Diversity in Practice: Diversity in the Partnership – Why it’s Needed Today More than Ever?
MoFo Perspectives Podcast
Diversity in Practice: Diversity in the Partnership – Why it’s Needed Today More than Ever?
MoFo Perspectives Podcast
In this episode of the Fellow subseries, SEO Law Fellow, Keatrice Robertson hosts a discussion with DC Financial Services Partner, Maria Earley, and MoFo’s Chief Diversity + Inclusion Officer, Natalie Kernisant, about the importance of having diversity in the partnership ranks and how the creation of focused D+I management strategies aimed at recruitment and retention and interrupting bias in talent management systems, can assist in this effort.
Speaker: Welcome to MoFo Perspectives, a podcast by Morrison Foerster, where we share the perspectives of our clients, colleagues, subject matter experts, and lawyers.
Natalie Kernisant: Welcome to the Diversity in Practice podcast, a part of MoFo Perspectives. My name is Natalie Kernisant, and I am the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Morrison & Foerster. This podcast series is designed to provide a space to discuss a wide variety of issues related to diversity in the law and to introduce you to some of our talented diverse attorneys, their areas of legal expertise, and the work that they and their MoFo allies do in furtherance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Keatrice Robertson: Hello, my name is Keatrice Robertson. I am currently a J.D. M.B.A. student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, and I was a SEO law fellow this summer at MoFo’s New York office. Each year, Morrison & Foerster provides its Wetmore fellows with the opportunity to host an episode of this podcast series on a topic of our choosing related to diversity and the law. And so I jumped at the chance to learn about two people at the firm. Maria Earley, a financial services partner in the D.C. office, who I had come to appreciate after hearing her story during MoFo’s Grit and Growth meeting during the summer, and who is coincidentally a Northwestern alumni. Go Wildcats! Also, the firm’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Natalie Kernisant, who I know works diligently to keep MoFo as one of the leading diverse firms.
Both are women of color in positions of authority at the firm, and both have interesting career paths and strong perspectives on diversity in the legal industry. Today we are going to discuss the importance of diversity at the partnership level. Thank you both for joining us today to talk about the important topic. Maria, Natalie, welcome to the podcast.
Maria Earley: Hi Keatrice, Thank you for having me.
Natalie Kernisant: Thank you so much for having us. I must say it’s kind of odd being on this side of the mic, so to speak, but I’m really excited to chat with you two about this very important topic. So thanks for all your work bringing this topic to the forefront.
Keatrice Robertson: According to Chicago Business, Black, Hispanics, and Asian lawyers represent less than 10% of equity partners at large partnerships. Based on these statistics, Maria, as a diverse partner, you are breaking the mold. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to practice law?
Maria Earley: Yeah, sure. So I’m originally from San Francisco. I live in Washington, D.C., now, but I grew up in San Francisco and I grew up in a family that was, I would say, lower-middle class. But my parents really emphasized education and sacrificed a lot to put me in good schools. And I was one of the first in my family to go to college and on to law school. And, so I’m from a mixed-race family, so I’m half Asian, half Filipino, and half Black. And was raised with my Filipino family, and they came from sugarcane plantations on Hawaii and then migrant farm workers in California. And my grandmother wanted to be a lawyer, but there wasn’t an opportunity for her. So, I was really motivated when I had the opportunity to pursue the law, to become a lawyer, and fulfill a dream that wasn’t available to her.
Keatrice Robertson: That’s very interesting. Can you expand on what your path to partnership looked like? Did you aspire to become partner, and if so, why?
Maria Earley: That’s a really good question. My path has been long and non-linear. I always felt that I could do it, but I was unsure if I wanted to. And when I was a senior associate in big law, it was just hard. I wasn’t committed to being a partner. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. And so, I left, and I went to the government. But I had some time to reflect when I was in the government and I ultimately, came back and part of the reason why is because I looked around and I saw the dearth of women of color partners. And again, I felt that I could do it. I felt that I could build a practice and be successful as an equity partner in big law. And that’s what I did. I came back, and it’s been hard work. And every day is not a perfect day, and there’s some days where I wonder if this is really what I want to do. But I’m committed. I’ve worked really hard and methodically since I came back into big law to build a practice, and I’m really glad I did it and I actually enjoy doing it now.
Keatrice Robertson: Did you have a mentor or sponsor throughout your career that pushed, inspired, or actively supported you along the way? And if so, can you tell us a bit about the relationship and its impact?
Maria Earley: You know, I reflected on this a little, and I have to say that there’s not one person in particular who mentored me or sponsored me. I had several. And as a woman of color, so Asian and Black, there’s really nobody like me in the partnership or that was above me, and throughout my career, almost all of the sponsors and mentors that have really supported me have been older white men. And they have taught and mentored and pushed me and expected the best of me, and from me. That sort of every step of my career, every place I’ve been, there have been mostly white men like that who have done that for me. And it was important for me to have that support because coming from my background—an underprivileged background, looking around in law firms and seeing a lot of people who don’t look like me, I struggled with confidence. I struggled with imposter syndrome, believing maybe I’m not supposed to be in these spaces. Maybe I’m not good enough. I think I’m right, but maybe I’m not right because, I don’t know, I don’t look like everyone else. And so, having people along the way, multiple people along the way, who really took the time to support and push me was really important, and it helped me to gain that confidence.
I had to do the work, too. Nobody can give you that confidence and nobody can—people can help you believe that you belong, but you have to believe it yourself. And so it just took me a long time to get there. And I will say that, for me, the thing that really helped me understand my full potential was a lot of work on myself and self-reflection, but also client feedback. When I finally felt comfortable and started working directly with clients and doing work product for them and delivering for them, and I got good feedback that really helped me find my voice. That’s when I really realized that all of the mentoring and all the hard work that I had put into myself and others had put into me was paying off by putting me in a position to deliver good work product and be a good outside counsel and advisor to my clients.
So to answer your question, I did not have a single mentor or sponsor, but there were a lot of people along the way, and I do want to say that, sometimes those people don’t look like what you would expect them to look like. There—hasn’t ever really been an Asian woman or a Black woman above me who could serve in that role. So I was lucky enough and open enough to find that support from people who don’t look like me.
Keatrice Robertson: According to The American Lawyer or law.com, although more diverse associates are hired at law firms, partnership remains mainly white males. What are your thoughts about that? Since you were able to successfully advance from associate to partner as a woman of color, what are your biggest challenges for diverse associates who aspire to become the partner?
Maria Earley: Just to sort of build off of my previous response, because most of the people who have supported me along my path don’t look like me, haven’t looked like me, and are mainly white male—I had to work really hard to truly know that I belong here in the big law space, and really get comfortable being my true self. I know when I was younger, I spent time, I was always the only one. There wasn’t another Black and Asian woman associate. And so, I would look around and think that normal was white and male and maybe wealthy and wasn’t me. And I was my own worst enemy with self-doubt. I would sort of say, “Well, maybe there’s something about those people that make them better suited for this work, and maybe I’m just not well suited.”
And so there was just a lot of, I had a lot of self-doubt, and I was my own worst enemy with that self-doubt and lack of confidence. But as I said before, with a lot of hard work and support, and just over time I have come to believe that I’m a good lawyer. Like truly believe it and also know that normal isn’t something that isn’t me. I am normal. It’s okay to be myself. It’s okay to talk about my family. And my family’s really important to me. I support my mother, in particular, and she lives close by in my neighborhood. I have brought my mother to, when we do partner meetings, I’ve brought her with me, and she comes to happy hour. And that’s just a very Filipino thing and a very Black thing, too. I stopped pretending like I wasn’t me, and I stopped trying to be some version of normal. And I just started being me, and it really helped me to feel good about myself. And it really helped me to deepen and enrich my relationships with my colleagues and clients.
And it just helped me to understand that what people really want when they’re hiring lawyers and when they work with you and when they trust you, is they want to know you. They want to know that you’re a good person, you’re going to work hard for them, and if you’re trying hard to be something you’re not because you think you’re not right or you’re not normal, then that doesn’t come through all the way. And so, as I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve leaned into who I am, and I live that more and more every day. And it’s really helped me succeed. And so, for young associates of color, particularly women, or just women in general who are looking around and saying, “Wow, there’s not that many of me,” my advice is just don’t worry about that. You are good enough where you are. You are normal. You should be your true self, and that is going to enrich everybody around you and your own experience.
Keatrice Robertson: And has your opinion about the role that diversity plays in the legal field changed over the course of your career, and why?
Maria Earley: Yeah, it has actually. I think growing up the way I did and where I did and having to overcome self‑doubt and just feeling like I belong and all of the things I just described, I think for a while thought that diversity was important, or the role of diversity was for me to prove to others, to everyone, that someone like me deserved to be in the room. And, I sort of lived like that for a little while, but now as I’ve gotten more senior and just have had more experience and have gotten more comfortable with myself, I actually really view diversity in the legal field as an important way to enrich the connections, and relationships more generally we have in our professional lives. And I actually think that leads to better outcomes and me being able to better advise my clients. So, when you have diversity, and it’s not just racial and ethnic and gender, but diversity of thought and experience, you can get together in a room and you can solve problems, and everybody can bring their collective experience to the table. And we can sort of hash it out, whiteboard it, and come up with some really good solutions. And that to me is what I think diversity in the legal field brings and why I think it’s important. It’s less to prove that I belong and more to show all of the value that I and my unique self and my experiences and my background can bring.
And I also think it’s important, because when I was younger there just—quite frankly, there weren’t that many women, let alone women of color. And it did feel hard sometimes. There were just times where I would sort of lay down at night after working a 10-, 12-, 14-hour day and go, well, you know, I look up and there are 15 partners in this office and one is a woman. What are my chances? And it just, it sits with you and gnaws at you. You sort of think, I’m not, why am I doing this? Like the chances of me making it aren’t there. But I don’t believe that that’s the case. And I just, I know it’s cliché, but the saying that “if you can see it, you can be it,” it matters. And so, I also think that having me being present as a woman, as a woman of color and all of my Maria-ness, is important for the next generation of young women lawyers to know that they belong.
And hopefully, that they can focus on honing their skills as lawyers earlier in their career and not justifying their existence at a law firm, like I did for probably too many years. So I think that’s why diversity is important to me now. It leads to better outcomes, and it shows the next generation that they are normal, and they belong. And I hope that my presence does that, at least for one or two women. If I can do that for one or two women, then I think I’ve done a good job.
Keatrice Robertson: Now for this question, I’d like to turn to Natalie. From what I have learned over the past few years from talks on podcasts to reports on the news, diversity in the workplace brings increased profits, higher engagement, and diverse solutions that bring better results, amongst other things. You were a former practicing IP attorney before making the switch to D&I. Could you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to this role and how you transition from practicing to D&I?
Natalie Kernisant: Of course. Well, like Maria, my route to my current position was anything but direct. Not very many people, as far as I know, plan to become a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and even if they do, there isn’t really a prescribed route for doing that. So, it’s definitely been an interesting trajectory and experience. What happened to me is that my parents really are immigrants from Haiti, and they quickly let me know that they didn’t make the trek to the States for me and my brother not to seize opportunities before us. And in their minds, those opportunities started and ended with either being a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. So, I think it’s a story a lot of children of immigrants know very well. So I chose law because at the time I saw it as fitting. I was inquisitive and interested in social justice. I was fascinated by the power of the U.S. Constitution to shape and guide a democracy made up of so many different people with different backgrounds and different perspectives across centuries of time.
And so, I chose to go to UVA Law and actually fell into IP law. It was another area of interest for me, so I practiced for a short time. What I quickly found was that as a woman of color, women and those from “diverse backgrounds” were having a very different experience in big law. Whether that was because of things like imposter syndrome brought on by the lack of representation at the top, or because of the lack of access to information around unwritten and unspoken rules, or the lack of effective mentorship and sponsorship and direct feedback across difference, right? So, ultimately, I felt like I respected the industry and the profession a ton, and so I wanted to help make it a more hospitable place for folks like me. So, I decided to take some time away from practice and develop the necessary skills and things like change management, systems analysis, and human capital management. And then after a short stint in HR management at a large investment bank, I landed a position in diversity recruiting at MoFo, which grew in scope over the years. And the rest is kind of history.
Keatrice Robertson: I was reading an article the other day written by Josh Bersin stating, “Chief Diversity Officer, the toughest job in business.” He went on to say, in short, that “diversity is a management strategy, not an HR program.” I think a lot of people think that both are synonymous. Could you explain the role of a chief diversity officer in big law and perhaps expand on some of the challenges associated with the position?
Natalie Kernisant: So yes, I absolutely love this question. So, thank you for thinking to ask it. And the reason I love the question so much is because I found that very few, including some of my closest long-term colleagues truly understand the role of D&I at a firm. So, that can be extremely problematic because if you think about it, the lack of understanding can lead organizations to dilute the strategic impact of the department and get in the way of advancing our collective goals of greater equity and inclusion.
For example, we tend to get what I call the pile on, right? So, anything that mentions diversity ends up going to the D&I department. Everything from community service events, to executing diversity recruiting events, to managing charitable donations to organizations, or even surveys that ask a single question about D&I. Some of us are asked to manage attendee lists for tables at D&I receptions or fundraisers, and still others take on pro bono. All of this gets placed in our laps despite the often small size of our D&I team and the fact that there are already whole departments at firms who handle each one of these things. We could spend our whole professional careers on managing logistics over things that others are probably better situated to handle and actually have an expertise in.
So in sum, I think D&I professionals are not recruiters. They are not copy editors. They don’t manage the firm’s charitable giving or community service events. They aren’t best situated to strategically manage attendees at a D&I table, and that’s largely because they have lack of a visibility into what clients will attend and our business development strategy. What organizational D&I teams should be doing is management strategy. And at its core, that requires a deep knowledge of an organization’s political landscape, and skills like systems and market analysis, change in human capital management. And although we do manage some cultural celebrations or lunch and learns, event management is not our highest or most valuable use. Our primary objectives ought to first be increasing the diversity within a firm by focusing on recruitment and retention strategy. And second, to interrupt bias in our talent management systems. Whether the source of that bias is our natural human tendencies or poorly designed processes and procedures. And then lastly, to help diverse attorneys successfully manage the law firm environment.
The best and highest use of our D&I professionals is for things like looking at and analyzing market forces that affect our diversity recruiting efforts, ensuring there’s a consistent and inclusive tone from the top, both internally and externally, advising the organization’s various departments who are in fact the experts on things like recruiting, retention, learning development, and marketing on D&I-related best practices and blind spots in their areas of expertise. We also coach and train individual partners and associates and staff, and sometimes clients on D&I-related issues and practices. All of this, really, we do in the hopes of three things: creating a greater equity and inclusion for all employees; raising awareness, particularly the awareness of firm leadership around different experiences that certain pockets of talents is experiencing at the firm; and then, lastly, to facilitate the developmental opportunities for our attorneys of color and our women that are often shut out of these opportunities by mere fact of their identity. So, when they say it’s a management strategy and not an HR program, they mean to convey that this is a long-term strategic priority and not a series of one-off, feel-good programs.
D&I professionals should be leveraged by the organization to help get more out of the extremely talented and diverse lawyers we hire. Because if we can get out of our own ways and invest more and equitably in the growth and development of our talent, ensuring a sense of belonging regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, we and our clients will get more out of our teams and produce higher-quality work product. In essence, we’re helping the organization manage its most valuable resources. It’s people. Analyzing internal and external forces and developing strategies to realize organizational goals. And lastly, I might add one other thing that makes this role really challenging—besides having to constantly educate others about the role itself—I think it’s the nature of coaching human beings around perspective taking. It’s a highly emotional space. No one wants to be told they have gotten it wrong, and that goes for both diverse and non-diverse folks. Both want to believe they are good, they want to believe they are right, and that their intent is all that matters.
In the end, diversity and inclusion is about human interaction and there are very rarely absolutes. It can be hard sometimes to help folks get out of their own way and encourage vulnerability. It’s doubly hard to do that in a work context where fears are compounded by anxiety around how it will impact their livelihoods in the long run. All in all, I think it’s complex work, but it’s extremely rewarding.
Keatrice Robertson: Thank you for your detailed overview. You’ve been in this role for the last 10 years. What a milestone accomplishment. What changes have you seen over the course of your career?
Natalie Kernisant: Well, I think in the beginning, folks are really focused on diversity. Do we have a critical mass of this group or that group? Right? Over time, I think folks have begun to realize that at the heart of whether you can attract and retain diverse talent is how diverse folks feel in the organization. And we’ve turned the corner to focus more on belonging, equity, and inclusion. It’s really, I think, the key to success in this space, and not only changing the hearts and minds of individuals at the firm, but learning to design equitable systems that encourage inclusion, whether through recognition, reward, or consequence.
Keatrice Robertson: Wow, the evolution of D&I over the last decade is really interesting. Now, turning back to diversity within partnership and why it’s important, how might the legal industry do a better job of increasing diversity among partners?
Natalie Kernisant: Well, I think for a long time, firms were focused almost exclusively on the needs of our diverse associates, but in recent years, largely due, I think, to the slowly increasing level of diversity we are seeing in the partnership ranks, we’re seeing greater concern for the needs of our diverse partners. After all, diverse partners are integral in attracting and retaining diverse talent at every level because they are the role models that allow others to know they can succeed at an organization. Without diverse leaders, you’re bound to see a revolving door of talent who are just listening to the bat signal we’re sending about the possibilities for growth and development by not having diversity in our partnership ranks. So, I think we need to start focusing some of these same resources on our diverse partners, providing integration plans, liaisons, and sponsors for our junior partners, trainings for their colleagues around interacting across difference, having them assume more leadership opportunities and the like.
It’s something our team will be even more focused on in 2023.
Keatrice Robertson: And before we close out, a question for both of you. Why do you think diversity among partners is important? In other words, why should the industry as a whole care about this rather than just those it immediately impacts the most? Maria, let’s have you go first.
Maria Earley: I like this question, and I will just start by saying I really do believe so deeply in the American ideal that everyone should be afforded the chance to realize their full potential. And I view diversity among partners as that ideal in practice. But just to build off of what I was saying, if you have diverse stakeholders and diverse voices in the room, you can give better advice and you can get to really good solutions from a legal and business perspective, and that’s what our clients want. And so, for me personally, I do a lot of work in the fintech and consumer finance and consumer-facing space. And so, I bring to the table—unique experiences with immigrants and my family and community, and I also have experiences with the deep societal impacts of being African American and Asian American in this country. And that lens for me is a lens that maybe others may not have. And so, I bring that to my practice every day. And I use that lens to help shape products that consumers like and want, and those consumers are diverse. Those consumers are Black and White and everything in between. And so, when I bring those perspectives to the table—when we’re building products or we’re looking at compliance issues, or we’re thinking through how do we deliver these products in a way that protects those communities, thinks about their needs, gives them a product that they want. But also as profitable for the business, then I feel like I’ve won. And I feel like my voice and my value as a partner and as a legal advisor is achieved because I can see those products in action day in and day out. And so, I just think that having diversity at the partnership level, especially for our clients and also for our teams is important for those reasons and the others I just sort of described throughout this discussion.
Keatrice Robertson: And you, Natalie?
Natalie Kernisant: Well, I agree with everything Maria mentioned. I also want to underscore though that diversity in the partnership is about more than just equity at every level, but it represents to the younger generations how much we are willing to invest in their growth and development.
It is one of the most important indicators of how seriously we take your commitment to DEI. Having folks with a seat at the table who co-create our systems, our priorities, and our practices is an indicator of whether we are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. It creates the sense of belonging we all hope to provide our associates, regardless of identity.
Keatrice Robertson: Well, thank you, Natalie, and thank you, Maria. It was a pleasure speaking to you both, as I think this is very important and trending topic amongst business professionals nationwide.
Please make sure to subscribe to the MoFo Perspectives podcast, so you don’t miss an episode. If you have any questions about what you heard today or would like more information on this topic, please visit mofo.com/podcast.
Again, that’s mofo, M-O-F-O .com/podcasts.