Retention of women and lawyers of color is driven by seeing diversity among firm partners

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Nicole Fanjul says she chose law as her profession after seeing a close family member engage with the legal system for the first time. “I was generally kind of unconcerned about this pervasive influence that the legal system has on our daily lives and the potential impact it can have, until I had to be acutely aware of it,” Fanjul explains. “And I guess I never wanted to feel that helpless again, regardless of the circumstances.”

Now, Fanjul, a partner in Latham & Watkins’ banking practice group and a member of Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership Rising Star program, says seeing other women and people of color in leadership positions in the firm has greatly influenced her career.

Women role models critical to achieving partner

Indeed, Fanjul says she chose her practice area in part because of the presence of women leaders in the banking practice at Latham and the opportunity to lead on her own deals. The practice “included some powerful female role models who were partners, and it contributed to my sense of feeling there was a path for me,” she explains, despite the fact that when she started at the firm her goals did not include joining the partnership.

Though she was not sure what type of law she wanted to practice when she started law school, Fanjul liked transactional work because of the opportunity to take a leadership role on deals. “Looking for opportunities to really own my own deals, and take the lead on transactions… the banking group, which is where I am now, really fit that mold,” she notes.

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Nicole Fanjul, of Latham & Watkins

In addition to the power of “seeing herself”, Fanjul also took advantage of two key opportunities as an associate that were instrumental in setting her up to earn promotion to partner.

First, as a junior associate, Fanjul had an early opportunity to close a key deal for a client, working with a senior partner after the senior associate who had been involved left the firm for another job. Despite being terrified, Fanjul says she was encouraged because the partner had so much confidence in her that no additional associates were needed on the deal. “We got the deal done with some minor hiccups along the way,” she adds. “And it just really changed my thought process of how I approach work, where I’m capable of more than what I’ve done already, and how I could grow more if I push past my comfort zone.”

The second opportunity presented itself when, as a senior associate, she was invited to serve on the firm’s Associates Committee, which manages the associate evaluations and makes recommendations on promotions. Accepting the invitation gave her exposure to key influencers, partners, and leaders from across the firm. Despite her apprehension about her ability to manage the additional commitment along with her client work and parenthood after returning to the firm following the birth of her first child, Fanjul pursued the opportunity, saying that being on the committee “made me push — again — past what I thought I could do, and I realized that I could juggle all of these.”

Don’t make assumptions about what’s possible

After female associates have had children, they may worry that leaders will make assumptions about what they want as their workload, wrongly limiting opportunities and thereby limiting their advancement. Fanjul, however, says she didn’t experience that. Instead, the partner who invited her to join the Associates Committee was also a parent, and she welcomed that conversation with Fanjul. “I thank her for making the choice mine, and not assuming that I would not want to do it because of my personal circumstances at that moment,” notes Fanjul.

This was a critical moment for Fanjul, she recalls, because at that time she was questioning whether returning to the firm after parental leave was the right choice for her and her family. However, that instrumental conversation made a huge difference in her decision to stay. “It made me feel that there was a way to make it work and that I didn’t have to leave,” she explains. “I could do these two things, have all parts of life, and continue on, so that was a big one for me, too.”

Representation matters

Fanjul’s career journey and promotion to partner underscore a key point that is emphasized by underrepresented lawyers time and time again — seeing diverse representation within the partnership does matter. The fact that less than 2% of partners in law firms are Black as of 2018, according to the National Association for Law Placement, Inc.; and at the same time, the retention of Black attorneys has been a challenge for more than a decade are, indeed, connected. The lack of representation at partner level begets the retention problem. “I’ve been talking about it most recently with members of our Black lawyers group because we’re trying to encourage younger associates to really see that there is a path for them,” Fanjul states.

Fanjul says she now understands that as a partner who happens to be a woman of color, she plays a critical role in the retention of young Black associates and other early career attorneys of color at the firm. “Representation matters whether you’re conscious of it or not, whether or not you can picture yourself in a certain position,” she says. “It’s easier if you can see someone who’s got certain similarities.”