For years, law firms of all sizes have struggled to find ways to diversify their attorney talent pools. Many of them took steps to do so through the use of valuable diversity, equity, and inclusion programming — but it’s now feared that firms will have fewer opportunities to instill DEI into their cultures thanks to a raft of legal threats in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action. That being the case, what can law firm leaders do when it comes to cultural change and effectively diversifying their firms?
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Heidi Reavis, managing partner of Reavis Page Jump, a successful women-owned and -led law firm, to get her thoughts on the matter. Here is a write-up of our lively conversation on how law firms can attempt to embed meaningful social change into their cultures.
Staci Zaretsky (SZ): Lawyers looking to make lateral moves are often concerned about a law firm’s culture. How would you best describe the culture at your firm?
Heidi Reavis (HR): Admittedly cynical, I believe that attorneys joining a company or firm generally already anticipate that the corporate culture expressed publicly is more a product of shaped PR than reality. Let’s face it, we are also living in an external environment of distrust of the “news” and PR generally, with allegations of “fake news” and conspiracy theories abounding in the daily press. There is a healthy and understandable distrust of what “information” firms put out there about themselves.
However, with social media, open rating sites, and greater transparency when it comes to personnel and pay, there is more information (or at least more commentary) available than ever before for prospective applicants as they consider firm options and work cultures that align with their needs and values. Just talk to someone who was selecting law firms in the 1980s when the only available resources were the printed and bound (and by definition already obsolete) Martindale-Hubbell Directories and annual NALP statistics that roughly or grossly overrepresented who was where and when.
Yet, with all this added information and so-called “transparency” today, it has been reported that most women and people of color leave Biglaw on account of “culture.” That term means so many different things to so many, and I would contend that most law firms are content not to do the hard work that’s involved in real change. Diversifying law firm leadership is essential, as is recruiting more broadly at earlier stages, along with broadening the review process to include early identification and development of diverse skill sets. I recently read that only roughly 17% of law firms have women as the Chair or co-Chair, which tells us a lot. Ironically the law is an obstacle to this goal because of the limitations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which does not apply to equity holders) as well as legal concerns over timing and methods of change. Greater change will come in recognizing how a more diverse and equitable future starts even before the new hire.
The power of lawyering is the ability to influence results. At RPJ, we encourage not just our lawyers but all of our colleagues to examine and discover within themselves what motivates them, what they enjoy, and what challenges or frustrates them – to develop strong communication and advocacy skills. Law practice is a process of daily discovery, not just about our clients and their issues, but also about ourselves. Our personnel are encouraged to steep themselves in the business of our clients as part of developing their areas of expertise. We also reward our attorneys financially at every level if they are able to originate new clients to the firm, which generally incentivizes our attorneys to go deeper into industries without necessarily feeling the urge to become corporate counsel. We try as much as possible to balance our clients’ needs and priorities with those of our personnel, flexibility being key. And while the cake may occasionally come out looking different than expected, it is usually a successful recipe.
SZ: The legal profession writ large is slowly but surely changing for the better by making attempts to diversify. How have you managed to do so at your firm?
HR: One advantage our firm has is that our client base is diverse due to the nature and range of our practice areas. Dispute resolution and litigation, employment and labor, media and entertainment, intellectual property, and commercial counseling — these core fields of practice serve constantly changing work environments. We have also been in the employment training field for some 25 years (and indeed attorneys of our firm are media producers themselves), so we are very public in demonstrating our firm identity and priorities, which include our colleagues investing in industries that most interest them as well as cause-driven undertakings (such as cutting-edge cause-based litigation, and media programs and documentaries leading to greater social justice and legislative change).
So, one unique aspect of our firm is we are public-facing in our work and accordingly attract a diverse clientele as well as socially-minded personnel. We are also LGBTQ+ oriented and publicly WBE certified. By way of example, our firm represented Lauren O’Connor whose situation with the Weinstein Corporation and related memorandum triggered the #MeToo movement in October 2017, and for years we have provided production legal as well as producer and executive producer services on influential television and feature documentary productions. (Ed. note: Heidi holds an Emmy Award™ and a Peabody Award™ in her personal capacity as an Executive Producer of documentaries that have made a difference.) Attorneys understand that working at our law firm means being trained in multiple modes of advocacy and working with a team that aspires to make a difference — for our clients and the world.
SZ: What methods would you suggest that other law firm leaders use to foster social change within their firms?
HR: We are living in fraught times where taking a stand may mean crossing legal lines – or the fear of it. One need only look to the university setting to see how shying away from positions can backfire terribly – not taking a stand. Law firms fall prey to this dilemma, being reluctant to take positions on external events having a legal or societal impact, which has an impact on culture. This is an area meriting deep consideration on the part of law firm leadership, given firm resources, cultural priorities, and, simply put, the ability to influence and lead.
If a law firm has, as one of its stated priorities, broader social change – employing its tremendous resources and skill sets for social change externally – then the more personnel is involved in initiatives at every level, the better. It stands to reason that a sense of collective accomplishment and gratification would have a positive impact internally and assist with attorney recruitment as well. Many firms have garnered positive reputations for social change because of their commitments to causes, legal services, non-profit work, and the like. Many of those firms attract lawyers focused on social change as a result, which naturally impacts firm culture; however, one challenge is how social impact work (such as impact litigation) often takes a long time to come to fruition. Tie-ins with non-profits concerning projects or “smaller” client matters that come through services (such as the City Bar) go far to foster a sense of balance and accomplishment at the same time as client work that may fuel the bottom line. We have found that diversifying attorney work is one of the keys to avoiding a “lights out” moment. Sometimes too much of a good thing is not, in the long run, a recipe for long-term professional gratification and success.
Looking at “social change” another way, if attorneys are rewarded for igniting their various communities – both personal and professional – then it stands to reason the firm will benefit and inspire greater community and diversity. Biglaw has an advantage over small firms because the Am Law 200 hire so frequently, and the opportunities for engagement with their attorneys are so numerous, the possibilities are awe-inspiring. One area of challenge in Biglaw is when and how that engagement can occur and be fair across all attorney lines. Generally rewarding attorneys financially at all levels for new business development and new client origination is also very helpful in encouraging leadership as well as inclusivity and community development, a win-win-win for all concerned.
SZ: Please tell me what you think is the most important way that law firm leaders can make meaningful changes to further diversify their firms?
HR: With respect to DEI programs, we are seeing political, judicial, and legislative attacks on affirmative action and DEI programs for being discriminatory in the wake of SFFA v. Harvard. Law firms may be concerned over litigation as well as legislative action concerning DEI programs and DEI initiatives, which may result in dragging or reducing such initiatives after so many years of focus and initiative. The trend in this area is very disturbing.
For these and other reasons, law firms may focus on more organic initiatives – legal industry programs at schools including high schools and colleges, hiring a broader pool of interns and paralegals before law school, scholarship or award opportunities, earlier mentoring of law students and law clerks, initiatives that invest more in the future and market the firms to more diverse and inclusive communities at the outset. In the Jerry Maguire sense of the term “follow the money,” Biglaw has the personnel and resources to make a difference both externally and in recruiting for the future, through programs that result in both civic engagement as well as greater diversity.
Another dimension of law firm diversity is work styles, not just in work location, but understanding work is no longer a 9 to 5 expectation. One result of COVID-19 was employers getting a window into their colleagues’ work environments and work matters – for example, we have a design client that learned its personnel were generally working at night and into the night, as opposed to during the day. That may not work for all law firms, but “leaning in” and understanding preferred work routines, and being open to them, is a hugely important part of attorney recruitment and retention. Similarly, law firms offering shorter work weeks as an employment selection conveys flexibility and will result in greater retention given how “life gets in the way” of a full-time commitment sometimes, and lifestyle choices often lead attorneys to abandon ship entirely when a smaller vessel can be available.
One reason attorneys join law firms is to have the credentials and also exposure to the firm’s client base, knowing the affiliation may lead to corporate positions with firm clients. Seconding lawyers to clients is a common practice. Given the majority of law firm associates depart from the firms they initially joined, law firms could create more intra-firm/client programs to expose their lawyers to industry, providing one more incentive to join and recruitment appeal.
Law firms can also distinguish themselves by which clients they accept. Let’s face it, while we may agree that every defendant deserves a defense, law firms make institutional choices every day concerning which clients they choose to represent and the cases they choose to accept, and attorneys pay close attention to those choices and their broader impact. If a law firm espouses as part of its culture, for example, racial and gender equality, yet defends a corporate client in a broad race discrimination action or attempts to justify certain behavior allegedly violative of Title VII or Title IX, for example, then it shouldn’t be surprised when its attorneys choose or defect to another team.
On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, we’d like to thank Heidi Reavis of Reavis Page Jump for taking the time to help answer some pressing questions on how law firms can diversify their firms to change their cultures for the better.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter and Threads or connect with her on LinkedIn.