The Legal Executive Institute blog’s Podcast Transcript for the interview with Sheryl Axelrod

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Law Firms, NAMWOLF, Podcasts, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters


Hello and welcome to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. Today we begin a series of podcasts focused on NAMWOLF, the National Association of Women and Minority Owned Law Firms, a non-profit trade association founded in 2001.

Today we’re featuring Sharon Sayles Belton, Thomson Reuter’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Community relations, who will be interviewing Sheryl Axelrod, the head of the Axelrod Firm. Sheryl was recently honored with NAMWOLF’s 2017 Yolanda Coly Advocacy Award. Take it away Sharon.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          Well, hello Sheryl. I’d like you to just talk to us a little bit about your practice and what areas it specializes in.

Sheryl Axelrod:         I practice in five areas. I’ve been practicing for 23 years since graduating Temple Law School in 1993 and I primarily focus on five areas. One is employment dissent, so I represent employers in their employment matters and this ties directly into my advocacy work on behalf of women and minorities. I do my job as keeping their exposure to a minimum and a great way to do that is make sure that they are as diverse and inclusive as possible, and then their risk of being subjected to claims for discrimination is as slow as possible. If I can effectuate change across a major institution, which is what I try to do, I keep their exposure to a minimum. We also give them advice and counseling and when they do get sued we dissent them in those cases.

I also do bodily injury cases and I have throughout my entire career so I dissed companies when they are sued or they need counseling with regard to bodily injury claims. I also handle commercial disputes, disputes which are business disputes, usually large business disputes about a million dollars and above normally. I do a lot of appellate work as a result of the other areas of practice that I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of major brief writing and where cases go and appeal I’ve handled those appeals so I’ve developed a practice area around appellate work.

Then, finally as a result of my experience primarily in the commercial arena, I was appointed recently by three judges in Philadelphia, those that preside over the commerce court here to serve as a judge pro tempore.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          I want you to talk a little bit about whether or not you’ve faced any particular obstacles in your career because you’re a woman lawyer. Tell me a little bit about that. I can’t imagine that it’s just been a cake walk.

Sheryl Axelrod:         It actually has absolutely not been any sort of a cake walk. Just to give the listeners an idea of what women and people of color face in our profession, about half of us are made partners as should. What I mean by that is women represent 30-40% of the practicing lawyers, at least at major law firms, and frankly would represent more like 40-50% of the practicing lawyers in them if it weren’t for the great attrition rate, in other words the amount of women and minorities that are bleeding out of these large law firms.

People of color represent about 14% of the practicing lawyers and would probably represent a lot more, but for, again, great numbers of attrition, which is the result of being excluded not included properly in their firms. As a result, only about half the amount of women and minorities make partner so instead of seeing 30-40% women as partners, the numbers of partners are about 20% women. Instead of us seeing about 14% people of color as partners we’re only seeing about 7, so in both cases we’re seeing about half made partner as should. I certainly face this as well and saw what was happening.


Sheryl Axelrod of The Axelrod Firm

With women in particular, what we face is a backlash that’s been called the personality backlash and it’s not about us. It’s about unconscious bias. For instance, there’s a study that talks about this and it found that evaluations of 248 people in the technology field revealed that 71% of the reviews were critical. Now, that is not interesting, but what is, is nearly 90% of those that were critical were for women. Less than 60% were for men, so we see a 1/3 increase. That’s a huge number of critical reviews of women as compared to men.

Not only that, 13 of the women were negatively described as abrasive. Not a single man was. While the word aggressive was used to describe 3 of the men, for 2 of them it was a compliment with the reviewers suggesting he be more so, whereas for women they received comments like, “Watch your tone. Step back. Stop being so judgmental,” in 71 of 94 critical reviews. To give you a contrast, men only received such comments 2 times in 83 critical reviews. What we want in our lawyers is for them to be confident, assertive, know who they are, self-possessed, but for women that can be a very difficult thing and we’re not treated fairly when we are.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          These are some serious and complex matters. What do we need to do to address these obstacles?

Sheryl Axelrod:         Well, that’s a really good question and there’s great data to show us what should be done. Let me add for people of color and then I’ll go to how we fix this. People of color also face a very large barrier in the way of unconscious bias. The unconscious bias toward women is that if we assert ourselves we’re not acting womanly, we’re not acting feminine, we’re not acting the way that we should as our gender. For people of color, the backlash they face is in competency. The unconscious bias is that people of color are not as competent and there are studies that really show this very strikingly.

For instance, there was a major study of writing in the profession. It’s called Written in Black and White. It’s an excellent study and lawyers created a memo and they made 60 copies of it. They put a cover sheet on top of it and for 30 copies the cover sheet stated that the writer was White, and for 30 it stated that the writer was African American, and for all of them it said that the writer was a third-year graduate of NYU.

When the partners reviewed the writing, as a result of what’s called confirmation bias, their own bias against people of color that they then seek to confirm, they found far more errors in the writing of the person they believed to be African American than the White, supposed writer. They marked the African American’s writing far worse things to say about this individual. Stuff like, “I can’t believe he graduated from NYU.” At the end, graded this person far worse. This is very revealing to us.

To answer your question, “What do we need to do?” We need to audit the reviews that are being given of women and people of color and make sure that they are not skewed because they are going to be and we need to fix that. That they are not skewed so that women are getting negatively reviewed based on showing assertiveness and self-confidence and so that people of color are not getting negatively reviewed for equally good writing that is being far more negatively critiqued. If you are a woman of color you will face both. The studies are going to show that it’s much harder for you and that’s why we only have 2% of our partners are women of color.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          You talked about personality bias based on gender and then this unconscious bias about confidence that people of color face. What advice would you offer women or people of color who are in the legal profession who are trying to overcome these issues? We just heard you talk a little bit about how there’s a risk involved in pushing back with a partner. What should we do?


Thomson Reuters’ Sharon Sayles Belton

Sheryl Axelrod:         I’ve developed tools that can help us. These are Sheryl Axelrod’s tools and they’re based on years of reviewing data and trying to figure out how we can get around this. My strongest suggestion is that we develop what I call a coalition of allies. By that, I do not mean all people like ourselves. I mean a coalition of people who are supportive of us so they may be women, they may be people of color, and they may also be White, non-diverse man. By the way, one of my greatest champions at a large firm was a White non-diverse male. Develop a coalition of allies, people that will speak highly of you, and do the following. My friend has called it PEP because it’s Place-Echo-Promote, so it helps us remember it. PEP.

Let’s talk about placement. Placement is let’s make sure we help place each other in positions that can raise our profile in the profession. For instance, one of us can say to another, “I love your articles and I think that you should submit one to such and such publication.” That’s placement. You can do the same thing with regard to speaking on a panel, serving on a board, and a million other things. There’s speaking engagements. There’s written engagements. All sorts of things. Speaking at a CLE. Help place other women and minorities that you know are very talented and will do a great job in these kinds of positions that can raise their profile and let them rise in the profession.

Echoing refers to repeating what someone said so that they get the credit for it. We have all, women and minorities, I am sure been in the unenviable situation of being in a room where we make a really great suggestion. We raise our hand. We make a great suggestion and it is as if it was never made. Not only that, a few minutes later, generally it’s a White non-diverse man, will raise his hand, say the same thing, and get all the credit for it. In fact, sometimes people applaud him for that. Here is a way, this is a tool, echo, that we can disrupt that from happening again.

The next time you are in a room and a woman or minority makes a fabulous suggestion here’s what I would ask you to do. Raise your hand right away, as soon as it is your turn to speak repeat the idea and give the woman or minority the credit for it. For instance, say her name. “Katherine made a fabulous suggestion.” She said, and then repeat her idea. That we should make sure to put in institutional measures in to place in our organization so that we are far more diverse and inclusive and we operate at a much higher level.

Then, she gets all the credit for the great suggestion she made and gets praised for it. Not only that, what you have done by echoing her idea, is if she wasn’t already in your coalition of allies, there’s a strong likelihood that she will be now because you’ve just done something wonderful for her. Not only that, it makes you look great because you very selflessly did something for someone else. This is a fabulous way that anyone can help disrupt bias by echoing them.

There’s a million ways in which all of us can promote each other without having to be in that position. If you are in that position, fabulous, and please do help promote our women and minorities. We need it and we’re not being fairly and equally treated, but if you’re not in that position you can still promote by speaking very highly of our fellow women and minorities.

For instance, “Ken Jones, who’s a male of color, he has done an incredible job. He tried this case beautifully. He had the jury in the palm of his hands. He is the go to person. He’ll work nights if you need him. He’s a team player.” These kinds of things. Saying this kind of thing is extremely helpful and is a great way to raise the profile of someone as a woman or a person of color or both in the profession. Place, Echo, Promote. These are tools we can all use and help each other with.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          I think this PEP program is just fantastic and I hope that we can help you get this message out because there are things that individuals can do and we must do if we really want to make a material change. We just have a couple of minutes left and so I just want to ask you one question. Now, the legal industry has been grappling with these issues of diversity and hiring and inclusion for decades and some people would say that there’s been little success. What more can we do?

Sheryl Axelrod:         There’s a lot we can do. Hiring, I just want to let our listeners know, is not as big of an issue as the rest. Inclusion, retention, equal pay, and promotion. Those are the key issues that we need to focus on primarily and there are absolutely tools that institutions can use. First of all, we need to recognize that business inheritance in the profession is one of the biggest ways in which people get business and currently as a result of unconscious bias, and the fact that most of the business is concentrated in the hands of White non-diverse men who are bequeathing it to White non-diverse men like themselves.

I want to be clear. They’re not doing this to hurt anyone. It’s not an intentional kind of thing, but people have what’s called an affinity bias and they tend to gravitate towards people like themselves. We need to disrupt that. Law firms need to get involved and instead of having this be that the White non-diverse men or those with all the business get to choose who gets their business from them. Law firms need to actually take an active role and make sure they are deciding on a merit basis who gets the business and grooming equally women and minorities for it. We have to look at our billing rates. Law firms need to audit the rates at which they are billing people.

Women and minorities are unfairly being billed out at lower rates than their White male counterparts. The more senior they are, the more disparate these rates become. They’re inequitable systems about our reviews to make sure that all of these things are not negatively impacting women and minorities and we have to make sure that in salary negotiations we are not penalizing women and minorities. Women and minorities in particular face a huge amount of scrutiny when we sit down and try to negotiate for higher pay. You can imagine that if women are already being told we’re too aggressive, then when we try to negotiate for higher pay what we’re going to hear.

We need to start implementing institutional changes to address it. These are some of the most important things that law firms can do to make sure that we equalize them out.

Sharon Sayles Belton:          Sheryl this has just been a fascinating interview today. You have definitely shown a light on what we can do to actually make a difference for women and minorities who are trying to have some success in the profession that they’ve chosen. I can’t thank you enough for spending time with me today.

Sheryl Axelrod:         It is such an honor to be interviewed by you so thank you for your kind words and I hope that we will stay in touch.

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