Law firm DEI efforts extend to management, younger students
Returning for his second year at UConn Law School, Andrés Jiménez-Franck had a definite edge.
He had spent the summer at law firm Pullman & Comley in a new program that allowed him to do the work of a summer associate, a post typically reserved for students prior to their third year of law school.
“I think I got the real experience early on,” Jiménez-Franck said. “They gave me the same materials that the second-year law students received, my workload was very similar to what they had.”
He was also able to discuss his work and larger legal issues with the firm’s senior partners.
“Pullman provided substantial feedback on my work product,” Jiménez-Franck said. “And I took that with me when I went back to school. It definitely made me more confident.”
Jiménez-Franck went on to be hired by Pullman & Comley after he finished law school and passed the bar exam.
First-year law students are a new focus of Pullman & Comley’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), as the legal profession seeks to align its workforce to the nation’s demographics.
DEI efforts at law firms are increasingly looking to younger age groups to spark interest in the profession, in addition to focusing on concrete metrics to track their progress. New positions are also being created within firms to bolster DEI efforts at the highest levels of leadership, and clients are clamoring for help on their own DEI outreach.
Meantime, clients are also demanding firms that represent them to have formal DEI strategies and an increasingly diverse lawyer pool.
“We will try to walk the walk and talk the talk internally; we also want to share these concepts with our clients,” said Mark Sommaruga, chair of Pullman’s DEI committee.
As a firm specializing in employment law, Pullman, with offices in Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Westport, sees increasing demand from corporate clients on incorporating diversity efforts in their workplaces.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion training is frequently the highest, the most requested service they want from us,” Sommaruga said.
The law profession in general has made progress in diversifying its ranks in recent years, but it still has a ways to go to increase diversity, particularly among women and minorities.
According to the 2021 “Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms,” published by the National Association for Law Placement Inc., people of color made up 27.6% of U.S. law firm associate positions and 12.4% of counsel positions, compared to 23.3% and 10.2%, respectively, five years ago. But only 10.8% of U.S. partner positions were filled by minorities last year, compared to 8.42% in 2017, the report found.
Management role adds DEI focus
At New Haven-based Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, the increased importance of DEI work is reflected in a new management role at the firm, director of talent and diversity.
“That’s a new position for us,” said Managing Partner Richard L. Street. “We’ve never had someone in a management role who has subject responsibility for DEI issues. That’s an important change that we’ve made to emphasize it.”
Amanda Nugent, who took the new post when it was created at the beginning of the year, said the role reflects the firm’s years of work in the field. “We’ve always been a leader, but to create that position … really underscores how deep that commitment runs,” she said.
Nugent said she had been doing DEI work as a partner in Carmody’s litigation group, but appreciates being able to devote more time to increase diversity both internally and externally.
“I’m really excited to be in a position now where it is my full-time responsibility to be able to focus on creating pipelines of new talent who will someday enter law school and be part of the legal community here in Connecticut,” Nugent said.
Carmody has also been looking to younger age groups to widen its talent pipeline, Nugent said. In the last two years, the firm’s internship program has enrolled undergraduates and high school students, “to show them what’s possible, and to let them see themselves reflected in the legal space and to see what it’s like to work in a firm like ours,” Nugent said.
Organizations like the Hartford-based Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity and Connecticut Bar Association have also added programs in recent years to reach younger students and spark an interest in the law.
“That is definitely a trend, the recognition that we really need to support folks and introduce folks to the law as early in their career as possible,” Nugent said.
Clients are also increasingly interested in working with firms on DEI initiatives, Street said. Carmody partnered with Eversource in a program that has a law school intern spend half the summer with the energy provider’s in-house legal team and half at the law firm.
This year is the first time an undergraduate intern will take part in the summer program as part of a DEI scholars program.
“Certainly I’ve seen that clients are much more willing to call up and have very frank conversations about DEI efforts and what we have done lately,” Street said. “They are looking for real practical results rather than colorful brochures and statements.”
National best practices
Both outreach to young people and managerial DEI efforts are a focus of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, a national coalition of more than 400 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners. New Haven-based Wiggin and Dana joined the group in October as part of efforts to ramp up DEI, said Managing Partner Timothy Diemand.
“This is just about moving the needle and making the whole industry better for diverse folks,” Diemand said. “I see that when you kind of put that business competition aside and realize we’re all in it together, it’s really wonderful.”
Another recent DEI initiative at Wiggin and Dana is the expansion of billable hour credits beyond typical pro bono work to include DEI projects. Typically, attorneys from underrepresented groups do much of the “heavy lifting” in internal diversity efforts, Diemand said, so they should be paid for their time.
“I think it’s only fair for those team members to get appropriate credit for things that are important,” Diemand said. “But also to really emphasize to all of our attorneys the importance of [DEI] at the firm level, and to hopefully encourage folks to be even more active in that space.”
Wiggin is also expanding its summer programs to include first-year law students.
“Our hope is that this individual comes back for a second summer and a third summer,” said Jana Simon, chief DEI officer at the firm. “It’s been a rewarding experience for them and for us, as well. And we’ve had many summer associates join us full time after our summer associate program.”
Like many students from underrepresented communities, Jiménez-Franck of Pullman didn’t have lawyers in his family, or personal connections in the profession when he set out on his path to become an attorney. A graduate of Naugatuck schools, he gained both concrete experience and a network of mentors in Pullman’s program for first-year law students.
“I had a lot of confidence issues in realizing whether or not it was a profession for me. So when I received the feedback it was very affirming, … it was very empowering,” Jiménez-Franck said of the first-year law students summer program. “I had this renewed sense of energy and eagerness to learn and to want to do well.”
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