Building The Right Workplace Atmosphere: An Exercise In Common Sense And Goodwill

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 01:00

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

Gauthier: I am a first generation American. My parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic a few years before I was born. I grew up in New York and attended Catholic schools from first grade through high school. I went on to attend New York University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I have been working in Delaware since graduating from law school. Following a clerkship in Family Court, I practiced law in three other firms before joining Stradley Ronon in 2005.

Editor: How did you come to Stradley Ronon? What were the things that attracted you to the firm?

Gauthier: I have known Claire DeMatteis, the Director of Stradley Ronon's Wilmington, Del., office, since I graduated from law school. We served together on the Delaware State Bar Association Executive Committee. In 2004, shortly after she had joined the firm, she called me to inquire whether I might be interested in joining as well. After hearing great things about the firm from its executive committee members and others outside the firm, I became very interested in joining the firm. Stradley has been very supportive of what I want to do with my career.

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

Gauthier: I began my practice with a specialization in Delaware holding companies, and, in time, I became very knowledgeable in Delaware General Corporation Law. As a junior attorney I was engaged in forming and organizing numerous corporate entities, but the desire to move beyond that made me seek opportunities in larger firm settings. Today, much of my practice involves advising directors and senior executives on corporate governance issues and handling corporate transactions.

Editor: In 2003 you were the recipient of the Leadership Award of the Multicultural Judges & Lawyers Section of the Delaware Bar Association. Would you share with us what led to that recognition?

Gauthier: I had served as vice chair, secretary and special advisor of the section for a number of years. Over time, I have been involved in initiatives that were important to our members, including opposition to legislation that we felt would adversely impact the ability of minorities to serve on juries in Delaware, and involvement in a study on whether state police were engaging in racial profiling. I acted as spokesperson for the section in these initiatives, which contributed to my being considered for the award.

Editor: You also serve as Chair of Stradley Ronon's Diversity Group. Would you give us an overview of the group and its mission?

Gauthier: The mission of our group is to attract members of minority communities to the firm, and to support efforts to retain them once they have joined. Part of the mission includes building a supportive community within the firm. We also encourage people to get involved in the Greater Philadelphia community, and to attract clients to the firm by developing relationships with our counterparts at in-house legal departments.

Editor: Tell us about the firm's recruiting of women and minorities.

Gauthier: We do a terrific job at recruiting, as evidenced by the number of women and minorities at the firm. Their presence helps us validate what we tell young lawyers about the firm and its commitment to diversity. Last summer, seven of our 10 summer associates were women, and two were minorities. Nine of the 10 will be joining us when they graduate.

Editor: Does the firm have a mentoring program?

Gauthier: Yes. We have a formal mentoring program for associates in their first and second years. Mentors receive training, and mentor/mentee pairs participate in a strategically designed orientation process. The program is administered by one of our partners along with our director of associate development. Additionally, we are launching a career advisory program for senior associates this spring. We are also in the process of developing specialized mentoring programs for diverse attorneys and for women, together with integration teams for incoming lateral associates and partners.

In addition, there is informal mentoring. We encourage our partners to identify younger firm attorneys whom they can guide and support throughout their careers. Essentially, we encourage relationships.

Editor: One of the principal challenges facing law firms today concerns the retention of their minority and women associates. How is Stradley Ronon faring in this regard?

Gauthier: I think that Stradley is doing very well in this regard. One of the things that attracted me to the firm was its diversity. Two of the firm's African-American partners, Andr Dennis and Danielle Banks, have spent their entire careers here, which I think says a great deal about the firm's perception and treatment of minorities.

Just this year, the firm elected seven attorneys to partnership, two of whom are Asian American, Deborah Hong and Peter Hong, and three of whom are women. Of the three women, two are on reduced-work schedules. One of the challenges that many in the profession face today revolves around family and workplace issues. The firm recognizes this and works hard to enable attorneys and staff to balance family commitments and careers. Talent comes from a variety of backgrounds, and the firm understands how important it is to try to accommodate the needs of talented people in order to ensure that they will continue to be available to the firm and its clients. All of this contributes to a very positive workplace environment, which, in turn, encourages our minority and women associates to stay.

Editor: Speaking of retention, on November 29, 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 a considerable stir. Our readers would be most interested in hearing your reaction to this controversial study.

Gauthier: The study has generated a great deal of controversy. To my mind, the study is much too focused on the educational piece that goes into a person's career and, as a result, gets the entire process wrong. Many people have spoken and written about the study, and one of the most eloquent, the Executive Director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, Veta Richardson, has pointed out that the three basic ingredients for success over and above education are: whether you like what you do; whether you like where you do it; and whether there are people available to guide you through the evolutionary process that constitutes career advancement. If the answer to any one of these is "no," you are probably going to leave for greener pastures. I think that philosophy is right on target. I think people leave because the environment is uncomfortable, not because they are not making the grade.

Editor: Another thing that seems to be emerging from this discussion is the recognition that firms are losing many of their minority young people, but not always for the wrong reasons.

Gauthier: I agree with that proposition. Many of my friends have left law firms to join corporate legal departments. They might have intended to go in-house directly from law school, but that is not often an option because corporations tend to hire lawyers only after they have had some law firm training. Other people leave firms to go into the academic world or to take a government position. Very often, it is nothing more complicated than an opportunity to make a contribution to a larger community - something that might not be available in some law firm settings - that beckons.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts on what a culture of diversity and inclusiveness does for a firm's morale?

Gauthier: I think such a culture has a very positive impact on a firm's morale. In an atmosphere where people are permitted to be themselves and to express their views, they are comfortable. And when they feel good about themselves, they tend to feel good about their work and about the firm that fosters this environment.

In the past, I think there was a certain emphasis on conformity in law firm cultures. Diversity was something that people avoided discussing. "Fitting in" was very important, and that meant that a young attorney might have to keep his head down and his views to himself if those views differed from the firm's mainstream culture.

Editor: Looking forward, what would you like to see accomplished at Stradley Ronon on the diversity front over, say, the next five years?

Gauthier: I would like to see the trends that have been underway since my arrival at the firm continue. I would like to see our diverse attorneys continuing to support each other in their career advancement and to enhance the culture of diversity that has had such a positive effect on the firm. Our board of directors and executive committee have been big supporters of the firm's diversity efforts; and it is leadership at the top, I think, that serves to guarantee the continuing success of these efforts. We truly recognize the value of diversity, and now that we have built up some momentum, we can serve as a model to show others what a culture of inclusiveness and support can do for a law firm.

Please email the interviewee at fgauthier@stradley.com with questions about this interview.