ATLANTA — The idea that expanding opportunities and building the talent pipeline for diverse women lawyers will enhance the profitability profile of the organization as a whole was given a thorough discussion at a recent Fireside Chat sponsored by the Legal Executive Institute’s Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL).
More than 30 members of Atlanta’s legal community gathered last month at the law offices of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton for the evening’s discussion topic, which was “Gaining Gold by Widening the Rainbow: Creating Profitability Through Leadership Pathways for Diverse Women.”
Kilpatrick Partner Sarah Jurkiewicz welcomed attendees to the sponsoring firm with a reminder that “…diversity defines prosperity.” Panel moderator and Jones Day Partner, Jamila Hall, opened the panel by expressing a collective desire for attendees to come away from the event with tips and ideas for how to make progress in this arena.
Panelists introduced themselves by sharing a moment of career challenge and how they overcame it. While the challenges ranged from bar exam failure to housing instability, the solutions and approaches shared some common elements.
Panelist Kenya Pierre, Vice President and General Counsel of ARAUCO North America, summarized the advice with three words: perseverance, resilience, and faith. Shefali Patel, Head of Wholesale Lending Operations for SunTrust, highlighted the importance of trying to dissect each challenge and learn from it as other panelists and attendees strongly echoed this sentiment.
Part of the learning and engagement process is finding a voice, explained Yendelela Neely Holston, Kilpatrick Partner and the firm’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. She stressed the importance of building one’s credibility and then taking steps toward authenticity, reminding young women not to fall into the trap of over-explaining or apologizing.
Overcoming the “Fraternity Setting”
One partner and Diversity Committee Chair at a firm based in Atlanta, shared that he has observed differences between the self-promotion and confidence levels of young female and male associates and acknowledged the “fraternity setting” that women in the law are up against. He encouraged young women to step out of their comfort zones in building relationships and to “let people know what you do.”
Many women may feel challenged by asking friends and colleagues for work, noted Jones Day’s Hall, adding that there is a pressure not to “cheapen” the relationship. Neely Holston agreed, saying that in her experience, male counterparts often don’t feel this pressure. Pierre, of ARAUCO, elaborated on this point, saying that from her perspective, friends asking for business is welcomed and does not cheapen the relationship at all. In fact, she welcomes personal relationships beyond business as a general counsel.
On a related note, Pierre pointed that as colleagues and friends of color within the community, we need to support one another through expanding personal relationships into business. To put it succinctly, Pierre’s stated that “diversity begets diversity” and the other panelists agreed.
Law firms and corporations often need to feel pressure in order to make meaningful changes, panelists offered. Indeed, in her role as General Counsel, Pierre said she has taken steps to prioritize diversity by moving work away from firms that do not staff her matters with diverse teams.
Toward the end of the discussion, Patel shared that three members of SunTrust’s Executive Council are now women, which led to one attendee’s comment that the burden of promoting diversity falls unequally on people of diverse backgrounds. In response, panelists and audience members discussed the importance of sharing the work of creating a truly inclusive legal community across identities and affinities.