Diversity - Law Firms Room At The Top For All

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

Stephen J. Dannhauser

The Editor interviews Lisa Cuevas , Global Director of Diversity, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.

Editor: I understand that you are the new director of global diversity at Weil Gotshal. Please describe your background in diversity.

Cuevas: Diversity has always been a part of my life. I am a first-generation Puerto-Rican American raised in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. English was my second language. My childhood experiences made me very aware that not all people are treated equally.

In college and in law school I found comfort in associating myself with others with a background like my own, and I joined organizations such as the Latin American Law Student Association. After law school, I accepted a position as an Assistant District Attorney for the Bronx, which helped keep me focused on the challenges of underrepresented groups. After about 5 years as a prosecutor I became involved with teaching Legal Research and Writing for New York University's Paralegal Certificate Program, which allowed me the opportunity to interact with college students interested in pursuing legal careers.

I soon came to a point where I had to decide whether to stay with the D.A.'s office or move on, and it was exposure to students and my previous experiences that led me to explore working in a law firm in associate relations. About five years ago Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP contacted me about a position in the Legal Personnel Department, where one of the major responsibilities was to work with the diversity committee of the firm.

My work with the Association of the Bar of the City of New York has also helped broaden my experience. For example, I am a member of the Committee on the Recruitment and Retention of Attorneys, which focuses on minority recruitment and the Committee to Enhance Diversity in the Profession.

Looking back at all of this, my background in diversity work has been a lifetime in the making. What attracted me to Weil Gotshal was the fact that I would be working exclusively on diversity initiatives and programs - and of course, their genuine commitment to diversity.

Editor: Why is Weil Gotshal placing such emphasis on diversity, not only in terms of the recruitment and retention of attorneys but also in working with minority business suppliers?

Cuevas: Because it's the right thing to do on many levels. Commitment to diversity is not a new venture for Weil Gotshal. Weil Gotshal was the first major law firm in New York to institute a firm-wide diversity training program and a formal diversity policy, which served as the initial model for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. We have long recognized that focusing the firm's time and resources on diversity initiatives is beneficial to the firm's competitiveness. A law firm is a direct reflection of the individuals that it recruits, hires and develops. It is our attorney base that sustains our business. They attract the clients and provide the outstanding client service that Weil Gotshal is known for.

Weil Gotshal also recognizes that our commitment to diversity must extend out into the communities in which we work. For about two decades Weil Gotshal has had an ongoing partnership with the National Minority Business Council - an organization that supports minority businesses and helps them to compete in the marketplace - to develop a minority purchasing program that provides fair and equal access to the bidding process for all vendors. Furthermore, our Firm's operating policies mandate that we strive to contract with qualified minority- and women-owned businesses. We also work with the National Minority Supplier Development Council, which similarly is engaged in providing a direct link between corporations and minority suppliers. On an international basis I believe we may be the only law firm participating in a European initiative with the Brussels-based Migration Policy Group to develop and implement a European supplier diversity program - in fact, we are Founding Members.

Editor: Why are you designated a global director?

Cuevas: We have 19 offices around the world. As such, the Firm's management knows that our diversity efforts must span the globe. Indeed, an essential ingredient to our success as a Firm is our commitment to a One-Firm approach - an approach that can be seen in action both externally in the way we relate to the markets we serve and internally in the way we relate to one another as professionals. We have to be able to work together as one Firm to provide the best service to our clients, and it's really difficult to do that without a common culture shared between our offices. So ultimately, having one person responsible for implementing and overseeing our diversity efforts will help in terms of accountability and provide for consistency in the application of our initiatives.

Editor: Do you consider women part of the diverse population?

Cuevas: Most certainly. There are certain issues that need to be addressed regarding the recruitment and retention of women. Research reveals that, although the number of women entering law school is equal to or higher than that of males, the number of women partners in large law firms is significantly smaller than male partners. This statistic alone makes a strong case for keeping women within a group that can be targeted by diversity initiatives.

Editor: How does the firm cope with retaining women?

Cuevas: By providing mentoring, networking opportunities, training and flexible work arrangements. Specifically, the firm has mandatory diversity training for all attorneys, summer associates and employees. Additionally, the firm has a formal mentoring program, an affinity group for women known as Women@weil, and flex-work arrangements. These initiatives are reviewed regularly to make sure that they are always in step with current needs and that they are being delivered through optimal communications processes.

Editor: How does Weil Gotshal assure an attorney that he or she can still become partner after taking a sabbatical?

Cuevas: Becoming a partner at Weil Gotshal is based upon merit. If you've done everything required to make partner it will happen - whether you took time off or not. Timing may be an issue, but our policy does not preclude an attorney who has taken time off or who is working on a flexible schedule from being considered for, or becoming a partner.

Editor: How do you train your lawyers to be sensitive to the needs of part-time attorneys or minority attorneys?

Cuevas: We have a firm-wide diversity training program. All attorneys and staff have been trained, and all new employees receive training shortly after their arrival. Our training program is specifically designed to develop a better understanding of what constitutes diversity and why it matters in the workplace. At Weil Gotshal, it is critical that all employees treat each other with respect and integrity. Our training also asks everyone to take an inward look to understand more about our own strengths and vulnerabilities. Our training is intended to provide everyone with the tools he or she needs to be more sensitive to, and appreciative of, the differences among us - whether these differences are based on race, ethnicity, background, or work schedule. I am a firm believer, however, that we cannot stop here. In order to maintain an atmosphere that nurtures the diverse interests, backgrounds, and perspectives of all employees, we cannot end our training program with formal Diversity Training. Weil Gotshal will continue to provide training, discussions, and other educational resources that will help impact diversity in a positive manner.

Editor: What does the firm do in mentoring attorneys?

Cuevas: The firm places very strong emphasis on the importance of networking and mentoring, and we have a formal mentoring program. We believe a formal mentoring system is the first step to developing the informal relationships that may come naturally for some but not everyone. To help make this process work smoothly, we provide formal mentoring and coaching training to our associates and partners. First-year associates are assigned a peer mentor and a partner mentor. Additionally, we provide training to new associates in our New Associate Orientation Program.

Editor: What progress has the firm enjoyed to date in increasing the number of minority partners?

Cuevas: Two minority attorneys recently joined the Weil Gotshal partnership, Vernon Broderick and Adam Hemlock in New York. Both have risen through the ranks here at Weil Gotshal - from associate to partner. In total we have 18 minority partners. Compared to our peer firms, we are making progress, but we can certainly do better, and we're determined to do so.

Editor: What near-term goals do you have as well as those for the long term?

Cuevas: When I started at the firm three months ago my enthusiasm was very high, and now it is even higher. In the short term my goal is to continue to learn. Weil Gotshal is a very large firm, and the learning process for me has really just begun.

In the long term, I want to be someone that employees and attorneys at the firm can turn to regarding diversity. More importantly, I want to make a difference by creating a model organization on the diversity issue.

Editor: Does your responsibility include responding to minority concerns about partner biases?

Cuevas: Yes. In my short time here, I have not received any specific complaints from attorneys alleging partner bias. However, I am a member of the firms' Professional Responsibility Committee and as such I am part of the Firm's infrastructure to support our diversity and conduct policies. The Professional Conduct Committee is a globally diverse committee comprised of 12 Partners, two Counsel, two Associates and two Support Staff employees. Its function is to promote programs and policies that foster compliance with the Firm's Code of Conduct and Diversity Policies. These policies are designed to create a culture at the Firm where each employee can succeed to the best of his or her ability without barriers to success. Also, it ensures that Weil Gotshal is a place where women and underrepresented attorneys will want to begin and advance in their careers. This committee is responsible for addressing any conduct-related issues, including concern/or complaints of partners biases.

Editor: Do your clients urge you to staff with a diverse group?

Cuevas: A number of them have done so. In fact, in recent years, inquiries from corporate clients regarding our diversity efforts have nearly tripled. They want to know what efforts we are making and what progress has been made. In fact, some corporate clients go beyond merely asking for diversity information by requiring that we field a diverse team of attorneys for their engagements.

Editor: How important is commitment from the top to your efforts?

Cuevas: It's crucial. Leadership sets the tone. If your leadership is committed and involved, then it serves as an example for the rest of the organization. When I was interviewing here, meeting Steve Dannhauser and other partners at the firm and seeing their commitment and sincere desire to move things along was inspirational to me. I have seen that every single day since my first day.

Stephen J. Dannhauser, Chairman of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, Shares His Thoughts On The Importance Of Diversity.

Of the many challenges facing large international law firms, few will impact the futures of our institutions as much as diversity. Not only is diversity an ethical issue with important civic implications, it now touches on bottom-line business issues due to the heightened attention it receives from corporate counsel who seek to do business with firms whose commitment to diversity is as serious and thoroughgoing as their own. Additionally, the demographics of the available talent pool for associates - and presumably, future partners of our firms - is broadening, a reflection of our more diverse culture, not just here in the United States, but globally. Diversity, therefore, is an issue that will only grow in importance.

Weil Gotshal has grown spectacularly in the last decade; that growth, coupled with the turnover common to any large business organization, creates a situation in which firm culture must be continuously defined and affirmed. Because of this state of constant motion, we at Weil Gotshal have learned through trial and error that diversity cannot be a one-off program; rather, in order to effect an enduring cultural change a firm must be persistent in its commitment to diversity. We also learned that, while management-level leadership and commitment are necessary, they alone are not sufficient. Diversity must become a permanent feature of a firm's administrative landscape; otherwise, there is the risk of losing the short-term gains made with one-off programs and initiatives. That is the major reason we brought Lisa Cuevas on board as our Firm's Global Diversity Director to bolster our diversity initiatives - we needed a dedicated, director-level professional to help us move to the next level in crafting our programs, implementing them, and measuring their results.

Particularly with regard to program evaluation, Lisa's presence here will provide us with much-needed focus on follow-through and results. Being a part of one of the first law firms to implement a wide-ranging diversity program, we at Weil Gotshal have certainly experienced the successes and disappointments associated with pioneering, and while we take great pride in our leadership role on the diversity front, we are also humbled by all that we have yet to accomplish. With staff dedicated to our diversity initiative in place within the Firm's administration, we are in a strong position to carry out our vision of creating and maintaining one of the most diverse workplaces in the industry.