Diversity in Corporate Law Firms

Speaker’s Corner From The Practice January/February 2017
A conversation with Valerie Radwaner

Valerie Radwaner is a partner and deputy chair of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. Radwaner recently sat down with David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession, for a one-on-one conversation on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

David Wilkins: Let me start off at the broadest level. One of the issues we’re interested in is how people define diversity. Most people would say racial and ethnic diversity, but other people think of gender diversity, socioeconomic diversity, diversity of thought, and the list goes on. As a senior leader, how you think about diversity?

Valerie Radwaner: We think about diversity in terms of historically underrepresented groups in the legal profession. Our definition is all encompassing and certainly includes racial diversity, gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and sexual orientation diversity. This broad diversity brings together lawyers and professionals with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and ideas. Our Paul, Weiss culture welcomes those with different views and we encourage everyone to participate and be part of the conversation. Our long and rich history of breaking down barriers has taught us that diversity of backgrounds and thought—whatever form they take—makes us a stronger firm and makes the legal profession a more interesting, open, and inclusive community as a whole.

Wilkins: That leads into the next question, which is how do you define success in what you’re doing? Your firm has spent a lot of resources—money, time, and so on—on diversity and inclusion programs. How are you gauging the success of your efforts?

We think one of the differentiating factors for us is that we start really early in our diversity efforts. We begin to look for diverse talent in high school.

Valerie Radwaner, partner and deputy chair of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP

Radwaner: At Paul, Weiss, we work really hard to foster what has been part of our DNA from the very beginning: an inclusive culture where all lawyers can thrive. To that end, we ultimately define our success by our lawyers’ achievements. Of course, those achievements can be understood in different ways. For some, it’s defined by their careers here at Paul, Weiss. For those who go on to pursue other endeavors, we believe that their time at the firm ingrained in them an understanding of the importance of diversity. We certainly have many distinguished diverse alumni who have gone on to achieve much success and do many interesting things in the legal community, the business community, the government, and the not-for profit sector. For example, Jeh Johnson just returned as a partner—we grew up together as associates and partners here. This marks his fourth return to Paul, Weiss after stints in public service, including three Senate-confirmed presidential appointments. Or Hakeem Jeffries, who’s now a member of Congress. We are so proud of them and they remain part of Paul, Weiss whether we can actually count them in our firm demographics on any given day or not.

We have short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals for our diversity and inclusion strategy, and we continuously monitor and adapt what we’re doing. We think one of the differentiating factors for us is that we start really early in our diversity efforts. We begin to look for diverse talent in high school. Every year we partner with non-profits serving underrepresented groups and local high schools in New York City and Washington, D.C. so we can reach young people who may not know about professional opportunities in the legal industry. We provide programming and early exposure so that young people have a better understanding of what lawyers do, what judges do, and what private practice and public interest jobs look like.

We have someone as part of the Paul, Weiss family—we’ve known her for 10 years— who’s now on a federal clerkship. We met her when she was in high school. She was a fellow through one of the non-profits we sponsor. Having early exposure to the Paul, Weiss community piqued her interest in law. She was accepted at an Ivy League undergraduate school and returned to the firm as a paralegal post-graduation. Through another firm diversity partnership, she received a fully paid summer internship prior to enrolling at Columbia Law School. Upon graduation, she started as a first-year associate. We hope that she will return this fall following her clerkship and continue to excel here. Rarely do you get to see this kind of direct return on the firm’s investment in talented diverse young people, but this is just one example of a wonderful success story for us. But, going back to your question, a short-term metric that we focus on is, ‘How do we get these individuals in the door?’

The medium-term metric is, ‘How are they doing when they’re here?’ We have a comprehensive set of market-leading and cutting-edge initiatives, programs and policies (see “Managing Effectively Across Difference“) to make sure that our lawyers of color, women, and other groups are developing and advancing. We constantly look at all the data that we have internally, including utilization and retention rates, work assignments metrics and promotion rates. Along this dimension, we are always challenging ourselves. Are the diverse and female lawyers we recruit progressing at the firm? Are they moving on? If so, why are they moving on? We are always examining closely what is working and what needs modification.

To give an example, we know that the first few years of an associate’s life are critical as it is a period when they are forming bonds with the firm’s more-senior lawyers and clients. We also found through our extensive exit interviewing that lawyers of color were at times experiencing difficulty forming these key connections. To help combat this, we developed a formal, voluntary mentoring program. Each participating associate of color is assigned a mentor during his or her first three years at the firm. This helps ensure that junior lawyers of color have at least one core point of support. We understand that many relationships develop organically, and formal programs have limits, so we don’t rely on these alone. We help provide the fundamentals for creating these relationships, and help nurture them, whether through monitoring career-enhancing opportunities such as high profile assignments, client relationships or other opportunities for visibility. As a result of these and other efforts, our retention rates of associates of color track or are close to those of all our associates.

And long term, we’re looking at the diversity of our partnership, which is an all-equity, one-tier partnership, and the rates of promotion. We have really terrific rates of promotion for both women and lawyers of color. In the U.S., women are 22 percent of our partners, women of color represent 25 percent of our women partners, and 13 percent of our partners self-identify as ethnically or racially diverse.

Wilkins: In your view, what are the biggest obstacles that a firm like Paul, Weiss faces in trying to make progress?

Radwaner: Looking back, we’ve all come quite far, but the fact that we’re even having this conversation says that we have much more work to do. The biggest “Day One” challenge law firms face is that the pool of diverse talent remains small and many compelling opportunities exist for these highly sought after individuals. Some of them want to enter big law. Some of them have no interest in ever engaging in private practice. So one key obstacle is the small population from the start.

But, of course, that’s not the whole story. “Day Two” is retention—once they walk in the door, how does a firm like Paul, Weiss retain this talent? We spend a significant amount of time, attention and resources retaining, developing and promoting our diverse and female lawyers. Our success rate is quite good, but many leave to pursue other opportunities. I would note that this is something that occurs with all our lawyers—not just the diverse population. There was a period of time when there wasn’t easy access to other opportunities. Today, and for the past several years, there are many other avenues we are seeing associates pursue.

Some firms don’t recognize that business and diversity are in fact aligned.

Another obstacle relates to the overall slowdown in the market for large-firm legal services since the financial crisis. We are very fortunate to have not experienced any such slowdown in demand at Paul, Weiss. However, many firms’ partnership ranks are not growing at the rates that they used to, contributing to the difficulty in moving the dial in partnership diversity. The industry is also seeing an increase in the number of law firm mergers and lateral movements. With respect to the lateral market specifically, you see fewer women and fewer diverse lawyers moving laterally. And that has had a negative impact on the diversity of many firms’ partnerships. Again, that has not been the case for Paul, Weiss.

We’ve also seen many firms create a non-equity track. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to know that women and diverse lawyers are in these ranks in a disproportionate manner. Finally, the highly competitive market in big law has led some firms to put fostering a culture of inclusion on the back burner. Some firms don’t recognize that business and diversity are in fact aligned. We, however, appreciate that building a diverse and inclusive workforce is not only the right thing to do, it also ensures success in all aspects of our work and our business.

The more accountability we’re asked to provide, the more change clients can help foster.

Wilkins: Diversity and business interests can be aligned, and we know that there’s been a lot of attention by general counsels on issues surrounding diversity. But we also hear mixed things from law firms about what that have really meant and that, while it may be a concern, it is second order at best. How have you seen clients behave in pushing for more diverse teams?

Radwaner: We have seen regular scrutiny and a heightened level of awareness, discussion and focus from clients when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It’s an important part of the discussion at the initial meeting with a client as well as in our ongoing client relationships. So, for us, clients can have a huge impact on diversity. When a client says that they want to see a diverse team, we listen – and we respond. There may be an RFP where we have to provide diversity demographics and address some key questions regarding our diversity and inclusion efforts and strategy. When we are hired, it is not unusual for clients to request periodic updating of our diversity information. We welcome these inquiries at Paul, Weiss. We are delighted to provide clients with a deep and diverse bench of exceptional talent. The more accountability we’re asked to provide, the more change clients can help foster.

We are also now helping clients. One thing that I have found particularly interesting in working with private equity and hedge funds is that many of them are closely examining their diversity strategies and infrastructures. As trusted advisors, many have turned to us for guidance, best practices, and information on diversity initiatives, programs and strategies. We have partnered with many clients in these endeavors in several different ways. It’s been an interesting development.

Wilkins: Looking forward, what do you see as the biggest thing we ought to be working on?

Radwaner: Communication and transparency. For a long time, this conversation happened at law firms behind closed doors with a small group of people wondering what we were going to do to fix these issues. That didn’t work. Within a firm, these discussions need to occur across all levels, with a focused level of commitment from firm leadership. All voices need to be heard. At Paul, Weiss, our discussions begin with our summer associates and continue throughout a lawyer’s experience at the firm and beyond – as members of the Paul, Weiss community.

We also need more transparency across the legal industry. We have to understand what we’re not doing well in order to fix it collectively. Law firms are competitive, but frankly sharing best practices on what has worked and what hasn’t worked when it comes to diversity and inclusion is vital.

Finally, I would go back to clients. I continue to believe that clients can be significant drivers of change with respect to these critical issues. They need to continue to push us for greater transparency and accountability about the firm’s values, beliefs and commitment to diversity and inclusion.

We have seen some great changes in the 25+ years that I have been practicing. I am confident that with the level of commitment, dedication and focus we have here at Paul, Weiss, we will continue to see more progress in the years ahead.

Valerie Radwaner is a partner and deputy chair of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP.

David B. Wilkins is the Lester Kissel Professor of Law, vice dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession, and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School.