Ann Jenrette-Thomas is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Stinson Leonard Street. In just over two years in her role, she has worked with firm leaders to increase the representation of lawyers of color at Stinson from 5% to 9%, and increased retention of lawyers of color by 13%. In this article, she discusses a few initiatives and the deliberate focus it took to achieve these outcomes.
The first priority for Jenrette-Thomas was to lead the firm through a strategic planning exercise to create a three-to-five year Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which was approved by the firm’s board of directors to signal that the firm’s leadership supported the outlined initiatives and would provide accountability.
Improve Representation by Setting Explicit Outcome Targets
The firm was intentional about setting outcome targets, not just process targets. “An outcome target in our Action Plan is moving the representation of attorneys of color from 5%, which is what it was when I arrived in November 2016, to 15%,” Jenrette-Thomas explained. “Since I started, we have been able to increase representation by 72%.”
An example of a process target is the Mansfield Rule, which certifies that law firms are considering diverse candidates for at least 30% of open leadership and governance roles. While Stinson has not adopted the Mansfield Rule, it has set specific targets to increase the overall percentage of attorneys who are women, people of color, LGBT, and people with disabilities, as well as increasing the percentage of diverse lawyers in leadership roles. In order to successfully achieve these goals, the firm ensures that its candidate pool for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, and lateral positions include a robust number of diverse lawyers (including women and attorneys of color).
Revise Policies to Expand the Pool of Partners of Color
One of the first challenges Jenrette-Thomas encountered was the book-of-business standard used to hire lateral partners. The firm policy requires a lateral candidate to have a minimum amount of business to be considered for partnership. Jenrette-Thomas discovered through research that many partner-of-color candidates would be ineligible under the rule since their books of business tend to be significantly smaller than the required minimum.
Jenrette-Thomas shared the research regarding the typical amount of business a lateral partner of color would have with the managing partner and the lateral partner recruiting committee, which resulted in a change to the application of the rule. Jenrette-Thomas also led an awareness campaign among the division chairs and others involved in the recruiting process for their buy-in on the logic behind the change.
By adjusting the requirements, Stinson has successfully increased the number of its partners of color.
Create Targeted Fellowships to Enhance the Pipeline
Stinson also revamped its scholarship strategy in order to improve the pipeline of entry-level associates. Previously, the firm awarded $200,000 annually in scholarships to students of color, but because decisions on who earned these scholarships were controlled by the academic institutions, they were not creating pathways for the firm to bring students of color into its summer associate program. To remedy this, the firm created two fellowships for students of color, which they award directly to students, retaining full decision-making power.
Fellows in the inaugural class of 2018 received a 1L summer associate position at Stinson, which if completed successfully leads to an offer of a 2L summer associate position and a $15,000 stipend with an additional $15,000 stipend upon accepting an offer to join the firm as an associate.
Experimentation on Enhanced Support for Law Students of Color
At the same time, Jenrette-Thomas saw a need to provide extra support to students of color so that they would feel more comfortable in a large-firm environment. She wanted to provide opportunities to talk frankly with students about some of the unwritten rules they would need to be aware of in order to engage in a successful interview.
To that end, Jenrette-Thomas led efforts to create workshops on personal branding and interview do’s and don’ts for students of color at regional law schools. Unfortunately, the workshops were not attended by many students of color, so the firm looked for a new way to improve their reach.
The firm released a five-part podcast series called “Big Law Success,” which provides insights on what it takes to succeed at Stinson. The feedback from students of color was positive.
Understanding that many law students of color are the first in their families to attend law school and, consequently, may not have easy access to lawyer role models who can coach them through the interview and onboarding processes, the firm used the convenience and appeal of podcasting to reach a broader audience while reinforcing the do’s and don’ts of personal branding and introducing other strategies on how to succeed in big law.
Focusing on Inclusion
Using Experiential Learning to Address Bias and Cultivate Allies — After conducting a listening tour throughout the firm, Jenrette-Thomas noticed that while many people supported diversity and inclusion, it had been difficult to translate that ideology into action. Simply put, most people did not know what they could do to disrupt biases and create an inclusive environment.
As a result, Jenrette-Thomas deployed an educational awareness campaign to provide tools that would enable people to be better allies. By engaging in experiential learning opportunities like Trusted Ten, Oppression Monopoly, and The Law Firm Tournament, more people became emotionally engaged in creating an inclusive workplace. Jenrette-Thomas also developed an Allies Network to offer ongoing training on actions that allies can take to support for lawyers of color and other diverse professionals. The group discusses such topics as how to have difficult conversations, how to foster cultural competence, and how to be an ally.
Coaching on Effective Feedback — Jenrette-Thomas coaches attorneys on how to give and receive effective feedback. She noticed that some lawyers had difficulty giving clear and candid feedback, often opting instead to stop working with a lawyer whose performance did not meet their expectations. Lawyers of color faced an additional hurdle when partners were afraid to provide feedback because they did not want to be viewed as biased. Yet without candid feedback, lawyers of color would miss opportunities to fine tune their legal skills.
She also provides tips to partners on how to be transparent about their expectations and how to articulate what changes need to occur to demonstrate improvement. She also coaches associates of color on how to overcome their fear of criticism and learn to be proactive in seeking feedback on their assignments and how to ask clarifying questions when seeking feedback from partners.
“It’s important to make sure the partner and associate are on the same page,” Jenrette-Thomas explained. “Sometimes, I will act as an intermediary, asking the partner pointed questions, like, ‘What specific changes would you like to see in the associate’s performance?’ I’d then follow up with any clarifying questions I had of the partner’s expectations. Next, I would ask the associate to repeat what they understood the expectation to be, and then I’d get the parties to agree upon a timeframe for improvement.”
Building Upon the Success and Scaling the Impact
Stinson’s increase of representation for attorneys of color from 5% to 9% is only part of the impact of the firm’s efforts, according to Jenrette-Thomas.
Stinson has also increased its retention rate of attorneys of color by 13% in the last two years, and Jenrette-Thomas plans to build on that with more retention strategies, including launching a sponsorship program for diverse attorneys and developing a pilot program around monitoring work assignments to ensure that all attorneys have an equal opportunity to develop competencies that are essential to their career success.