NAMWOLF’s Joel Stern on Diversity and Inclusion in Legal: Part 3

Frank Festa

Frank Festa

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PERSUIT got together with Joel Stern, the CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, Inc. (NAMWOLF) for the third round of our 3-part interview series (see Part 1 and Part 2), and we asked him:

Question #4: What is the single most impactful thing that corporations are doing right now to move the needle with Diversity & Inclusion in Legal, and do you think this has been heightened by the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement?

I’m going to answer the first part from two perspectives: one, the macro D&I perspective and number two, the NAMWOLF perspective. At a macro level, the single most important thing that corporate legal departments need to do is create a program that allows for institutional and systemic changes; and is as strategic as any other strategic imperatives they have. It is only when they treat Diversity & Inclusion as being as important as any other critical issue they are facing, that the program will work and they’ll get the change they want. That means they need top-down and bottom-up in middle support; they need to have a mission and vision statement  envisioned, well articulated and distributed; and this mission must be shared both internally and externally. They need to have accountability defined; they need to have goals that are concrete and measurable. They need to use a carrot-and-sticks approach — because I’m very pavlovian, you have to reward the behavior you want and punish the behavior you don’t want. And by the way, that’s not only from senior leadership but that’s from the general counsel to the first year paralegal – they need to lead and not follow; and they need to go after the awards and have some failures. And the reason I say that is because if you have no failures it means you’re not being innovative enough.

 Go for awards for two reasons: number one, there is clearly an ego fulfillment perspective to getting awards; but much more importantly, when you go for awards and you win them, the very next question you’re asked is what are you going to do next —  how do you raise the bar higher. So going after those awards that are out there at MCCA, CMCP or NAMWOLF – name your diversity or bar association awards – win them, fight for them and then raise the bar and do more next year. That’s the approach that I would use.

Is this year different than any other years with respect to the calls-to-action we’ve had in the area? The only honest answer to that is, I don’t know — because we will only [know] when the analytics come out and ideally  show that minorities and women have increased their stature and are treated more equally in law firms and legal departments — and that’s usually a year or two from now. However, I’m not a pollyanna but I am an optimist; and I do see things differently as a result of what happened in the end of May with the George Floyd murder and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The reason for hope is that I am hearing, for the first time,  CEOs publicly say that ‘all lives can’t matter until black lives matter –’ I’m hearing white males talk about privilege; and it’s not something to gloat about or be embarrassed by, but by understanding privilege we want to bring people up rather than keep them behind us. I am seeing legal departments and law firms talk about the need to put in place programmatic changes they’ve never put in place before. But on the other hand, I do respect and understand the healthy amount of cynicism in this area. Because for many of us that have been passionate about Diversity & Inclusion for many years and for many who have  have been adversely impacted by the lack of Diversity & Inclusion in the profession for many years —  they’ve seen it and heard it before, and that cynicism is good. Because for many of us, we want to make sure we do everything possible to prove them wrong and to put actions behind the calls-to-actions. But we will only see that a year or two from now so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

From NAMWOLF’s perspective, with respect to supplier diversity, it is to understand the difference between ‘big firm diversity’ and ‘supplier diversity’ and then get involved with NAMWOLF. Now, we are a tremendous forum for you to find some incredible talent, so that’s the one thing I would do.

Honda is a terrific example of a company that understands the need to focus on minority and women owned law firms. They  have taken the Rooney Rule – which then became the Mansfield Rule in the Legal field – and basically in the States, every time they look to interview a firm, for whatever reason, half the firms they interview are minority and women owned; and as a result, Honda has done an incredible job of taking advantage of our network of firms and has used dozens of our firms with tremendous success.

I don’t want to gloat, but I think the CLE we developed, “Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession: A Business and Moral Imperative” that has been given to dozens of Fortune 500 legal groups has been the trigger for many companies and helps to get companies excited about what they can do. Diversity & Inclusion is not only a smart and right thing to do, but a fun thing to do; and your employee base really wants it.

I also believe we need to hear from more White males about diversity and inclusion. This is not a subject where only minorities and women should be experts. To work, we need everyone on board including the majority.  What’s  unique about my CLE is that participants are hearing about Diversity & Inclusion from a White Male, which is not who they normally would hear it from. I’m surely not better at it than other people, but it’s a very different perspective. So I think I’ve had a good track record. We have so many examples of companies hearing the CLE and then engaging more with NAMWOLF. For example,  a large retail company’s general counsel  met with me, they did the CLE, they put NAMWOLF firms on their panel and they look to use our firms anytime they have an ad-hoc or local counsel need. They sponsor us, they join our programs, they act as a referral if I need to get other corporations too. This is the magic I want to happen more.

Education is really the first thing that people need.  For everything that NAMWOLF has done right – for every corporation that knows about us – there’s a dozen that don’t; so getting our name, what we do and our mission / vision out — that’s a huge step for us. I think we’ve done a better job lately in doing that but we can do so much more.

Question #5: Proudest or most hopeful moment over your more than 10 year NAMWOLF journey?

The simple answer is I’ve watched NAMWOLF grow from five firms and three companies that were active to over 195 law firms and hundreds of corporations that are active. And to be part of that first when I was in-house, and then heading up the in-house counsel advisory council and now in my CEO role and being on the board — that gives me a lot of pride.

Secondly, and ancillary to that, our brand is greater than it’s ever been for years. I would reach out to corporations and beg them to give us the opportunity to tell our story; today I have corporations calling me every day asking to hear about NAMWOLF and our firms and requesting our CLE. So to see our brand rise and people see us as part of the solution – that gives me a lot of pride.

 As for what’s next, who knows what’s in store for me as I retire end of February. I love being with my family and watching my grandson. Now that I won the Chambers Lifetime Award, I go, ‘my career is over.’ You know, it’s like ‘it’s done.’ I never ever thought I’d be winning anything ‘lifetime’ oriented. But when you’re still so young – oh gosh 62 in three days – I will obviously have fun. I will still zealously fight for Diversity & Inclusion. I will not work for anybody, but I will have some fun doing some ad-hoc projects for people. In a week from today, I am for the first time ever taking my CLE initiative and turning it  into a ‘how to build a corporate D&I program.’ I’m giving it to several different CEOs and corporations. That’s a challenge for me. So we’ll see; but it’s been fun. I also love the partnerships we have created including the one we now have with your company, PERSUIT.

See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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