"It Is Increasingly Crucial For The Law Firms To Be In Alignment With Their Clients On Diversity"

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 01:00
John C. Yang

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

Yang: I am a Washingtonian. I went to George Washington Law School and
have practiced in DC for my entire career. I started at Wiley Rein &
Fielding as a summer associate and have continued to work here since then.

Editor: Would you share with us what attracted you to Wiley Rein

Yang: I was looking for a firm that was neither elitist nor too
traditional. One of my concerns was joining a firm where everyone expected you
to know what being a law firm lawyer meant. When I interviewed at Wiley Rein I
got the distinct impression that the firm was comprised of down-to-earth, very
friendly people. They did not have preconceived notions of what a law firm
should be, and they appeared to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing
business. I was correct in all of these assumptions.

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

Yang: I am a litigator by training. I am still engaged in litigation,
but more on the appellate side. I represent insurance brokers and companies in
coverage litigation, and over time my practice has evolved to include some of
the regulatory and transactional aspects of the insurance industry. The
increasing federal oversight with respect to insurance has also engaged my

Editor: As a member of the firm's diversity committee, can you tell us
about the origins of this initiative?

Yang: The diversity committee is about three years old now. It
originated in the recognition that diversity is of increasing importance to any
business, law firms included, wishing to attract the best and brightest to its
ranks. In addition, we came to realize that many of our clients were
increasingly interested in diversity, both as an ethical matter and as a
business concern. In marketing to a diverse society, they have come to
understand their need for a diverse workforce that reflects that society. We
were hearing this from all of our clients, and that certainly was central to our
thinking in setting up this initiative.

Editor: Did firm morale play a role in that decision?

Yang: Absolutely. The firm has always valued diversity, but until the
formation of the committee, it played out in a somewhat haphazard way. There
were a number of initiatives, but they were not always focused. Setting up a
diversity committee permitted us to coordinate those efforts. I think this
effort also reflects the way in which the firm has grown over time. When the
firm was founded, it had about 40 attorneys. Today the number is 260, a group
large enough to have a committee dedicated to the diversity process and to
centralizing and coordinating the efforts of each of the practice groups in
terms of recruiting and retention.

Editor: Would you give us an overview of the work of the diversity

Yang: The work of the committee falls into two general categories:
recruiting and retention. On the recruiting side, we work with the recruiting
committee to ensure that the law school and lateral candidates perceive the firm
as a good place to work. In the diversity context that means a place that
provides opportunities for everyone, and that is an image that we work hard to
project. On the retention side, we work with our associates committee to develop
a strong mentorship structure. That entails multiple mentors for our associates
and multiple layers of mentorship throughout the firm. Our associates are
mentored by people from within their practice areas, of course, but also by
those from other areas. With respect to our more junior attorneys of color, that
means, in addition, that we must ensure that they have the support networks they
need within the system.

Diversity is something that is part of our firm culture and cuts across all
of the firm's activities. Accordingly, the diversity committee must coordinate
its efforts with those of other committees. We participate in the work of these
committees with respect to law school and bar association activities, for
example, in addition to helping sponsor programs of many different kinds. And,
of course, we are always looking for ways to promote our achievements in these
different areas.

Editor: With the changing demographics of our law school populations over
the last 20 years, I assume you are able to recruit excellent women attorneys.
But, minorities - both men and women - are in short supply, and everyone is
competing for them. How do you go about making a case for Wiley Rein &
Fielding with minority candidates?

Yang: Because we are dealing with a highly sought-after pool, it is a
one-on-one business. With each candidate, we try to develop a personalized plan
to show why the firm makes sense for them. We may call upon people here
who happen to be graduates of the same school, and we will try to see that they
are introduced to as many people as possible, and at all levels, in the practice
areas of interest. One of the things that seems to appeal to minority candidates
is the fact that this is a young and dynamic firm. We give the impression that
we are willing to implement change. Many minority candidates are concerned about
going to a firm with a rigid structure and stagnating. And there are, to be
sure, large, well-established firms where stagnation is a problem. I am very
glad to say that Wiley Rein does not fall into that category.

Another differentiator so far as Wiley Rein is concerned is the fact that we
are merit-based. We try to give our associates as much responsibility as they
can handle as soon as possible. For minority candidates - people who have had to
work hard to prove themselves every step of the way - this is a very attractive
feature. They are aware of the fact that success here is not a function of
contacts, networks and alumni affiliations.

Editor: And retaining them once they have arrived?

Yang: Retention is a challenge for everyone. The key, I believe, is
good mentoring. Having senior lawyers at the firm who are committed to helping
the associates succeed, and who are known for this commitment, is crucial to a
sound mentoring program. In addition, it is important for the associates to be
in a comfortable environment in which they can express their concerns. There is
no such thing as an awkward or stupid question - about attire, firm behavior,
lunch meeting etiquette, and so on - and getting that concept across is a very
valuable way in which a firm reinforces its ability to retain good people.

Editor: Please tell us about the firm's relationships with professional
associations for women and minorities. Are these resources for your

Yang: We have done very well in our relationships with a number of
such associations, and I am personally very proud of those relationships. I
served as President (2003-2004) of the National Asian Pacific American Bar
Association and earlier served as President of its local affiliate. We tap into
these minority bar associations for their advice and expertise, and we utilize
them as part of our network to let people know what we are doing. I cannot say
enough about these associations as forums for discussing diversity issues. The
fact that we are present in such strength at this table is reflective of how
much support there is at Wiley Rein for these activities. They tend to be
long-term investments - an immediate return in the form of new business is
generally not expected - but they provide both valuable experience for those of
the firm's attorneys who participate and a wonderful resource on getting this
right for the firm as a whole. The firm's support here is one of the reasons I
have remained.

Editor: How do these efforts play with the firm's clients? Has diversity
become a business imperative?

Yang: Many of the firm's clients now require metrics with respect to
diversity. Whether in the form of a questionnaire in an RFP or with an
end-of-year summary, we see clients focusing on the diversity initiatives of the
law firms they are thinking about retaining. It is increasingly crucial for the
law firms to be in alignment with their clients on diversity.

Editor: Why is this commitment to diversity so important?

Yang: At the end of the day, it is essential that we recognize the
increasing diversity of our country. At the moment, about 30 percent of the
American population are people of color, and that is on the increase. In light
of the leadership position that lawyers and law firms occupy in our society - as
repositories of the nation's values and of its commitment to the rule of law -
it is important that they look like society as a whole. And when you walk
into court, it is important that judges, juries, and lawyers all reflect the
society they serve; it is important because it sends a signal that the justice
system is working.

Editor: What about the future?

Yang: In the Grutter decision Justice O'Connor expressed her
hope that in 25 years there will no longer be a need for affirmative action. It
is my hope that in the future we will not need a diversity committee or
minority bar associations because the issues that they are meant to address will
no longer be with us. In the more near-term future, however, I think we must do
a better job of getting more minorities into the law schools. Minority
enrollment in law schools has begun to flatten out. Many minority young people
do not see the law as a career option: it is not "for them," or they think it is
beyond their academic reach. If we are able to reach them at an early stage,
high school or even grade school, and expose them first-hand to some of the
wonderful achievements of minority lawyers, I think we can overcome the current
state of affairs. It is essential that we try to do so.

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

Yang: Over the past 40 years we have made great strides in terms of
equality. Sometimes we forget that we still have a long way to go. If we stop
and think about September 11 and the fierce backlash suffered by Arab Americans,
I think we will realize that we continue to face challenges. We are deluding
ourselves if we believe that this has been a battle fought and largely won
during the Civil Rights Era. We have special privileges as lawyers, and with
that go special responsibilities to make a difference.

Please email the interviewee at jyang@wrf.com with questions about this