It is now commonplace for law firms to have instituted policies or practices designed to address diversity and inclusion issues. Whether through a firmwide diversity committee, a designated diversity officer, a formal diversity policy or all of the above, you will likely find some structure in place that addresses diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Indeed, the existence of this structure can be a compelling factor in a young attorney's decision to join a particular law firm. It is, however, important to understand that once you arrive at the firm, you should not be afraid to adopt the firm's diversity and inclusion initiative as your own and find ways to meaningfully contribute to its success. Doing so will not only enrich a fledgling legal career, it will demonstrate your investment in your new firm and lead to more opportunities than you might otherwise have. For those newly-minted attorneys who have an interest in exploring these opportunities, the three steps listed below will aid you in pursuing this task.
Step One: Get Informed
Once you arrive at the firm, waste no time in learning what your firm's diversity initiative entails. You may already be familiar with existing initiatives, as they are often used as an effective marketing tool to both potential hires and clients. If so, that's great. You can jump to step two. If not, you have a bit of research to do. Find out how your firm views diversity and inclusion, including the relevant policies and initiatives already in place. For example, find out if your firm participates in programs specifically geared toward addressing diversity and inclusion issues in the legal profession. Understanding your firm's approach to diversity and inclusion will help you identify if and/or how you can meaningfully contribute to the effort.
Step Two: Speak Up
Once you know what policies and initiatives are in place and who is responsible for their implementation, do not be afraid to contact those people and express your interest in participating. In most firms where diversity programs have been embraced, the actual policies and programs are instituted by senior management and carried out by other attorneys and staff. Though management can set the goals and the vision for a diversity and inclusion initiative, there must be people at every level doing their part to support that vision.
By expressing your interest in contributing to the effort, you immediately accomplish two things. One, you display your investment in the betterment of your firm, an important trait not always understood by junior attorneys. Two, you place yourself on the radar of the people responsible for implementing your firm's diversity initiatives, thereby increasing your opportunity to be involved in some way in the future. It is important to note that this step may not immediately lead to your participation in a major program or on a committee, but there is much to be said for being known as someone who is invested in the firm's success outside of just providing excellent legal work, particularly since the excellent legal work is required from everyone. Let it be known that you want to contribute and someone will find a way for you to do so.
Step Three: Follow Through
Now that someone in the firm has acknowledged your request to be involved and asked you to handle a particular task or attend a certain function, don't drop the ball. If you are asked to attend a panel discussion relating to diversity and inclusion issues, go. If you are asked to participate in efforts to recruit promising diverse candidates, fully engage in the process. It is great to believe in the value of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession as a general principle, but actions will always speak louder than words. Don't make the words you used while pursuing step two completely meaningless by failing to devote sufficient time and energy to your designated task.
Young attorneys rightly focus on ensuring that they produce excellent work product. Indeed, your work should always be your top priority. Keep in mind, however, that the senior attorneys with whom you work continually strive for the same excellent work product but they also participate in various firm initiatives and client development efforts. Being able to balance the demands of your workload with other important endeavors is one of the hallmarks of a highly successful attorney.
So, while I am not suggesting that you agree to plan and coordinate a diversity conference, I do suggest that you take advantage of any opportunities to contribute. Those opportunities may require you to spend additional time working to make up for the time you spent participating in the diversity initiative, but that time will pay dividends in both your investment in the firm and in your contribution to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
I recognize that many young attorneys may find making these efforts I describe somewhat daunting. It can be. But don't underestimate how valuable supporting your firm's diversity and inclusion activities can be for your career. From my own experience, when I started my legal career at Reed Smith in 2010, there was an established and active diversity and inclusion initiative in place. After expressing my willingness to be involved during a short conversation with the partner in charge of our office's summer associate program, I was given the opportunity to work with a diverse summer associate and help her successfully navigate the firm's summer program. My expressed interest in supporting the firm's diversity initiatives has led to even greater opportunities since that summer. I now serve as an associate liaison to the firmwide diversity committee and have been given the opportunity to spearhead multiple diversity initiatives in the Philadelphia office focused on the development of diverse associates.
The opportunities I received have allowed me to expand my network inside and outside of my firm and to help my firm address a significant issue facing the legal community. Don't underestimate your ability to do the same. Get informed, speak up and follow through.
Roy Prather III is a fourth-year associate in the Philadelphia office of Reed Smith. He focuses his practice on intellectual property litigation, including patent, copyright and trade secrets. He also counsels and represents clients in labor and employment matters in litigation, arbitration and agency investigations. He serves as the treasurer for the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia.