Putting Diversity Initiatives Aggressively Into Action

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: What is the focus of your practice?

Primarily a transactional attorney, I specialize in M&A, corporate and securities law and venture capital financing matters. I have extensive experience in private placements, public offerings, joint ventures, strategic alliances, reorganizations and related financings. I have represented issuers, as well as buyers and sellers, in a wide variety of industries, including brokerage, cable television, cellular telephone, cement, defense contracting, direct marketing, discount brokerage, health care, life sciences, new media, petrochemical, restaurant, software, steel and technology.

With the increased public and regulatory scrutiny of corporate governance, I spend a great deal of time counseling my corporate clients in the area of SEC, stock exchange and NASD requirements, as well as other compliance matters. I also provide general counseling on a variety of day-to-day issues, including corporate governance and shareholder relations, to privately held and publicly traded companies and partnerships, from startups to mature companies.

Because our firm has built on its international reputation as a leader in the area of technology and intellectual property, my practice tends to be focused on technology clients. In the recent year or so, life sciences and biotechnology matters have received an increasing amount of my attention as it seems as those areas are currently the most attractive to venture capitalists.

Editor: Please tell us something about your firm and its history.

Our firm will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this September. We have grown dramatically since I joined in November of 1996 - from about 70 attorneys to more than 230 today. We have an integrated network across the nation with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Hartford and Morristown, NJ.

From our roots in technology law, we grew into a full-service law firm. Our services extend through technology law, financing and other related transactions to commercial litigation, real estate, bankruptcy, media and employment. I invite your readers to visit our web site at www.brownraysman.com to learn more about our firm.

Editor: How is your firm putting its diversity initiatives aggressively into action?

Our firm is strongly committed to recruiting, retaining and promoting women and minority attorneys. This past year, we integrated our firm's core objectives into a focused diversity strategy. This strategy promotes our goal of maintaining an inclusive and supportive culture so that all attorneys feel respected and valued. We aggressively support the career development of all women and minority attorneys in our firm and actively strive to meet this goal day after day.

Reflecting our strong commitment to diversity, we are proud to be a signatory to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York's Statement of Diversity Principles. We are also pleased to sponsor this special edition of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel focused on diversity.

Putting our strategy into action, we formed a Diversity Committee, of which I am a member. We coordinate with our Hiring Committee, which I co-chair, and our Associate Relations Committee. This allows for a greater understanding of the issues that are important to the success of the firm, including the high priority that the firm places on diversity.

Our Diversity Committee created a mission statement that has been adopted by all our offices. From there, we developed initiatives for recruitment, retention and promotion of diversity candidates.

Editor: What are some of the key elements of your diversity initiatives?

The implementation of our diversity initiatives began with communicating their importance throughout our firm. We started at the partner level because we believed we needed a commitment from the top down. From there, we communicated the plan to the rest of the attorneys and staff in the firm. We then turned our attention to recruiting. Having successfully recruited summer associate and first-year associate classes with high percentages of women and minorities, we increased our focus on lateral hires. Several minority-focused legal recruiters - including Edna Messick at EM Messick Consulting Inc. and Eric Sivin and Vera Sullivan at SivinTobin Associates, Inc. - have been helpful to us in introducing diversity candidates in disciplines in which the firm is planning to grow.

We are reviewing our internal support systems to ensure that all of our attorneys, and in particular our women and minority attorneys, get a chance to work with very senior partners and sought after clients. By gaining exposure to important clients early and working on high-level assignments, young attorneys can build their experience in client management and development. We are also working with our department chairs to be sure that all attorneys get feedback on their work which is so important to growth and development.

Editor: Has your diversity program been meeting with success?

Yes. In the past two years, the number of junior minority lawyers has increased by about 10 percent. The number of junior women lawyers is close to 45 percent, which is consistent with, if not above, the national average. This strong base, we believe, will lead over time to an increase in the number of minority and women partners in our firm.

Editor: What are a few of the benefits of having a diverse workforce?

From our perspective, we think it is very important to have diverse points of view contributing to all of our work - views that are reflective of our clients and of the world at large. We also know that our strong commitment to diversity allows for a greater range of innovative ideas that only a diverse group of individuals brings to an organization.

Editor: What external resources help support your diversity program?

We have formed alliances with outside organizations to supplement the mentoring available within our firm. These include the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and other organizations that sponsor networking, training and other events. We underwrite these programs and encourage attorneys to attend.

MCCA's executive director, Veta Richardson, was very helpful in guiding us in the creation of our diversity plan and putting it in place. She has been a great friend to the firm. In October, we participated in MCCA's diversity conference and the awards dinner that followed at the Marriott Hotel in New York City. The event brought together an impressive array of corporations and law firms that share a commitment to diversity. We have also participated in various other networking and career development forums hosted by MCAA.
As the Office of Diversity at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York gets underway, we are looking forward to having a long-lasting relationship and supporting, as well as participating in, their various programs and projects.

Editor: What are some of your diversity goals for 2004?

We are planning on making diversity training a routine part of what we do here. In addition, we are turning our attention to options such as flex time and telecommuting to help attorneys balance their personal life with their professional commitments. We will also continue to reach out to organizations such as local law schools that have minority student associations and the like to help support development of diversity candidates early in the pipeline.

Editor: What practical tips do you have for diversity candidates entering the legal profession?

The two important steps for any young lawyer - including women and minority candidates - are to concentrate on building one's skills as an attorney and then to build one's network of contacts including fellow lawyers, as well as business contacts, who can help one grow a practice.

Editor: Are you seeing more diversity in the leadership roles within the legal profession?

I am seeing a growing number of women and minority general counsel and very senior counsel in decision-making positions within in-house legal departments. I am also seeing a growing number of women and minority executives in decision-making positions, such as CFOs and COOs. As a result, law firms are receiving more questions as to what exactly their commitment is to women and minority attorneys. We are also being asked to assign the broadest and most diverse range in terms of background of attorneys to client matters.

Editor: You share your expertise in corporate and securities law through your active participation in legal and industry associations. Would you encourage attorneys with diverse backgrounds to support the profession through similar involvement?

Yes. My commitment comes directly from my parents. I hear my father's voice telling me that I have an obligation to share and give back. This philosophy remains an integral part of my professional and personal life. Outside the firm, I spend a lot of my time doing volunteer work with not-for-profits and the like.

Involvement in professional associations is a great way to meet new colleagues, as well as to continue to grow and stay abreast of current developments. As a young associate, I was very fortunate to be part of some of the prestigious committees at the Association of Bar of the City of New York, including the Committee on Securities Regulation and the Committee on Corporation Laws. I continue to count many of its members as mentors and friends. My network continues to grow as I am a member of the Compliance & Legal Division of the Securities Industry Association.

Editor: What challenges remain to be addressed in achieving diversity at all levels in the legal profession?

Recruitment and retention remain as the biggest challenges. There is a lot of competition for great candidates. Due to the nature of the profession, such challenges arise at all law firms and in all in-house legal departments. We must all ensure that attorneys are as satisfied as they can be with their professional lives so that they will choose to stay and see their careers to full development with their organizations. We are facing that challenge everyday as are other firms. As the economy improves and firms get busier, it will probably be more difficult. With the program we've put in place and the commitment I'm seeing from our attorneys, I'm confident that we will continue to be successful in this challenge and see our associate and partner ranks flourish with more women and minority attorneys.

Please email the interviewee at shewitt@brownraysman.com with questions about this interview.