A Diversity Success Story: An Inclusive Environment Attracts Minorities, Men And Women

Editor: Describe your professional background.

Higgins: I worked as a certified public accountant before I enrolled in Tulane Law School. After graduation, I accepted a position with Bracewell & Giuliani. I left to join Exxon's Legal Department. In 1992, I took a Civic-Duty Leave from Exxon to work as Chief of Staff and Counsel for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. I returned to Exxon and then left to join JPMorgan as Associate General Counsel.

In 2006, after having been approached by Peter Riley, Thompson & Knight's Managing Partner, and Ricky Raven, an African-American senior partner at the firm, I joined Thompson & Knight's Finance Practice Group as a partner and also serve as the firm's Chief Diversity Officer.

Editor: Why did you decide to join Thompson & Knight?

Higgins: I worked with Thompson & Knight while I was at JPMorgan. I was impressed with its work, its people and its high ethical standards. Peter Riley told me of his and his firm's strong commitment to diversity. I wanted be part of that process and to help women and ethnically-diverse attorneys become successful attorneys.

Editor: Discuss the firm's diversity efforts and your role.

Higgins: Since joining the firm I have scheduled meetings with partners to get an understanding of their views of the firm's mission and vision. We created a new Diversity and Inclusion ("D&I") Committee that is focused on the accountability of practice area leaders in order to assure that the highest levels of diversity and inclusiveness are achieved in all practice areas.

The D&I Committee works with the firm's management to direct firm-wide strategies as well as with our 12 offices, each of which is responsible for setting up individual programs adapted to local circumstances and the characteristics of their respective staffs. The D&I Committee has four subcommittees co-chaired by senior partners of the firm: Recruiting, Retention & Promotion; Mentoring & Sponsoring; Training; and Business Development & Marketing.

The firm has had great results with the recruitment and retention of women and men. Women currently make up 32 percent of our attorneys. I have been meeting with our female and male attorneys to uncover the secrets of their success so that those lessons can help us develop strategies that will achieve the same level of success for ethnically-diverse attorneys.

Editor: What are the key things that a law firm can do to foster an attractive work environment?

Higgins: The most important attraction that our firm offers is that associates know efforts will be made to ensure their success and that they are in an inclusive and supportive environment. I sit in on reviews of our ethnically-diverse and women associates to hear the feedback and opportunities that women and ethnically-diverse attorneys are getting. By being present in the evaluation process, I can raise issues and questions that some would hesitate to surface. We want to work together for the good of the whole - the firm and the individuals. I am a member of the Legal Personnel Committee that focuses on associates' development. I carefully track and care deeply about the progress of our ethnically-diverse and women lawyers. Because we make the success or failure of an associate the responsibility of our practice area leaders, each of them has a personal stake in their success.

I have been meeting with practice leaders to discuss ways in which the firm can ensure the success of all attorneys, including ethnically-diverse and women lawyers. We offer programs to provide all associates, with the opportunities that they need to succeed. For instance, we held a day-long retreat for ethnically-diverse associates to focus on career and business development at which Werten Bellamy spoke. To foster an inclusive and collegial atmosphere during that retreat, I prearranged the seating so that each table would have members from different offices and at least one senior partner of the firm. That program was so successful that we decided to expand it to all associates in the firm.

We provide the best training for our associates because we want them to have the tools they need to succeed. If an associate leaves the firm to join a legal department, his or her ability is a reflection of the quality of Thompson & Knight's work. This first-hand knowledge of the quality of the firm's work may contribute to bringing in a new client or retaining an old one.

Mentoring has to be a daily process with constant feedback, direction and support. A firm can set up a formal mentoring program, but it will not accomplish its goals if it is not combined with training and opportunities to work on significant matters.

A concern frequently raised by associates who leave law firms is that they did not feel they were in an inclusive environment. To address this concern, we have instituted a training program for our entire firm on microinequities. We focus on avoiding situations which may seem innocent but which may have an impact on an ethnically-diverse or female attorney's morale. For example, if someone walks into a room with a group of attorneys and only one minority or woman is present, if that person acknowledges each of the other members of the group but ignores the minority or woman, that can have a negative impact.

Editor: Do you use role models?

Higgins: Yes. I created a program called "Many Faces: One Firm" which shows the faces of all our ethnically-diverse attorneys. It is important for young people to see that ethnically-diverse and women attorneys, with similar backgrounds and experiences, can excel. For example, Ricky Raven, an African American male, a senior partner and head of our Houston trial group manages our relationships with Ashland and Dow Chemical Company. He also serves on our Management Committee and other important committees, including the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Editor: Do you interview associates who leave to find out why they left?

Higgins: Yes, even those who left before I joined the firm. I ask for their impressions of the firm and feedback on what they think should be changed to improve the experience of current and future associates.

Editor: Does Professor Sander's study cast doubt on the value of diversity programs ?

Higgins: No. Professor Sander's study is flawed because it assumes that diversity programs are quota systems designed to increase numbers without considering a candidate's total value and grades. At Thompson & Knight, we focus on the total "package" concept. Some of America's best lawyers did not have a 4.0. There are solid students who do not have a 4.0 GPA but who are strong performers who will succeed at any firm. Diversity and inclusion is NOT about mediocrity; it is about the inclusion of everyone - men, women, and the ethnically-diverse - and it is at the expense of no one!

When evaluating a candidate, we look to find the well-balanced students who will fit into our firm. For example, if we are comparing a student with a 3.4 GPA who exhibits leadership qualities, is president of the class, comes highly recommended by the faculty and is well respected with a student who had a 3.7 GPA but has no leadership roles or activities, we would be inclined to hire the well-rounded 3.4 student.

All attorneys who make it through our doors have the ability to be successful because we offer an environment where every person regardless of race or gender feels like a part of our firm. One is at Thompson & Knight because one is wanted there and we have committed to one's nurturing, learning, growing, and thriving.

Editor: How do your clients feel about the firm's diversity program?

Higgins: Energized. Most RFPs now ask about diversity. Many clients ask us to complete surveys discussing in detail our diversity initiatives and plans to ensure the upward mobility of women and ethnically-diverse attorneys. Clients are also pleased when ethnically-diverse and female attorneys occupy leadership positions in the firm and in the matters that they assign to the firm.

Editor: Does the firm encourage minority students to choose law as a career?

Higgins: The firm supports the Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession ("MOLP") program of the Houston Bar Association and the firm endorses my mentoring of associates who are former participants in that program. They are excelling. The MOLPprogram provides first-year ethnically-diverse law students with the opportunity to work as interns in law firms, government, and corporate legal departments. They obtain first-hand experience in these organizations. The program includes a summer luncheon and panel discussion for the interns and the program's supporters. The luncheon is attended by about 500 people. The panel at this year's luncheon will include Peter Riley, Thompson & Knight's Managing Partner, certain general counsels, Veta Richardson, executive director of MCCA, Carolyn Benton Aiman of Shell, and Ramona Romero from DuPont.

We also support the Joseph Jamail Scholarship Program at the University of Texas through our law firm's foundation. The Program makes it possible for ethnically-diverse students to attend law school. The firm is evaluating ways that we can encourage ethnically-diverse students, starting at the primary school level, to view the law as a preferred career choice.

In order to give ethnically-diverse law students a better understanding of why it is important for them to complete their law school studies, I have been personally mentoring students at Thurgood Marshall Law School in Houston.

Editor: What is so special about Thompson & Knight's diversity program?

Higgins: Again, diversity and inclusion are not, as Professor Sander argues, about mediocrity. We do not settle for the substandard and we are NOT running a clinic! It is about equal access; no one is asking for a special discount on grades or for a special environment to be created for women or the ethnically-diverse. Due to the caring and supportive attitude of the firm, ethnically-diverse and women attorneys seek us out and unless offered what they feel is a better opportunity, remain with the firm. We are creating an environment where every person regardless of race or gender has a sense of belonging and recognizes that he or she has the same opportunity as everyone else to grow to be an outstanding lawyer.

Thompson & Knight is set apart because it is an inclusive and a kinder gentler environment where all persons, regardless of race or gender, are welcome and where people are willing to listen to them. The firm wants to do what is right and equitable. It is an environment where people want to know you and where you work in a section that accepts you. I have not seen another environment where there is a welcoming breakfast for all the lawyers to come and meet a new partner, associate, or member of the administrative staff. It blew me away that they would invest the time to get to know you from the outset!

Published February 1, 2007.