A Key Ingredient for Retention of Lawyers of Color: A Radically Welcoming Environment, Says Traci Bransford of Stinson Leonard Street

Topics: Diversity, Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color Advisory Board, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

Traci Bransford, Partner at Stinson Leonard Street, and new advisory board member of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color, shares her wisdom from her career journey, why she joined the board, and her thoughts on how to accelerate the advancement of attorneys of color.

Bransford is currently an entertainment and sports attorney, but her career path has taken her across the US more than once and shifted her areas of practice from litigator to transactional attorney. Indeed, she graduated from law school at NYU, worked in Los Angeles as a litigator during the times of the OJ Simpson case and the death of Tupac Shakur, doing work on police misconduct, criminal defense and family law cases. While working in California, she pivoted to entertainment and sports law; and now, she centers her practice in this area while based out of Minneapolis. Bransford has been at Stinson for five years and was the first African-American female partner based in the Minneapolis office.

On a Mission to Advance Attorneys of Color

When meeting Bransford, you know the moment you meet her she is committed to her clients and her community of attorneys of color. She clearly states her professional purpose: “My every day, existence is twofold: 1) to develop business and remain a profitable partner; and 2) to pull up as many lawyers with me as possible and to try to keep those who come behind me here — because if they don’t see me here, they won’t stay. Literally, this is my mission — and that is why I co-chair the attorneys of color employee resource group.”

Bransford is committed to doing things differently, having experienced first-hand what it feels like to be “underutilized at a firm” and consistently made to feel like the outsider. “I try to make sure that those who come after me have an inclusive, comfortable, and a safe place to work,” she said. “Oftentimes, you [as a lawyer of color] do not think of [work] in terms of safety but in some workplaces discomfort can be hazardous. To come into a firm where you feel like you are misunderstood based on your racial differences from the majority, makes for a very uncomfortable place to work. So, I want everyone to feel comfortable, to be productive and make their living.”

Bransford admits having total “passion for the topic”; and in her observation, “the more I sit as a partner in a large law firm, the more I see the lack of attorneys of color throughout the profession, which is unfortunate for business. I see that multinational corporations — whose work we try to attract or who are attracted to us as a firm — are mandating diverse legal teams. Diversity, put simply, makes good business sense.”

Her View on the Law Firm Retention Challenge

Though clients are requiring law firms to make changes in the way they operate to increase their diversity, she believes law firms have their work cut out for them. It is no secret that attorneys of color leave law firms at a higher rate than their peers who are white.

Bransford has a unique perspective on the challenge. She frames it as a profitability issue because soft money — in the form of dozens of hours of partners’ time, hundreds of hours of professional development through the firm’s associate training programs, and limited marketing resources to attract them — is walking out of the door when lawyers of color leave. “Number one, it is cost-prohibitive, and two, it’s wrong because it means we’re not doing something internally to make them want to stay,” she added. Indeed, the ABA Commission on Women and MCCA’s report You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial and Gender Bias in the Legal Profession states: “Research suggests that the cost to the firm of attrition per associate is up to $400,000.”

Her Recommendation to Legal Employers: Speak to Everyone and Invest in Talent

To generate a culture that is radically welcoming, Bransford stated, “first of all, you have to treat people like you want to be treated. I treat everyone equally.” She also demonstrates the “welcome” through her personal demeanor. “I speak to all co-workers no matter what their complexion is or what their particular status is — legal assistants, the mail room folks, everyone in between — because that’s what you ought to do, and that’s just human dignity,” she explained, adding that she also smiles and is intentional about making her resting face approachable. “I believe that your resting face needs to not look like you’ve just sucked a sour lemon.”

Bransford also thinks firms need to invest in their lawyers of color by funding their attendance and activities in local, state, and national bar associations and professional industry groups. Bransford clearly underscores this point: “The way that I bring in business is by going to Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) conferences, the National Bar Association annual conferences and the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association (BESLA) conferences around the country. Stinson has been very supportive of these marketing initiatives and for that I am thankful to firm leadership. (NGL: ALC Advisory Board member Gary Zhao also shares how his involvement in minority bar associations has been critical to his ability to develop business and his career advancement success.)”

Bransford also advises every law firm to have a chief diversity and inclusion officer. Stinson hired Ann Jenrette-Thomas, who is also an external contributor to NGL: ALC (Check out her content series Self Promotion for Lawyers of Color part one and part two) as the firm’s first chief D&I head. Jenrette-Thomas has been a game changer because of her ongoing advocacy for lawyers of color, said Bransford.