Sage Career Wisdom for Attorneys of Color from Derek Davis: What a Culture of Inclusion Looks Like (Part 2)

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Perseverance, Q&A Interviews, Small Law Firms, Talent Development

women in practice

As part of the Legal Executive Institute’s launch of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color initiative, we spoke with Derek Davis, Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession and former shareholder at Greenberg Traurig. He continues to practice law as a licensed attorney in the State of New York and The Commonwealth of Massachusetts in addition to his role at Harvard.

In the second part of this interview, Davis shared his vision for what a culture of inclusion looks like and discussed the meta-forces that are impacting the advancement of attorneys of color in the legal industry. (You can read the first part of this interview here.)

Legal Executive Institute: Can you just describe what a culture of inclusion looks like? And what are the differences between when you first started practicing law and now?

Derek Davis: That’s an excellent question. And as much as I would say innovation has enhanced not only the delivery of client services and the speed and efficiency of the delivery of legal services, it also has had a detrimental effect on our ability to slow down and get to know each other in law firms.

I grew up during a period in the law when you had senior partners who could take time. You could listen in on conference calls with clients without the pressure of knowing that you had to bill that time. You could spend time with partners outside of the office at social functions and at meetings or other occasions and learn the skills of developing a desk-side manner in knowing how to become a better lawyer.

Today, in this economy and in this technological-driven age, associates don’t have the luxury of spending that kind of time. In those days, we didn’t have Google. We didn’t have Twitter. We had to get to know each other. We had to spend time at functions in Boston. We had not-for-profit organizations like The Partnership, which was a very effective organization back in its prime, that identified mid-level young people of color in our largest institutions, law firms, and corporations and exposed them to the corporate, public and governmental leaders in the greater Boston area so that they could get to know each other. The community and the leaders who ran these institutions did this with the hope and intention that these young people would remain in Boston, grow families here, and plant roots here.

That was great 30 years ago, but today, because of the competing interests and forces at work, law firms and companies don’t have that luxury of time. Clients want their work immediately, and lawyers have to turn work around immediately. We don’t have the luxury of spending time with the people with whom we’re often in adversarial positions. We had many, many more opportunities to interact, in safe spaces and in collegial environments that would enable us to hone our skills as not only lawyers but as professionals who are committed to Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Legal Executive Institute: What are the meta-forces going on in the industry and how is it impacting the promotion and retention of lawyers of color?

Derek Davis: The biggest set of forces — and there are lots of meta-forces out there — has to do, like I said before, about not having the luxury of time. I think all law firms, managing partners, and hiring partners will tell you that the period within which a young associate has to develop and compete is much more condensed. Thirty years ago, you probably had the luxury of three years to make mistakes, develop skills, express an interest in an area of practice within the firm, and hone those skills to get to the next level.

Because of the competition, the pressure of clients, and of technology, that time has been reduced. Law students leaving law school, and particularly law students of color, now have to compete in a much more frenzied environment and at a faster rate in that first year. Decisions are being made about young associates in the first six months, let alone, in the first year. They don’t have the luxury of time. That’s one of those meta-forces.

Two, disruptive innovation and technology have taken away a lot of the smaller or much more profitable work that’s being digitized or automated. Young associates who used to do document review, due diligence memos, and discovery years ago are not even learning those skills now because they’ve been farmed out to consultants, organizations, and other legal services providers. Young lawyers today are not able to develop a certain type of skill to make oneself more attractive and get in front of partners to develop skills.

Finally, clients are demanding that they have more senior people do their work at much higher levels of expertise and, therefore, younger associates, regardless of their color, can’t get that experience to develop and grow, particularly at our larger, more global firms because the pace of practice and demand is different.

Although we’ve made a lot of progress in society as a whole with technology, it’s put a lot of pressure on the bottom line, and these meta-forces make it challenging for any associate of color and associates, generally, regardless of their race or their agenda, to compete intensely all of the time. They’ve had to fight much harder for their place inside these institutions.

When I started practicing law in the early 1990s, there was really one route, up or out, in these law firms. In-house counsel was relatively small and non-existent, and it was even unheard of for a lateral, particularly a lateral of color, to even think about leaving a law firm because if you left a law firm, there was some stigma attached or that maybe there’s something wrong.

In the mid-to-late ’90s, hiring lawyers from firms to in-house counsel became the norm. It exploded, and companies decided they could build in some of the cost in the overhead by bringing in talented, young lawyers, regardless of race, to their companies. We started to see the people who were assigning work and farming out the work didn’t look like the “old-boy” network. There started to be more women general counsel and more women associate general counsel. You saw minorities beginning to flow into these in-house departments. I think it showed both lawyers of color and non-lawyers of color that there was an alternative lifestyle that they could pursue in the practice of law where they could be happy. The pressures to have a family, grow up, and be a dad attending your kids’ soccer games and other outside activities could actually happen being an in-house lawyer.

Finally, the last meta-force at work is there are many more pathways to success for young people of color. Partnership is one of many. General Counsel is another. And then, there are others from the bench, district attorneys’ offices, to the Justice Departments and attorney general offices.

Legal Executive Institute: What nuggets of wisdom would you share with lawyers of color today?

Derek Davis: You have to have a passion for the law. You have to love the law, and you have to understand and appreciate the fact that although times have changed, and the practice of law has changed, you can still make a good living. You can be very influential as a leader, as a professional, and as a practicing attorney within your community.

Taking the time to do good work, sticking to it, being flexible, learning to adapt, and being persistent are the actions I would encourage young lawyers of color to hold onto.

To illustrate, I always kept a quote on my desk, which I still have to this day, which says, “Risk more than others think is safe, care more than others think is wise, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.” I’ve lived by this mantra my entire career, and so maybe that’s why I’ve lasted as long as I have.