We in the legal profession – and beyond – will remember the summer of 2020 as a season of living in a dual pandemic. The first one, which I classify as “medical,” involved the Covid-19 pandemic that we all are continuing to manage through to this day.
The second pandemic, which I classify as “societal,” elevated discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in ways that we, particularly those of us in the legal profession, had not previously seen. Sadly, the medical and societal” pandemics often found themselves interwoven, with issues of inequity, lack of access to medical care and disparity of resources between communities brought to bear through the over-indexing of tragedy that has taken a dramatic toll on people of color and underserved communities. Lawyers in our firms, employees in our companies and people in our communities wanted to know, “What are we going to do about this?” Firms and companies took steps to raise the bar on empathy as they took time to learn more about the toll that bias and racism continue to play in the lives of their diverse employees.
Concurrent with the timing of these pandemics, I reached a time in my career when I wanted to try an “experiment” to see if there was something impactful that I, as a former corporate general counsel, could do – working inside a law firm– to address the headlines I continued to read about the struggles of women and attorneys of color, particularly African American attorneys, who were not making measurable progress in their careers.
The word “experiment” is important, as I had never worked in a law firm before. I moved directly from the U.S. Department of Justice to corporate America, but I had plenty of exposure to law firms over the course of a 35-year legal career. I raised and refined my idea with different law firm leaders over the course of a six-month period and the leadership team at Quarles & Brady LLP quickly responded with a “yes” when I described my thesis. At a minimum, there were three ways that I, a former general counsel, could assist lawyers in the firm.
- First, there are diverse attorneys who already are excellent attorneys, but for whatever reason, do not have exposure to the in-house community of lawyers. Said another way, in-house counsel simply did not know them. Having grown up as an in-house counsel, my goal is to meet these lawyers across our firm, learn about both their legal practice and the lawyers themselves, and thereafter find opportunities to showcase these lawyers to in-house audiences. In-house counsel, particularly those who were engaged with the ACC networks, the MCCA, the LCLD and Diversity Lab, have truly embraced this idea, and we are beginning to see the “unknown” become “known.”
Second, there are diverse lawyers who needed to learn what it would take, both now and down the road, to become the “go-to” lawyers for corporate clients. The key here is to partner with current and/or recently retired members of the in-house profession to meet with diverse lawyers and paint a picture for them of what they should be doing in order to get themselves prepared down the road. I was further surprised to learn that a number of our African American associates had never had an opportunity to meet an African American general counsel—so I have found ways to connect lawyers whom I have mentored over the past 20+ years (several of whom are in general counsel roles) with the next generation of lawyers so the associates can see what success looks like.
Third, there are non-diverse partners who are wholeheartedly committed to building diverse and inclusive teams. I wanted to find ways to let the in-house community know this, as these partners need to have successful practices. In-house counsel quickly understand the importance of this concept and several have joined me in the endeavor to make sure the committed partners are known and their stories of leadership are celebrated and rewarded.
After spending 18 months on my law firm experiment, there are a few important take aways that are actionable by others in the profession who want to help spur real change.
Following the summer of racial unrest, it was important for law firms and corporations to take the time to educate themselves more deeply on DEI. Our firm, and many others, held listening sessions and encouraged the reading of books on topics such as unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. We heard stories from those within our firms, and also sought insights from individuals who had left the firms. While these efforts are appreciated, firms need to not treat them as one-time “check the box” activities, but need to earnestly examine what needs to be improved upon to enhance the career journeys of their diverse lawyers.
It is particularly important that In-house counsel take the time to actually meet diverse attorneys in law firms—and learn more about the lawyers than just their legal practice skill set. It has been fascinating to learn about the personal journeys of the lawyers in our firm. Some have grown up in other countries, others had interesting non-legal careers before becoming lawyers. When in-house counsel take an interest in the people behind the business card, its amazing how the opportunity to build a sustainable relationship with a trusted advisor can help someone flourish.
The legal profession, whether in law firms or in corporations, needs to find ways to offer more opportunities for young lawyers to learn from more senior, successful people who look like them, whether within or outside their own organization. Young people are hungry for people to emulate, and one of the best retention tools is to find someone who can serve as a career guide to those who are newer in the profession.
I encourage others, particularly my colleagues who have spent many years working inside corporations, to take the time to create their own experiment to find ways to support the career journeys of diverse lawyers. We all understand the status quo is not acceptable, so your efforts are clearly going to be on the plus side of the ledger. Let’s get to work.
About the Author
Cornell Boggs serves as of counsel and senior strategic advisor for Quarles & Brady LLP. He joined Quarles & Brady following a career as an in-house attorney at some of the nation’s leading multinational companies in roles spanning from staff attorney to executive vice president and general counsel. Mr. Boggs also serves as vice chair of the board of directors and chair of the governance committee at Thrivent Financial, a Fortune 500 diversified financial services company. He is a former board member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. In 2017, he was recognized by the American Bar Association and the Library of Congress with a Burton Award as a Legend in Law.