Black History Month: A conversation with Ellisen Turner, the first African-American Managing Partner at Irell & Manella, LLP

You worked as a software engineer before going to law school, what prompted that career shift and what was the most difficult aspect of it?

At 17, I left for college with a goal to study biomedical engineering and develop robotic, prosthetic limbs and organs. Eventually, I changed to a dual degree in electrical engineering and computer science. When I graduated from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, software programmers were commanding premium salaries and even starting their own companies. It was hard to resist that pull, especially as I began working as a consultant developing new software platforms for multiple clients. But ultimately I realized what I really loved was learning new technologies across many different fields, and finding creative solutions for my client’s problems. That naturally led me to law school and intellectual property law.

The most difficult part of the shift initially was finding a way to fund a quality legal education. It’s quite a risk to take, particularly for diverse students who often don’t see a clear path to success. The University of Michigan Law School offered me a full scholarship, sponsored by William Jentes to whom I am forever grateful. After that, the largest hurdle was transitioning from the black and white solutions that engineering typically offers to the messy, grey world of the law, which strives for just enough clarity to leave room for justice to be done in divergent cases.

Ellisen Turner, Managing Partner, Irell & Manella, LLP

The under-representation and exclusion of people of colour in STEM jobs is well documented, did your experience match up to that?

Certainly there is a lack of diversity in STEM fields. Before law school, I worked at several major companies that employed thousands of engineers, and rarely encountered much diversity, particularly at the management level. It’s a problem that begins early in the pipeline, during elementary education, and gets exacerbated in higher education as diverse students see a lack of role models and a lack of opportunity.

Did you have any role models/mentors while you were progressing up the hierarchy at Irell, and how did those relationships help you?

I was fortunate to begin my career at Irell, where real mentoring is essential to our culture and associate development. When I say ‘real mentoring’ I mean partners truly taking a personal and vested interest in ensuring that associates have the guidance and opportunities they need to succeed. Due to our firm’s size, and because we typically use small, highly-efficient and high-quality teams, associates are often working one-on-one with partners daily. So I always had partners monitoring and supporting my progress, both my assigned mentors and those that took their own interest. Our head of litigation, Morgan Chu, has always been marvellous at passing on his tremendous trial skills to the associates and giving associates the opportunity to put those skills to work. Meanwhile, Bruce Wessel was in my office on an almost weekly basis checking in on my personal and professional development. And the next generation of partners, like Ben Hattenbach, made sure that I learned all the details that lead to winning cases long before you even get to trial, before your adversary even knows they’ve lost. Importantly, I was also able to draw on the experiences of Henry Shields, one of the earliest black partners at any major firm in Los Angeles, and others like him in my network, all of whom helped me navigate law as a profession and a business.

As we know, you’ve just been named as the new Managing Partner, but you were the chair of the hiring committee before that – what innovations did you bring in and what were the reasons behind those changes?

Due to intrinsic problems in our educational system, students may achieve academic success at the highest levels and yet still lack the qualities needed to do the type and quality of work that our clients expect. Conversely, a small hiccup in a student’s early academic career can completely, and wrongly, remove them from the radar screen that most major law firms use to hire associates. Further, numerous studies have shown the severe, detrimental impact that implicit bias can impose on even the most well-meaning employer.

As Hiring Chair, my primary focus was improving our ability to identify which candidates had the key characteristics that are most likely to lead to success at Irell and provide the best service to our clients. Beyond academic success, we value factors like leadership, creativity, and most importantly ownership—people who by their very nature tend to go above and beyond the call of duty with a focus on getting the best results. Using ad hoc interview questions, where folks learn only whether they ‘hit it off’ with a candidate, or assess the candidate’s ability to regurgitate information about their own law school publications, fail to provide meaningful information on those essential traits.  So, we redesigned the system to focus on responses to a series of objective, structured interview questions that target our key success factors. Working with a consultant, we have also employed, and continue to roll out, other new approaches, such as grade-blind call-back interviews, where the no one other than the initial on-campus interviewer sees the student’s transcripts, and panel interviews, where multiple attorneys interview the candidate at once and thus provide separate impressions based on the very same candidate responses.

The results we are seeing include deeper and more holistic reviews and perspectives on each candidate, higher quality and better informed decision making, and greater diversity in the candidates that receive offers.

You’re also very active outside the firm and in the diversity sphere more widely – what is the initiative you are most proud of?

I’m most proud of my service as the Chair of the Intellectual Property Section of the National Bar Association (NBA). The NBA has over 60,000 members and is the country’s oldest and largest network of African-American attorneys. Two years ago, I created and founded the organization’s Diversity In Tech Awards. These awards recognize lawyers and in-house legal departments that have demonstrated a commitment to advancing the hiring, retention, and promotion of diverse attorneys in the technology industry. Through our nomination process and award ceremony, we are able to learn and share best practices in fixing the lack of diversity that has plagued the STEM fields, and as a result, impeded diversity amongst lawyers practicing in intellectual property or working at technology companies. Finalists and awardees have included individuals and groups from Microsoft, General Electric, Intel, Verizon, Fullscreen Media, Zymergen, and Applied Materials amongst others. This year, Microsoft has donated generously to the organization thanks to Fred Humphries. That gift will help us sustain the awards and create new diversity programs that will help move the needle in more direct and fundamental ways.

The legal profession is on the cusp of a major shift in working practices – what direction do you see that going in and how will you implement those changes as managing partner?

At Irell, we have always thrived on collaboration. From the time associates come in the door they have a meaningful role on our small teams and direct interaction with partners and clients. So, in some respects we are ahead of the curve because we have always worked in ways that foster the tightly collaborative, team-based approach to problem solving that is currently favoured. A challenge is maintaining that culture in an environment where working where you are, rather than coming into a central office unnecessarily, is becoming more popular. We will continue to embrace technologies that allow our attorneys to work together seamlessly across offices and from their home offices or elsewhere when necessary.

A lot of research suggests that the new generation of lawyers don’t necessarily want the same things from their career as in the past – what advice would you give to those entering the profession?

I have heard that, and I think it is a bit fact and a bit fiction. The fact seems to be that the next generation of lawyers is, in their personal life, more interested in acquiring experiences than material things. That interest is thought to be inconsistent with a profession that values work in increments of time, and has typically required substantial time commitments in order to achieve at the highest levels. The theory is that the next generation is less interested in ‘doing what it takes’ to succeed. But true success in life has always required a balance of personal and professional interests, and clients value good lawyering based on quality, not quantity. Further, the best young lawyers I have met and recruited have been just as driven to succeed in their chosen profession as any I have known. The advice I would give is the same that I hope to instil in my children – the drive to be good at what you do, and to continuously improve, must come from within. If your motivation is something external, particularly something over which you hold no sway, you have lost control of your own happiness and you will never find it, not in your career and not anywhere else.

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Ellisen S. Turner is a partner in Irell & Manella’s Los Angeles office where he is the Managing Partner-elect, Hiring Chair and a member of the Executive Committee. His practice is primarily focused on intellectual property litigation, although it also includes inter partes review and other contested patent office proceedings, IP licensing and transactions, and IP due diligence during mergers and acquisitions. Named one of the 2016 “Most Influential Minority Attorneys” by the Los Angeles Business Journal, Ellisen serves on the board of directors for the IP Section of the National Bar Association, which is the oldest and largest national association of predominantly African American lawyers and judges in the United States.

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