ILNews

Diverse legal team brings diverse perspective

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Ask if it is important for law firms to comprise a diversified group of lawyers, and the answer will be a resounding “yes.” Mirroring society’s cultural mix, expanding the firm’s thought pool, and improving the ability of clients to identify with their lawyers are all reasons diversity makes good business sense.

diversity-15col LewisWagner received awards from the city of Indianapolis and the DRI in 2010 for its commitment to diversity. From left, John Trimble, managing partner; Robert Wagner, founding partner; Stephanie Cassman, partner; Edward Thomas, associate; and Stefanie Crawford, partner and diversity committee chair. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The need for a diversified professional team is on the radar of many law firm management committees and has motivated partners to revisit their recruitment and retention policies. Some mid-size firms in Indiana – those in the 25 to 50 lawyer range – have found their size can be a plus in attracting a diverse group of associates.

“The larger a firm becomes, the greater challenge it is for the firm to personalize the way it does things,” said John Trimble, managing partner at Indianapolis firm LewisWagner. “We can get all of our equity partners around a table, and that may make it easier to make decisions.”

An award-winning approach

“Commitment by the top” is cited by law firm management strategists as a key to successful diversity recruitment efforts. When the commitment starts at the top, it is all the better.

Indianapolis lawyer Robert Wagner formed one of the first racially integrated law partnerships in Indiana – Fasig Goebel Chavis & Wagner – in the late 1960s. That firm evolved into LewisWagner.

“It was Bob’s passion at a very early age to have a diverse law firm,” Trimble said. Early on, that meant hiring women; today it means creating a complete cultural mix, he added.

If Wagner’s early personnel practices raised a few eyebrows, he didn’t notice.

“The notion that we needed to focus on diversity really didn’t occur to me,” Wagner said. “I don’t think black/white or woman/man.”

drummy-john-mug Drummy

Wagner said his eyes were opened in 1969-70 when he managed a U.S. Senate campaign for Vance Hartke. It exposed him to a lot of intolerance.

“In the business world, there were very few minorities – women or African-Americans – on boards of directors, and that hasn’t changed much,” Wagner said. “We have a (state) supreme court without women. We are continually pushing the stone up the hill.”

While the firm’s commitment to diversity has existed from day one, it has been formalized over the last decade, Wagner said. Goals targeting recruitment of lawyers, paralegals, and staff representing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are included in the firm’s strategic plan. A diversity committee supports those goals and develops initiatives that create an inclusive professional environment.

racher-peter-mug Racher

“We have specific goals in the (strategic) plan to make sure our firm is a reflection of the community at large and that members of the firm receive training on diversity,” said Stefanie Crawford, a partner and diversity committee chair.

LewisWagner is a long-time participant in the Indiana State Bar Association’s Gateway to Diversity Program, which links legal employers with minority law students, as well as the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity fellows. Crawford’s association with the firm began when she was hired as a summer clerk through the Gateway program in 1996.

Weaving a culture of inclusion into the daily life of the lawyers and staff is an important part of the law firm’s diversity program. As a community expression of the commitment to diversity, the firm recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a business holiday. Social events like hosting a “celebration of diversity through food” begin with emails sharing recipes from countries around the world and culminate in a firm-wide pitch-in lunch.

This year, the diversity committee has taken on a new project. It is partnering with Noble of Indiana to create an internship/externship program for people with developmental disabilities.

LewisWagner has been recognized on several occasions for its commitment to diversity. In 2010, it became the first Indiana law firm to receive the DRI Law Firm Diversity Award, and it received the Mayor’s Workforce Diversity Award as part of the City of Indianapolis’ Celebration of Diversity. LewisWagner has also been an Indiana Lawyer Diversity in Practice award finalist and received the Indiana State Bar Association’s Rabb Emison Award for diversity.

“I don’t think anyone does this for recognition, but you feel warm inside when, by doing a good job, you can show that it works,” Wagner said. “There is still a lot of prejudice in our society, but I think people we have here feel as I do. You don’t permit it. You call them out on intolerance when you see it. We are all teachers to some degree.”

A proactive approach

Diversity of personnel leads to diversity of perspective, and law firm leaders are challenging themselves to create legal teams that represent a mix of gender, racial, economic, and ethnic groups. Programs that connect firms with prospective employees have proven effective.

Kightlinger & Gray has partnered with Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy in Indianapolis to encourage minority students to begin considering law as a profession. The firm will host a high school student as a summer intern to provide a taste of what life is like as a lawyer.

And if those students decide to pursue a career in the law, the hope is they will remember Kightlinger & Gray.

“We have a heavy concentration of litigation; and diversity of perspectives, ideas, and thought is very important as we prepare a case for trial and an ever-diverse jury pool,” said John Drummy, a partner and member of Kightlinger & Gray’s legal personnel committee.

Laura Scott Scott

Participation in bar association diversity job fairs, such as the fair hosted annually by the Indianapolis Bar Association, and the ICLEO program has proven a successful way to connect with a diverse group of summer clerk and associate candidates.

“The ICLEO program exposes the firm to highly qualified attorneys who, because of their economic situation, may not have (otherwise) been able to go to law school,” said Peter Racher, a partner and chair of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun’s human resources committee. “I am proud of the fact that we have attorneys here who come from families that have few who have gone to college, let alone law school.”

In addition to gender and ethnic diversity, it is important for a firm’s diversity goals to embrace having men and women who bring perspectives from a variety of economic backgrounds to the firm’s leadership positions. Understanding the totality of clients’ disputes, which are often fraught with human emotions, Racher said, will be effectively done when the firm has diverse viewpoints around the table.

Lewis & Kappes’ large immigration practice magnifies the need for a diverse legal team.

“We have a good number of attorneys and staff who are bilingual; one staff person who is from China speaks five languages,” explained Deanna Cope, the Indianapolis firm’s administrator. There is an added level of trust, she said, when clients can talk with people they feel a familiarity with. The firm also offers, in Spanish, an exact duplicate of its website.

The need for diversity is integrated into the firm’s culture, Cope said. While many firms recognize Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other traditional American holidays, Lewis & Kappes also gives attention to the Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo and other cultural celebrations. It helps lawyers and staff better understand the mindset of the clientele, she added.

Location can present challenges when recruiting a diverse legal team, and “you just have to use what you have more creatively,” said Laura Scott, a partner with Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn. The firm is based in Evansville and has offices in Indianapolis, Mt. Vernon, Poseyville, Princeton, and Vincennes.

Like other firms, Bamberger has participated in the ICLEO summer jobs program and created a diversity page on its website to attract attorneys with a range of backgrounds. The diversity committee of the Evansville Bar Association has also been a helpful resource, Scott said.

The EBA collects resumes from minority students interested in working in Evansville and distributes those to potential employers. Firms can apply to the EBA for funding to help cover the cost of hiring summer clerks or interns. The EBA has helped area law firms reach out to groups of law school students around the state and convey the benefit of working in small- or mid-size firms and those located outside of Indianapolis, Scott added.

“We have the flexibility to be able to think outside the box and hire interns and use them in nontraditional ways,” Scott said. “We can make our decisions fairly quickly and without a lot of red tape because we are a smaller firm.”

Edward D. Thomas joined LewisWagner as an associate after graduating from law school in 2009. He served in the military after receiving his undergraduate degree, and he knew he wanted to practice in the size of firm that would let him hit the ground running and give him immediate hands-on experience.

“I think diversity in a law firm or any business is crucial in light of the global economy we have today,” Thomas said. “Law firms that take that to heart will benefit in the future. Law students who really understand the big picture and what they need to bring to the table will have a head up over their peers. It is not specific to law firms – any business model needs to embrace diversity to remain ahead of the game.”•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO He had knowledge, but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go All American Girl starred Margaret Cho The Miami Heat coach is nicknamed Spo I hate to paddle but don’t like to row Edward Rust is no longer CEO The Board said it was time for him to go The word souffler is French for blow I love the rain but dislike the snow Ten tosses for a nickel or a penny a throw State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO Bambi’s mom was a fawn who became a doe You can’t line up if you don’t get in a row My car isn’t running, “Give me a tow” He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go Plant a seed and water it to make it grow Phases of the tide are ebb and flow If you head isn’t hairy you don’t have a fro You can buff your bald head to make it glow State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO I like Mike Tyson more than Riddick Bowe A mug of coffee is a cup of joe Call me brother, don’t call me bro When I sing scat I sound like Al Jarreau State Farm is sad and filled with woe The Board said it was time for him to go A former Tigers pitcher was Lerrin LaGrow Ursula Andress was a Bond girl in Dr. No Brian Benben is married to Madeline Stowe Betsy Ross couldn’t knit but she sure could sew He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know Edward Rust is no longer CEO Grand Funk toured with David Allan Coe I said to Shoeless Joe, “Say it ain’t so” Brandon Lee died during the filming of The Crow In 1992 I didn’t vote for Ross Perot State Farm is sad and filled with woe The Board said it was time for him to go A hare is fast and a tortoise is slow The overhead compartment is for luggage to stow Beware from above but look out below I’m gaining momentum, I’ve got big mo He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know Edward Rust is no longer CEO I’ve travelled far but have miles to go My insurance company thinks I’m their ho I’m not their friend but I am their foe Robin Hood had arrows, a quiver and a bow State Farm has a lame duck CEO He had knowledge, but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go State Farm is sad and filled with woe

  2. The ADA acts as a tax upon all for the benefit of a few. And, most importantly, the many have no individual say in whether they pay the tax. Those with handicaps suffered in military service should get a pass, but those who are handicapped by accident or birth do NOT deserve that pass. The drivel about "equal access" is spurious because the handicapped HAVE equal access, they just can't effectively use it. That is their problem, not society's. The burden to remediate should be that of those who seek the benefit of some social, constructional, or dimensional change, NOT society generally. Everybody wants to socialize the costs and concentrate the benefits of government intrusion so that they benefit and largely avoid the costs. This simply maintains the constant push to the slop trough, and explains, in part, why the nation is 20 trillion dollars in the hole.

  3. Hey 2 psychs is never enough, since it is statistically unlikely that three will ever agree on anything! New study admits this pseudo science is about as scientifically valid as astrology ... done by via fortune cookie ....John Ioannidis, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, said the study was impressive and that its results had been eagerly awaited by the scientific community. “Sadly, the picture it paints - a 64% failure rate even among papers published in the best journals in the field - is not very nice about the current status of psychological science in general, and for fields like social psychology it is just devastating,” he said. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/27/study-delivers-bleak-verdict-on-validity-of-psychology-experiment-results

  4. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

  5. I have met some highly placed bureaucrats who vehemently disagree, Mr. Smith. This is not your father's time in America. Some ideas are just too politically incorrect too allow spoken, says those who watch over us for the good of their concept of order.

ADVERTISEMENT