Editor: What experiences prompted your desire to become a
Pitts: It was probably my college environment at the
University of Pennsylvania that prompted me to want to become a lawyer. My
classmates and sorority sisters were all headed toward graduate school. The
decision was: should I do an MBA or should I go to law school? I've always had
an affinity for law because I just liked the idea that it provided an
opportunity to help other people.
Editor: I gather you have been
doing that for some time?
Pitts: Yes, I have. At least every
year I take on a pro bono project. With large complex cases, after they're done,
you don't necessarily remember a lot of the details; they tend to blur. But that
is not true of pro bono cases. There's a closer connection between you and your
pro bono clients. You feel closer to the individual or not-for-profit
organization you represent. You learn a lot about them and you take on a
different approach than you would generally with your corporate
Editor: You become more personally
Pitts: Absolutely. One of my reasons for deciding to
join Winston & Strawn was its commitment to pro bono work. When I
interviewed with the firm, I got a great sense of the commitment to pro bono
this firm and its lawyers have made. This attracts a lot of younger lawyers who
in law school became involved in projects that become near and dear to them, and
in their law practice, they want to continue that work. Some feel you "sell out"
when you go to a large law firm, but you still have the opportunity to do
meaningful things that make a difference. That was certainly a major attraction
for me, and I think that is a major attraction for law students in our summer
Editor: What are your practice areas and your
Pitts: When I started at the firm, I
did a mixture of general commercial litigation and white-collar defense with my
time today being generally split 60% commercial litigation and 40% white collar
defense. White-collar defense cases allow you the opportunity to do some
criminal work that often is not available in a large law firm setting. But since
we have such a cadre of former assistant U.S. attorneys, Winston & Strawn
receives a sizeable share of white-collar defense work. This provides a great
balance of work because commercial litigation is often very large, very document
intensive. White-collar cases are generally on a much smaller scale - especially
when it is an individual client. Those cases are generally staffed leanly which
allows a certain closeness to your client. However, that's not to say you cannot
find that closeness with your corporate clients as well, because I happen to be
managing one of the largest complex antitrust cases in our office right now and
my client is a joy to work for and I'm learning so much from her. You will also
find that many of the lessons learned in the large, complex litigations are
applicable to the smaller cases. It's a learning opportunity all around. So, for
me, mixing white-collar work and general commercial litigation has created a
wonderful balance in my work environment.
Editor: You were the
immediate past chairperson of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law
Firms. Is this committee affiliated with any of the bar
Pitts: No, it is an entity onto itself. The
Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms was founded about 16 years
ago. It was founded by eight or ten African-American lawyers who were the only
African-American lawyers in some of Chicago's largest law firms at that time.
Because they felt they were in a unique, high stress environment, they thought
they could learn from each other by meeting regularly and sharing survival
stories - from how to handle your case load to finding a mentor, to how to get
quality assignments. It is wonderful now that the Committee has grown. We have a
15-member Board of Directors, who are either partners or senior associates at
one of the member firms, and we characterize "member firms" as those large and
medium-size firms in Chicago who have a long standing commitment to diversity
and who want to be a part of the process that the Chicago Committee represents.
We currently enjoy 39 member law firms, including Winston & Strawn, and
there are now over 450 minority lawyers working in our member firms. It is a
wonderful association because it brings minority attorneys together who might
otherwise become isolated and decide to give up on large firm practice. The
issues that face lawyers of color in large law firms are still present, and
lawyers of color exit firms faster that any other group. Therefore, it's
invaluable to me or to another lawyer of color, to be able to reach outside of
my firm to another lawyer of color who is or has experience and seek their
advice. One example I can give you is my relationship with one of my mentors,
Sharon Barner, who chairs the Intellectual Property department at Foley &
Lardner and is a patent litigator. She has been a mentor to me for years, since
I was in law school. I know I can go to her and ask her hypothetical questions
about what she would do in a given situation. If the Chicago Committee is
successful at fostering these types of relationships amongst minority lawyers in
Chicago, then my five years as an officer and as Chairperson of the Committee
was certainly worthwhile.
Editor: Do you help in recruiting
Pitts: The Chicago Committee prefers not to take on a
direct role in recruiting. But what we currently do is provide recruiting
opportunities for our member law firms and law students who are interested in
Chicago through receptions and panel discussions. Recently Winston & Strawn
hosted the Sweet Home Chicago Event over the Christmas holiday. The reception is
geared toward law students who attend schools outside of Chicago, but who are
home for the holidays in the Chicago area and also those law students in the
Chicago law schools. We invite them to meet the hiring partners and members of
hiring committees of member law firms. The reception's purpose is to create
interest in joining a large law firm in Chicago. We had over 250 people attend
this past December's event. We also sponsor roadshows at various law schools
across the country in January and February of each year. Chicago lawyers travel
to these schools to encourage minority students to consider practicing in
Chicago instead of going to the East or West coasts.
present all the advantages of living and practicing in
Pitts: Absolutely. The lawyers speak about why they
chose Chicago as a place where they wanted to practice as well as all of the
advantages to living in our great City.
Editor: Please describe
your service on the Board of the Lawndale Educational and Regional Network
Charter School ("LEARN").
Pitts: I am a new board member, having
joined the board last summer. I thought this was a terrific opportunity to be
really hands-on with a small school operating outside of the Chicago public
school system. The board is made up of private citizens who work with the
educators and teachers at the school to improve test scores, curriculum choices,
parental involvement and the overall environment and school
Editor: Did the school need reform which is the reason
it was designated a "charter school"?
Pitts: Actually, a school
interested in separating itself from the public school system can apply for
charter status with the state of Illinois. By doing so, it means the school
wants to find a more unique way of addressing its concerns than through the
public school system. More imagination can be brought to bear for solving
problems, as opposed to having to follow the formulas used in the public system.
So, at the LEARN Charter School, we have a board of about 10 to 15 people who
meet at the school every month, and we manage the finances of the school, the
hiring of teachers and management personnel, and we look to independent
resources for assistance. We are currently building a new school across the
street from the old facility. This new school will house up to 400 children,
whereas our current enrollment is 85, grades K through eight.
Editor: Is this a project that you
Pitts: Not the school itself, but I initiated my
involvement. A friend suggested I join the board. I always wanted to do
something involving education. At the time I joined the board, I learned of the
firm's efforts with our 150th anniversary program, "Opportunities Through
Education," and my board activity was very well received. The firm encourages
work on boards which can count towards your commitment to pro bono hours. Every
lawyer at the firm will generally commit to about 35 to 50 hours a year of pro
bono hours. My work at LEARN helps me toward that contribution of pro bono
Editor: You are also active with the Cook County Bar
Association Minority Law Student Job Fair.
Pitts: When I was a
law student and decided that I wanted to come to Chicago, I went to the job
fair. It was hosted at John Marshall Law School, and there were hundreds of
students there, but not enough organization or volunteers. After practicing in
the city for a few years, I was asked to join the organization committee. After
serving on the committee for a few years, I was asked to co-chair the job fair.
I spent a lot of manhours as co-chair, and Winston was great about giving me the
time to do it and underwriting much of the cost. The job fair has grown
tremendously, increasing from 65 employers across the country at the time I
chaired it to close to 90 employers today. The best part about this is that it
is completely organized voluntarily by minority attorneys, the majority of whom
work in large law firms.
Editor: Is it specifically for law firm
Pitts: We expanded the fair a few years ago to include
some government positions and also accounting firms looking for in-house lawyers
right out of law school. About five years ago we had about 200 law students; now
we have about 400 law students who have attended. The job fair is held usually
towards the end of August each year.
Editor: Would you like to
describe the work of the firm's Diversity Committee?
Well, I'm a new partner, so I don't sit on the Diversity Committee, but I can
see the fruits of its labor and I think the Committee is making a difference .
One of its initiatives that's very important to me is to address the retention
of minority lawyers. Every law firm is faced with the reality that its
investment of training, time and money on any recruit may walk out the door at
any moment to its competitor, and statistics suggest that black women in
particular are the largest minority group to leave large law firms. And all
women face the issue of balancing work and family. Winston encourages an open
discussion of these issues. Having the Diversity Committee available as a
resource makes people feel comfortable talking about these
Editor: Would you talk about the $300,000 Winston &
Strawn has set aside in celebration of your 150th anniversary to establish the
Opportunities Through Education Program?
Pitts: Sure. In
Chicago, this money will be used toward teacher training in connection with the
Dodge Academy and other support to the school. A large number of Winston
employees in Chicago joined together to build a playground for the school last
August. And this fall, the firm sponsored a book drive.
Would you comment on the fact that Winston & Strawn carries its theme of
Diversity throughout its employment force?
Poindexter, head of the Diversity Committee, was instrumental in getting that
policy published on our website and worked very hard to get that statement to be
as inclusive as possible. I believe Winston employees feel a greater commitment
to diversity, just by having the policy statement published in public areas. It
is akin to the Equal Opportunity Statement.
Editor: I'm sure it
has an effect on reducing turnover in the firm.
Pitts: I think
so. I think we have turned a corner on retention. We have several women
attorneys who have so many different work situations, such as part time and
reduced hours. I believe the thinking has changed, our approach has changed, and
so we are retaining more women. The term "part-time lawyer" should not be an
oxymoron; they can work together. We just have to figure out a way to make them
Published February 1, 2004.