"Diversity Reaches Every Aspect Of How We Interact With Each Other"

Friday, February 1, 2008 - 01:00

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

Thomas: I've been practicing approximately 30 years. I've been in commercial litigation, employment law, government contracts and, most recently, diversity counseling. I joined Holland & Knight approximately six years ago as a part of a diversity counseling group - primarily because of the firm's demonstrated values as well as the fact that it offered a broader platform, of more offices nationwide - and I've been here since then.

Lee: I've spent my entire legal career, which is a little over 10 years, at Holland & Knight in its Miami office. I entered law school with thoughts of becoming a public interest lawyer. One day Chesterfield Smith, Chairman Emeritus of Holland & Knight, spoke at the school about the values to which the profession ascribed. I grew up in Florida, so I was aware of the firm's reputation. As Mr. Smith spoke, I found myself attracted to the firm as a consequence of its pro bono commitment, the leading roles so many Holland & Knight lawyers - including, of course, former ABA President Chesterfield Smith - played in the profession, and the number of African-American lawyers building successful careers at the firm. These factors indicated to me the firm's genuine commitment to its core values. I saw the firm as offering great opportunities for personal and professional development.

My current practice is in the area of commercial and securities litigation. One of the most significant experiences I have had at Holland & Knight was working directly with Chesterfield Smith soon after my arrival here, which provided me with a real introduction to the firm's values and an opportunity to develop under the guidance of a great trial lawyer and legal legend.

Editor: Mr. Thomas, you are the firm's first Chief Diversity Officer. What is the background here? How did this position come to be created?

Thomas: A couple of years after my arrival, the firm's leadership asked the firm's Corporate Diversity Counseling Group to take a look at the firm from a diversity standpoint and advise how it could improve its own performance. Among the recommendations we made was the appointment of a diversity partner, someone to lead the diversity agenda throughout the firm, which at that point had 16 or 17 offices nationwide. Some offices were more active in terms of diversity than others, but the efforts were not coordinated. To attempt to remedy this situation I was named both Diversity Partner and Chief Diversity Officer.

Editor: What is the distinction between the two positions? Thomas: In my case there really is little distinction between Diversity Partner and Chief Diversity Officer. Many firms use one title or the other. In our case, my position deals with both the firm's lawyers and its staff, and involves being the head of the firm's diversity function. In that capacity I act as diversity counsel to the firm, and I oversee the firm's affinity groups. Each of our offices has a diversity committee focused on that office's diversity undertakings, and I oversee the work of those committees, including their outreach and community involvement. I also meet on a regular basis with the firm's leadership, including the management committees. In addition, I work with Tiffani, who is our firm's Diversity Marketing Partner, on an ongoing basis on marketing matters.

Editor: Speaking of Diversity Marketing Partner, I understand this is a new position. Would you share with us what the firm seeks to accomplish here?

Lee: I was named Diversity Marketing Partner for the firm in October 2007, and the position is indeed a new one. I am working with Paul, as Chief Diversity Officer, with our Chief Marketing Partner, Tracy Nichols, and with our marketing staff to develop and implement new marketing strategies in addition to enhancing those strategies already in place. This is meant to leverage the firm's collective diversity and that of the individual minority attorneys whose expertise would be of great benefit to our clients. The focus is on expanding relationships and developing opportunities with companies that share the firm's commitment to diversity.

Thomas: Let me add that although Tiffani was appointed to this position only recently, it derives from the work she has been doing over a long period of time. The exercise has been one of formally identifying the role she assumed on a voluntary basis and thereby recognizing her contribution.

Editor: What initiatives are planned to help in marketing the firm's diversity? Any returns as yet, or is it early days?

Lee: A number of efforts have been underway for some time, and within our affinity groups we have already implemented some focused marketing training for senior counsel and partner level attorneys of color at the firm. We have also dispatched some teams to clients and potential clients identified as having an interest in both the firm's legal expertise and its diversity. We believe these efforts will begin to show a return in terms of new business or an expansion of existing business. At the moment, I am helping our marketing professionals respond to diversity questionnaires from clients and assess our diversity marketing opportunities.

Thomas: I would say, in addition, that the firm has seen some benefit in coordinating all of our resources to analyze clients and potential clients and reach out to them. We see the teams being organized as a best practices effort to bring the firm's commitment to diversity internally to a much wider audience. This is a two-way street: it enhances our own culture as a firm and it helps to sell the firm to clients and potential clients who share our values.

Editor: This culture did not just suddenly come into being. How has it evolved?

Thomas: This did not just happen. I think everyone recognizes that very significant aspects of the firm's culture developed under the leadership of Chesterfield Smith. His force of intellect and personality were great - as anyone who ever met him can attest - and I think he used these gifts to bring out some of the finest values that the firm professed. Diversity and inclusiveness were very important to him, and he understood how attractive these things are to people of all backgrounds. His particular contribution, I think, was to implant these values in the firm's leadership, and thereby accelerate their formalization as a part of the firm's culture.

I think I am correct that today diversity reaches into every aspect of how we interact with each other: how we recruit and then hopefully retain people, how we train them, how we develop them professionally, how we encourage them to be active in the community as representatives of the firm, and so on, all of which derives from the atmosphere we create for them in the workplace.

Editor: Very often a firm expresses its commitment to diversity in platitudes and then, when you look beyond the platitudes there is not much of substance. Would you tell us about some of the concrete diversity initiatives that Holland & Knight has launched in recent years?

Thomas: Training was and is a major initiative. We are about to complete a year and a half of mandatory diversity training for all lawyers and staff. We also continue our training on a more focused basis, depending on what we see as our needs and what will help us enhance our diversity. We have a major mentoring initiative called "comprehensive mentoring" that is based on the proposition that, even though the firm assigns mentors to all incoming lawyers, some associates may find it advantageous to have an additional affinity or practice mentor. We have an internal newsletter in which I write a piece on diversity on a monthly basis. We communicate in a variety of ways, including periodic meetings of our Diversity Council, local office committees and affinity groups.

Lee: The examples that Paul cites are reflective of the firm's understanding that your needs change over the course of your career. As an associate - whether or not you are a minority - the primary concern is in developing legal skills and overall professional development. It is crucial, accordingly, that Paul, as Chief Diversity Officer, is involved in what the Professional Development and Recruiting Committee is doing.

As a lawyer approaches partnership, business development and practice development - being viewed as an expert in your field - become increasingly important. Marketing initiatives take on much more importance than they may have at an earlier stage, and training in this area becomes increasingly important. Our Rising Stars Program, for example, is a year-long leadership and professional development program for a select group of women attorneys from across the firm in a variety of practice areas. Among other things, this group has access to the firm's leadership on an ongoing basis and engages in focused review and study of issues of importance to the firm. It is not coincidental that graduates of this program go on to become leaders within their practice groups, offices and, ultimately, the firm.

Thomas: The Rising Stars Program to which Tiffani refers is run by our Women's Initiative, which is a member of our Diversity Council and has done an excellent job of incorporating diversity into its leadership program.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of the awards and honors that the firm has garnered in the past few years?

Thomas: Yes. This past year alone, one honor in which we take particular pride is the Minority Law Journal 2007 Diversity Scorecard, which ranked Holland & Knight No. 2 in the nation for the number of minority partners and the number of Hispanic attorneys. In September 2007, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which is the educational arm of the nation's largest advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population, assigned Holland & Knight a perfect 100 rating on its 2008 corporate equality index. In August 2007, the firm was named one of the best law firms for women by Working Mother magazine. Also in August, the firm was awarded the 2007 Crew Network Impact Award for the category of Industry by Commercial Real Estate Women.

Editor: Is there anything that either of you would like to add?

Thomas: I would like to point out that my position at the firm is a full-time position and evidences a significant statement of commitment, in both resources and time, on the part of the firm to diversity as a core value. This full-time focus on diversity affords me the opportunity to do everything I can to enhance the experience of that value at the firm. I am very grateful.

Please email the interviewees at paul.thomas@hklaw.com or tiffani.lee@hklaw.com with questions about this interview.