers would be most interested to hear your reaction to this controversial study.

Tatum: It seems to me that Professor Sander has made a couple of assumptions that are simply incorrect. We should give him credit for having opened the discussion on these issues, but I know that we do not hire minority candidates with grades that are lower than their non-minority counterparts, and I cannot imagine any good firm intentionally doing that. We look at transcripts, read writing samples, check references and hold extensive interviews, and our minority candidates meet the same standards as everyone else. That is simply the way it is done.

The other point I do not agree with is the assumption that a person leaves because he or she is not doing well. There are wonderful opportunities in government and in corporate settings, as I have indicated, and there are times when the temptation is irresistible. In addition, the professional life we lead in a large law firm setting is not for everyone. The workload is heavy, the hours are long and we are subject to considerable stress. There are always people who opt for a less intense workplace environment after having experienced law firm life. I think, too, that many minority lawyers desire to give something back to the community and work in the public interest. But they are able to do so only after they have managed to get their law school debt under control - something that a few years at a large firm will enable them to accomplish. All of these reasons are much more likely to play a part in a person leaving a firm than his or her alleged inability to do the work.

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

Tatum: Our experience is that when we put a team of lawyers together to solve a problem or complete a transaction, the greater the diversity of perspectives brought to bear, the more likely the solution is going to be both innovative and complete. People from different backgrounds, educations and experiences tend to address a problem in different ways, and the result is almost always better than if all the people looking at the problem have the same perspective. In addition, addressing problems in this way is what our clients are asking of us.

Editor: Where would you like to see Wiley Rein in terms of its diversity in, say, five years?

Tatum: I do a considerable amount of interviewing on college campuses, and I am always glad to hear from law students that they have heard of Wiley Rein's reputation for having a good workplace culture. I would like to see that reputation grow to the point where the firm is recognized as being a wonderful place in which to work and a model for the profession in terms of its culture of diversity and inclusiveness. What I would like among the first things that come into a person's mind on hearing the name Wiley Rein is that it is a place where people do great work and everyone feels comfortable.

Please email the interviewee at ktatum@wileyrein.com with questions about this interview.