How a Diverse Partnership Translates to Better Client Service

Friday, August 31, 2018 - 15:26

 

Fragomen partners Amy Cococcia and Carmita Alonso discuss how client service drives everything at the firm – including its enviably diverse culture.

CCBJ: Congratulations on being recognized as one of the most diverse law firms by The American Lawyer, Law360 and The National Law Journal. Let’s start with your insights into the culture of Fragomen.

Carmita Alonso: The culture at Fragomen is one of client service, the clients being both worldwide corporate organizations and the foreign nationals we assist throughout the immigration process. The work here revolves around people, and as an immigration firm focusing on every type of immigration practice in the United States and around the world, the Fragomen culture is inherently diverse in and of itself. We have a culture of people who want to help others. That’s also an inherent characteristic of working in immigration law generally.

Client service drives everything we do. It exacts high expectations of our staff, and it means that our clients drive many of our behaviors. It’s one of the reasons that our culture is global in nature. As our clients’ footprint grew around the world, not only did our service offerings grow, but our ability to help and reach people of various cultures also grew in that same respect.

Because we practice immigration law and deal with the transfer of employees around the world, as well as local hires, we work across not just every region around the world, but across different cultures, too, and those diverse cultures impact our own and enhance our ability to embrace and engage people with rich cultural backgrounds.

At no time has immigration been more front-page news and more complex, as countries are becoming more nationalistic in their approach to borders, security and particularly immigration. We are still dedicated to helping people overcome those obstacles and problem-solving on a personal and enterprise level. Even though we practice business immigration law, when we see crises and refugee issues, our culture allows us to be in a position to help, even in areas that are outside our day-to-day business practice.

What’s a client-driven initiative that the firm was able to respond to, either due to a clients request or the client’s situation?

Alonso: Over the years, our clients’ data management and technology initiatives have driven us to be equally focused on innovative tools and technology solutions to support their immigration program and business needs. Recently, our alignment to client needs was put to the test when the Trump administration issued the travel ban executive order. We needed fast and accurate data to help our corporate clients understand the impact on employees from the seven predominantly Muslim countries. Further, we needed fast, on-the-ground lawyers with quality experience solving immigration challenges at airports, consulates and with government officials. Fortunately, we were able to quickly and accurately display data to help our clients make critical business decisions and support the employees impacted with seasoned lawyers. Our culture and high standards align to our clients and result in propelling us to innovative solutions in client service representation on a personal and program level.

Amy Cococcia: The firm’s philosophy firmly embraces the concept that innovation and diversity are connected and that we become more creative and better problem solvers by having diverse client teams and a diverse partnership. Many of us have had overseas assignments or have earned law degrees in different cultures than those we are practicing in now. What that means is our approach to problem-solving is never linear. Our approach means being sensitive to the multijurisdictional and multicultural issues that are often at play. It’s imperative to have people who see solutions to problems from different perspectives and understand where they sit within a particular client or business culture as well as jurisdiction. For Fragomen, diversity is non-negotiable.

What drew you to Fragomen and what keeps you there?

Cococcia: For me, it was the immediate ability to connect with and advise clients. Although it was more than two decades ago, I very distinctly remember speaking with the lawyers and partners in the New York office about how they connected with their clients and how important that was to Fragomen’s business model, even for junior lawyers. That resonated with me as a young law student. The proximity to people, their backgrounds, and the geopolitical issues of a specific country and how that impacts immigration policy and their ability to live and work in the United States long term – all of those factors connected to my background in human rights and refugee issues.

Alonso: To Amy’s last point, I was practicing in a different area of immigration, mostly refugee and asylum work, and found myself in immigration court a great deal. While the work was incredibly rewarding, it was also very emotionally intense. At Fragomen, I can still have the opportunity to engage in that type of immigration work on a pro bono basis, but for me, I knew that my skill set and talent would be better suited to the corporate immigration context. I knew Fragomen was the place to be for that experience.

To what do you attribute the firm’s ability to attract and maintain a diverse partnership?

Cococcia: The partnership is reflective of those coming up through the ranks, and in my opinion, the multicultural, people-focused practice area naturally attracts individuals from diverse categories, either race or gender, LGBTQ status or a disability.

Alonso: Our ability to attract and maintain a diverse partnership is really remarkable. When you look at the statistics, more than one-quarter of our partnership identifies as racially diverse. And those percentages only continue to increase at both the counsel and associate levels.

Immigration is also a practice that pioneered flat fees, and that is attractive to associates. We attract those who want to work hard in a nontraditional setting, and we retain them because the model is so successful. The emphasis is on doing really great work and not on how many hours are billed, which satisfies lawyers and clients alike.

How do clients respond when they see the firm has been recognized as a leader in diversity?

Cococcia: They’re excited for us. I believe they’re pleased that they’re not trying to cajole us into changing policies. We have already demonstrated tremendous growth in the diversity area. What we’re seeing across the board is that diversity is genuinely important to the clients and businesses we work with. That is reflected when we bid for business, when we respond to requests to present contracts, for instance. It’s reflective that Fragomen’s core values and our client’s core values are aligned – that alignment is fundamental to a great partnership.

While we’re very proud of our diversity statistics and accolades, we’re not just resting on our laurels. We’re still striving to be even more diverse, and there are always areas of improvement for us. We don’t look at this and say, “We’ve done that.” We say, “These are great results. What can we do next?”

How does a diverse partnership help you better serve clients?

Alonso: It comes down to a people-first culture, and our clients appreciate that. When our clients have a person or people they enjoy working with, they would like to maintain that relationship. It could be because of this person’s care, concern or attention to detail, or that they’ve been through the immigration experience themselves and have empathy. Those personal connections have a return on investment for us. When we have a team at the firm that represents our culture and genuinely understands our client’s culture, it really is a win-win for all of us.

Our diverse partnership allows us to serve our clients better, because we have a sensitivity to how our clients approach issues. We often work with HR, global mobility and legal professionals who manage talent from recruitment, retention, transfers and employee relations, and we see the employee experience side too. Our view is not limited to that of attorney/client or processing a visa, but we have a window into the impact of key talent and professional development. As such, we can emulate the most successful talent management strategies to promote our own firm as an employer of choice.

Our leaders see the value of retaining talent – talent that’s been invested in and promoted – and understand our service and our clients.

Whats your advice to law firms or corporate legal departments that are looking to increase their gender and racial diversity?

Alonso: If success is having your company’s leaders mirror your company’s values, then you’re going to have to build a diverse base of people that can be mentored into future leaders. You can have diversity training and agendas for recruiting from certain schools or areas, but if you don’t turn that into something that leads to a tangible result, such as employing a diverse workforce, then it will be challenging to reach your goal of diversifying your leadership.

Cococcia: Focus not just on recruiting, but retention and training plans across the board, including mentorship for minority and diverse lawyers and professionals.

At the same time, firms need to change in response to market demand. Clients across the board are asking firms to move away from the billable hour, to be more accountable and more efficient. With that you need more flexibility. That doesn’t just mean the billable hour. In terms of accountability, take a hard look at every aspect of firm governance and retention in order to make these changes. It’s not enough to say you have certain programs in place and are therefore meeting requirements – it’s how you are trying to achieve those goals that really shifts to a new and more modern model.


Amy Cococcia is a partner in the New York office of Fragomen where she has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years. She leads worldwide engagements for multinational financial services and technology companies, providing counsel on immigration program management and compliance issues. Reach her at acococcia@fragomen.com.

Carmita Alonso is a partner in the New York office of Fragomen. She practices in the area of corporate immigration law and is experienced in representing top global financial services organizations and leading law firms. She has extensive experience in advising clients with respect to due diligence considerations related to M&A and complex post-transaction employment issues. Reach her at calonso@fragomen.com.