Q&A: Diversity in the workplace: Hiring minority lawyers

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May 2017 - Q&A with Navan Ward

Interview by Kate Halloran

 

photo of Navan Ward

 

Diversity in the workplace

The civil justice system is strengthened by diverse advocates—and it starts in attorneys’ own practices.
 


Trial spoke with Navan Ward, AAJ’s parliamentarian and a former chair of AAJ’s Minority Caucus and AAJ’s Diversity Committee, about law firm diversity’s broader impact on the legal profession. Ward is a principal at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, which has the highest percentage of African-American law firm partners in the country and is one of the top 10 firms for African-American attorneys overall. Read about how his firm’s diversity efforts have benefitted its clients and attorneys.
 

What factors have made your firm successful at attracting and retaining diverse attorneys?

It’s important for “majority” law firms—those with few or no minority lawyers—to actively seek ways to recruit and invest in this talented group. Their backgrounds and perspectives add benefits to any firm.

Because Beasley Allen understands the value of minority lawyers on its team, we do many things to attract and retain diverse attorneys. One is participating in the summer internship program run by our state’s minority lawyer association, the Alabama Lawyers Association. The program pairs minority law students with participating law firms.

Beasley Allen has accepted at least two students every year for the last 15 years. We make sure the students get a good balance of substantive work and practice experience by attending trials, hearings, meetings, and social functions. Even though we are not always able to offer them permanent jobs, our attorneys continue mentoring them as they become new lawyers—and beyond.

A major factor in our ability to retain minority attorneys is having a competitive culture where minority attorneys are encouraged to succeed. As a minority attorney, early in my career I experienced several occasions when lawyers in my firm who were engaged in practice areas different from my own or who handled other cases genuinely cheered me on to successfully resolve my own cases. It may seem simple, but many minority attorneys do not get that kind of encouragement.

I’ve also witnessed how my firm has pushed for me and other minority attorneys to take leadership roles in high-profile cases and legal organizations. This is important because when minority attorneys receive treatment equal to their non-minority colleagues, as well as opportunities to display their legal talents, it benefits the firm overall.

What are some of the benefits you’ve witnessed from having more diverse attorneys in your firm?

I’ve personally seen how a firm’s culture that embraces diversity allows all of its attorneys, including its minority attorneys, to achieve their maximum potential and better serve their clients. Several studies support this conclusion too.

A more diverse group of attorneys can better connect with and relate to diverse clients, witnesses, and juries—and this has led to a higher level of success. I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, so I paid close attention to last year’s World Series. I noticed the “chess match” between the coaches for each team: Each coach would go to his bullpen to bring in a pitcher who would potentially give his team an advantage with the opposing batter or the current game situation. Similarly, using a diverse group of attorneys gives firms the best advantage in representing clients, handling certain types of witnesses, and trying cases in front of different juries because you have a deep bench to work with.

What should minority attorneys do to foster their professional development?

Networking and mentoring is particularly important for minority attorneys since there are few occasions when the minority attorney has preexisting family or friends in the legal profession to rely on for guidance. Getting exposure to different attorneys can lead to relationships that can accelerate learning curves and open new opportunities.

In my experience, minority attorneys underutilize the networking tool—they should be attending legal functions and other public events. This type of exposure can assist with building their practices and allowing others to see how talented they are.

How can firms ensure that minority attorneys have substantive roles in and contributions to the firm?

For a firm to achieve a higher level of success, it must use all its attorneys and staff in the most meaningful and substantive roles possible.

For example, I’ve spoken to many minority attorneys who have experienced having a great connection with a potential minority client. But the client ended up not hiring the firm because that minority attorney would not be handling the case or substantively participating in trial—either by helping the trial team try the case or better understand a minority perspective to connect with jurors.

When you appreciate the diverse world that we live in, you can see how the appropriate attorneys can better relate to the diverse nature of our clients and the diverse makeup of many of our juries. I’ve participated in challenging trials when the connection with a diverse jury was a factor in the outcome.

And I’ve seen how my minority law partners or I develop special connections with minority clients that allow those clients to better understand their cases or assist in a successful conclusion. It is incumbent on majority law firms to have rosters of attorneys that give the firms the capabilities to better represent all of their clients.


Navan Ward can be reached at navan.ward@beasleyallen.com.