Diversity Summit: Practical, Intense, All-in, by Hector Gonzalez

Many law firms in the U.S. continue to face headwinds as they strive to build a diverse team of lawyers to serve clients and drive business success. The fact is that creating a culture where diversity can thrive is a nuanced and complicated process. Even when initial recruiting efforts yield outstanding results, a disappointing pattern often asserts itself: diverse lawyers departing after just a few years, disillusioned by law firm life generally, or feeling that they were never accepted to the degree they had hoped.

Dechert’s Diversity Committee is comprised of partners, associates and administrators from around the globe. The purpose of the committee is to transform the firm’s mission from words into action by focusing on recruiting, professional development and community outreach.

Hector Gonzalez, Partner, Dechert LLP

In 2014, as we analyzed Dechert’s own experience in retaining diverse associates, we were determined to try a new strategy to complement our overall diversity and inclusion program efforts. We rallied around the ‘boot camp’ concept, an intense, focused experience that imparts knowledge and forges relationships. We envisioned an event at which new lawyers could learn about the firm, bond with other diverse lawyers and get a clearer sense of how to succeed in a major global law firm.

We wanted to move quickly, so we set our sights on February 2015 for the inaugural Dechert Diverse Junior Associates Summit (formerly known as Diverse Junior Associates Boot Camp.) Despite an ill-timed snowstorm, the one-day event in New York City explored several areas we felt were critical to success.

Participants took part in several sessions where they heard senior partners share their views and participated in breakout sessions in order to learn about various practice areas and keys to success. They also had the opportunity to meet with senior and mid-level diverse associates for a frank discussion about their own experiences and challenges in the workplace. The associates also received a broad-based perspective on law firms and diversity from Vivian Chen, a columnist from The American Lawyer who speaks and writes about women and minorities in the legal profession.

Summit 2.0 – Taking a 360 View

The inaugural Summit bolstered our conviction that we were on the right track with the adoption of this concept. We are now determined to develop the concept to its full potential, refine key elements and engage a wider range of participants from both inside and outside the firm.

For our second Summit, we pursued a strategy that was distinctly holistic, which sought to engage diverse associates from year one and year two on both professional and personal levels. The event was held in May, in New York City, to avoid snowstorms. More than 30 diverse associates from around the U.S. took part.

The theme for the second Summit was ‘The 360-Degree Attorney’. We divided the two-day event into five sessions, each devoted to exploring a certain aspect of the associate’s life and work experience. The sessions covered the following areas:

1. Your Practice – The first and second years of legal practice are crucial to creating a strong foundation as a practitioner. Therefore, we conducted an interactive session that explored how to build a practice, including measures of success, how to stand out, key skills required and trends to watch in the coming years. In this exercise, we split the associates into their practice groups for coaching by partners from their own specific practices.We concluded this session with a ‘real talk’ discussion of the realities of practicing law, hosted by mid-level and senior associates. In this confidential, open conversation, several experienced Dechert associates offered their best advice on a range of topics and answered questions posed by junior associates.

2. Your Firm – We felt that it was important for the associates to get a clear picture of Dechert, its strategies and its commitment to achieving greater diversity. Nothing speaks louder than strong leadership commitment, and our firm delivered on this aspect. Andy Levander, Chair of the firm, engaged with the group, sharing his perspectives and answering questions.

3. Your Clients – Law firms often talk about their clients and efforts to advance their success. Nevertheless, junior associates don’t often get to hear from clients themselves, let alone those who come from diverse backgrounds. We were honored to host a panel of in-house and government counsel who discussed their individual career paths and the ways in which being diverse positively impacted and expanded their practices. This dynamic client panel featured: Nandini Mani, global head of litigation for Chubb; Chris McDavid, VP and counsel for Pratt & Whitney; and Alex Wagner, then Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Army, in the U.S. Department of Defense.

4. Your Community – Sprinting to keep up with professional demands, many junior associates can feel disconnected from their communities, even if they have a passion for helping underserved groups. We were pleased to have as our guest Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, who conducted a ‘fireside chat’ in which he inspired the associates to get involved and take advantage of pro bono and local volunteer activities to make a difference for others and themselves.

5. You All junior associates are under pressure to fit into the law firm culture. Diverse associates may feel additional strain, striving to overcome what they perceive as ‘outsider status’ in order to be accepted. We built our final session, ‘You’, around the personal needs of these associates. The focus of the session was about managing stress, taking care of oneself, and knowing when to reach out for help. The session was led by Marguerite Fletcher, senior consultant for Vernā Myers Consulting Group, and by Karinn Glover, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and co-founder of Thrive Mindfulness Project.

Looking forward

The feedback we’ve received about this event from the diverse associates, partners and firm management has been very positive. One participant stated that: “the session was extremely useful because we got to see how management viewed the concept of diversity”. Another associate noted: “The speakers on the client panel were phenomenal. They all had great stories to share and offered great advice that can be applied right now in my career, but is not the typical run-of-the-mill advice.” We are convinced that our investment in a focused, intense event is successfully demonstrating our commitment to diversity; but more importantly, it gives our diverse associates much-appreciated practical guidance as they navigate the early years of their law careers.

About the author

Hector Gonzalez is a member of Dechert’s management committee responsible for the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. He is a litigation partner in the firm’s white collar and securities group and advises corporations and executives on a wide range of matters, with a focus on complex commercial litigation, criminal and related civil and administrative matters, SEC and CFTC enforcement proceedings and internal, grand jury and state attorneys general investigations. In addition, he regularly represents clients in all aspects of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) matters. Mr. Gonzalez has significant trial experience, having tried more than 20 federal and state jury trials and argued more than 30 cases before federal and state appellate courts.

He previously was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he served as Chief of the Narcotics Unit and was twice awarded the Department of Justice’s Director’s Award for Superior Performance. He also previously served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Appeals Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. In 1998, Mr. Gonzalez was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to serve as a visiting lecturer of trial advocacy in the post-graduate law degree program at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.

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