Meeting The Challenges Of Achieving Diversity Goals

Saturday, March 1, 2008 - 00:00

Editor: Please tell our readers of your backgrounds and your position in the firm with regard to the diversity issue.

Murray: I joined the Firm in early 2003 as a senior Associate in the Firm's Litigation Practice Group and became a Member of the Firm in 2005. At the same time, I became Co-Chair of the Diversity and Hiring Committees.

Patel: I practice in the Firm's Health Care and Hospital Practice Group. I joined the Firm 8 years ago and became a Member of the Firm in 2006. I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity Committee since 2005.

Editor: You state that creating and maintaining a diverse workplace is of paramount importance to the success of your firm. What is the origin of this value?

Murray: Primarily this value comes from within us - our Firm believes it is the right thing to do. However, a little history might be in order. One of the founding Members of the Firm, Clive Cummis, was born and raised in Newark. After the Newark riots many local firms made the decision to move to the suburbs, but he and his partners decided to remain in Newark to be a part of the rebirth of this city and its community. Newark has always been a very diverse city. The Firm believes it should reflect the diversity of the community in which it is located and which it serves.

Patel: As Scott mentioned, diversity has been one of the core values of the Firm for a very long time, even if not reflected in any "formal" diversity projects. Over the years, this value has translated into various, more "formal" initiatives. For example, our Women's Group was implemented about 10 or 12 years ago, and since then we have added other projects reflecting our commitment to diversity.

Editor: Why is a diverse workforce so important?

Patel: There is a business case for diversity. We learn and profit by interacting with individuals from different cultures, ethnic groups, and economic backgrounds, all of which bring together different views of the world. This is especially important in this day and age when much of our practice involves cross border transactions from around the world.

Murray: As a litigator, I believe it is very important for me to foster a business partnership with clients. I need to understand their business and their goals to be able to advise them regarding disputes that have not yet turned into litigation, existing litigation, or business activities that may result in disputes or litigation. The more you can understand and relate to the client, the better. Having a diverse workplace improves communication, both within and outside the Firm.

Editor: What programs are in effect to benefit minority lawyers?

Patel: We have several different initiatives, depending on the type and level of attorneys. For example, in terms of recruiting first year and younger Associates, we actively work with our area law schools to foster relationships that will assist us with how to better address the issues and concerns of law students and recent graduates. We are also active participants in various local bar associations (such as the Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, and the Garden State Bar Association). Within the Firm, we have a mentoring program for diverse attorneys, in addition to the mentoring programs the Firm has for all Associates. We are active in various women lawyer organizations, including the National Association of Women Lawyers. At least once a year, our Diversity Committee organizes a major event with a focus on diversity in the legal profession, and our Women's Group organizes a major event for both our women lawyers and our women clients.

Murray: Our programs try to balance serving those who are in the Firm and those outside the Firm. Our goal is to help increase the number of minority students entering law school and then help them get jobs at law firms, be it here or somewhere else. We employ first year and second year law students and have mentoring programs and business development programs in place for our diverse Associates. We try to teach our young Associates how they can develop relationships with friends and former classmates that can evolve into business relationships in the future. Retention and promotion is a key goal for us so we try to help attorneys of color at all levels to make that transition and hopefully to move into positions of leadership within the Firm. Within our Diversity Committee, Anjana and I have started a lunch series with all of the Firm's attorneys of color to teach them about business development, marketing, getting the best assignments within the Firm, and working well here.

Patel: While we use these various opportunities to develop relationships with our diverse attorneys, often, it's not so easy in a large group setting - so we encourage our diverse attorneys to use our "open door policy" to bring up their own personal career-development issues.

Murray: In our experience, we have found that informal relationships work best to make our attorneys feel more comfortable and free to express their opinions, which in turn enables us to work through issues of concern. The personal connection is a key spark to a good mentoring relationship.

Editor: What is the percentage of attorneys of color and women attorneys in your firm?

Murray: The numbers are broken down in a couple of ways. As of January 31, 2008, 19 percent of our Associates are diverse, 4 percent of the Firm's Of Counsel are diverse, and 3.2 percent of our Members are of color. With regard to the current percentages of women attorneys, 46 percent of the Associates are women, 36 percent are Of Counsel, and 11.1 percent are Members. However, we would like to highlight the fact that since 2002, 30 percent of the individuals promoted to Member have been women and 20 percent were minorities. Similarly, looking at attorneys at the beginning of their careers, since 2002, 65 percent of our summer Associates have been women and 28 percent have been minorities. These numbers reflect the increasing growth of women and diverse attorneys at Sills Cummis, and demonstrate that our hiring, retention, and promotion efforts are paying off.

Editor: One of the principal issues faced by law firms is being able to retain minority lawyers. How is Sills Cummis faring?Patel: Quite well. As we've described above, we have a number of programs in place, not only from a recruiting standpoint, but also from a retention perspective. A key focus of our retention efforts is to have a good mentoring system in place. One of the things we try to do is to assign a mentor who we think will be most compatible with the mentee. So for example, sometimes, a mentee can have more than one mentor, depending on the background of the person. In addition, we have begun to implement a more focused mentoring initiative for mid-level Associates that will help them formulate a business plan and how to navigate in this Firm's particular culture. Every firm is different and so is its path to success.

Murray: Each Practice Group at Sills Cummis has a Member who hands out the assignments, with whom Anjana and I work very closely to make sure we understand what assignments are being given to the diverse attorneys. We want to make sure that the attorneys get important assignments and work with a variety of Members. Thus, they feel a part of the Firm and are more likely to remain and be promoted.

Murray: It is worthy to note that the competition is fierce for attorneys of color. At many of the law school or diverse bar association events I attend, I run into attorneys from other firms and it is continually evident that we're all fighting over the same pool of candidates. We know that as a New Jersey firm right across the river from New York, we might not offer as much remuneration as those other firms, so we have to make sure that our attorneys are fulfilling their ambitions here - learning and believing that this is the place where they want to, and can, have a future and a balanced lifestyle. That's why we're so committed.

Editor: Is your mentoring program successful?

Murray: We certainly deserve an A for effort. I don't think you should ever give yourself an A in terms of your accomplishments because then you start thinking you've succeeded and you don't have anything more to offer. We feel that there is always more that can be done.

Editor: What about your attrition rate for women?

Patel: I think our numbers are in line with other firms. But here again, it is the same issue - there is fierce competition in the region for good Associates and we work with our women Associates in numerous ways designed to increase our chances of retaining them, including by offering flexible part-time schedules, work-from-home programs, etc.

Murray: You can balance work/personal responsibilities. Technology is a vital component of that - we all have blackberries, we have computers and fax machines at home and any other technical aide to make working outside of the office possible. Attorneys no longer have to be in the office all day, everyday - work can be done at any time and anywhere as long as it is done. The Firm's technology initiative helps lawyers to feel they have the ability to balance work and home life - another reason for wanting to stay at the Firm.

Editor: What programs have your Women's Group introduced and are they successful in helping to retain women lawyers?

Patel: The Women's Group is one of our oldest initiatives, and so over the years we have learned that to be successful, we have to engage all of our women Associates, the younger ones and the older ones. Our programs are designed to address the specific needs and goals of women lawyers at different stages in their careers - at the beginning, at midlevel, and when they are more established and experienced, or if they are part-time after being full-time. Each year, in addition to other activities, the Women's Group hosts a major event for both our women attorneys as well as clients. We have found that this type of initiative is a great way for young lawyers, for example, to begin to build social and interactive communication skills.

Murray: We sponsor events, such as wine-tastings, that provide a forum for teaching business development goals as well as affording a good time. We've also participated in and sponsored the Women's Fund which provides funding for various services and initiatives that benefit women.

Editor: How important is diversity for your partnership with corporate counsel?

Murray: Diversity issues are very important in our relationship with in-house counsel. More and more corporate legal departments consider diversity programs to be a part of best practices, and as we also believe, being the right thing to do. We have invited to our Firm headquarters in-house counsel from companies such as Schering Plough, PSE&G, and Prudential to attend Diversity Committee breakfasts where they can exchange ideas with our attorneys. We have invited law students and members of the diverse bar associations. We have also invited judges along with in-house counsel for the same reason. We are aware that the business community affirms the diversity effort and this reinforces our efforts internally. It is also helpful to listen to these groups to confirm we are following best practices.

Patel: Diversity is very important to corporate counsel. For example, we sponsor Corporate Counsel Women of Color, which is an organization comprised of diverse women in-house counsel. When attending their conferences, it becomes pretty clear that diversity is very important to in-house counsel. At these conferences we have had an opportunity to discuss diversity in-depth with corporate leaders, much to our benefit as we get a lot of tips and practice pointers.

Editor: What would you like to see accomplished in the area of diversity over the next five years?

Murray: Recently, we saw an article about minority enrollment at law schools faltering. I would like to see law school enrollment on the rise and the number of junior Associates, Of Counsel, and Partners increase so that the pipeline is consistently full of quality candidates all doing well, enjoying the work, and everyone understanding how well diversity has benefited the legal profession. I want to see every firm continue to make that important commitment to diversity and try to improve the conditions for all attorneys of color.

Editor: Do you think that one day in the future diversity will no longer be an issue?

Patel: I don't think so. Diversity will always be an issue, simply because the world is made up of different people. I think the goal should be to keep up the efforts so that there are increased numbers of diverse attorneys at all levels within the legal profession, all with opportunities for growth and advancement.

Murray: The issues may be different but the goal is continual improvement and finding new ways to improve the legal profession. I think diversity is always going to be a part of that.

Please email the interviewees at apatel@sillscummis.com and smurray@sillscummis.com with questions about this interview.