Diversity in Practice: How (and Why) MoFo’s Privacy + Data Security Group Is Leading the Way on Inclusivity

MoFo Perspectives Podcast

14 Apr 2021

With a continued emphasis on creating diverse teams, law firms and corporations are not only asking how they can promote inclusivity, but also how they can attract and retain diverse team members. MoFo’s Privacy + Data Security Group is a successful case study of what such a commitment to diversity and inclusion can achieve, with 61% women and 25% of its lawyers identifying as diverse or LGBTQ+. In this episode of Diversity in Practice, Of Counsel Melissa Crespo speaks with her mentor and co-chair of MoFo’s Global Privacy + Data Security Group Miriam Wugmeister about why diversity in practice is important to them and to the group, why they have stayed in big law, and what concrete steps others can take to achieve a more diverse team.


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. It’s also our hope that by sharing D&I best practices wherever possible, we can help make the legal industry a more inclusive place for those who are, in the words of our MoFo former chair, Bob Raven, just a little bit different.

Natalie Kernisant: In this addition of the Diversity in Practice Podcast, we hear from one of the top legal minds in the privacy and data space and co-chair of the firm’s global privacy and data security group, Miriam Wugmeister. A rising star in privacy compliance and data security matters herself, our co-host, Melissa Crespo, is particularly well versed in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and other laws governing the collection and use of medical and health information. As law firms and companies continue to ask how they can increase inclusivity in the workplace and create environments where diverse lawyers can thrive and want to stay, we take a closer look at how MoFo’s privacy and data security practice has been successfully promoting diversity within their group. Not only is their success evidenced in the makeup of the group, with 61% women and 25% of their lawyers who identify as diverse or LGBTQ+, but in how they utilize their various perspectives to solve some of the biggest challenges facing their clients. In this podcast, Melissa speaks with her mentor, Miriam, about why diversity in practice is important to them and their group, why they have stayed in big law, and what concrete steps others can take to achieve a more diverse team. With that, I’ll turn it over to Melissa.

Melissa Crespo: Miriam, you and I have worked together for quite some time now. I’ve been at MoFo for 10 years and have often been asked the question how are you still at a firm? Why are you still at a firm? And you’ve been at for even longer. So—

Miriam Wugmeister: Yeah. 25 years.

Melissa Crespo: Exactly. So you’ve got me beat and, with that, I’m sure you’re asked the same question all the time. What do you think are some reasons that you’re still at MoFo?

Miriam Wugmeister: You know, when I went to law school, I thought I was going to ameliorate the working conditions of women. That was really why I went to law school, and I never, in my wildest dreams, thought 25 years later, I would still be in big law. And so it’s a really great question because I think about it all the time. And I really think that MoFo has allowed me to put my values into practice. And while I haven’t ameliorated all of the conditions for working women, I really do think that I’ve been able to find those things that are important to me and to make my little patch of the garden greener, and not only looking at the issues and the values for me about women working, but also all kinds of diverse people within our practice group, within the firm. The firm, I think, tolerates and encourages kind of a quirkiness.

Miriam Wugmeister: I mean, lots of times we say about firms, oh, the typical person at X firm is like this. And when somebody tries to say that about MoFo, there really isn’t a typical MoFo partner or MoFo lawyer or MoFo staff member because we really do have a broad diversity of political opinions and economic backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds and race and gender. And as a result, cultural differences come out and are very much not only tolerated, but encouraged. I also think the other reason that I’m still at the firm is because the firm has allowed us to build a cutting-edge practice. When I started doing privacy almost 20 years ago, nobody even knew what it was. I would go to a cocktail party and I’d say I’m a privacy lawyer, and people would say what? You are what? And the firm has believed in us and believed in this practice and allowed us to grow the practice and really took a risk on us. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. And I don’t know if another firm would have allowed us to build this practice in the way we have over time. So those are the reasons I’m still here, but what about you?

Melissa Crespo: My reasons are similar. I went to law school thinking that I was going to go into public interest, and, by chance, summered at MoFo, really found a place that I felt comfortable and that I could be myself and that I was really valued. And then upon returning to the firm as an associate, I think those ideals were really affirmed as I dove into practicing as a baby lawyer. And I think I obviously had some apprehensions as a woman of color going into a space where most people didn’t look like me or have similar life experiences to me. But I really have found that while being at MoFo, I really feel more valued because of my diverse perspectives, not in spite of, and I think particularly being in a group that’s very affirming and empowering of people’s differences and sort of celebrates them has allowed me to kind of filter out the extra noise that I originally kind of came in with in my brain.

Melissa Crespo: And then really just being able to focus on becoming a great lawyer, carving a path for myself and for other women as I go. And in addition to that, too, I think MoFo has really allowed me to grow into who I am today. And I mean that in the sense of giving me the tools to go from a junior associate to a mid-level to now of counsel, but also recognizing that I am a person, right? And that I have things in my life happening that are also important to me. So I think MoFo is particularly empowering of working moms, and I think there are a lot of programs that support that and have allowed me to feel supported as I have become a mom, but also just even with family things that happen. Family illnesses, deaths in the family, there’s just an overall sort of attitude of acknowledging all the lawyers at MoFo as whole people who have lives and have other things that are important to them and validating those things.

Miriam Wugmeister: I totally agree. And you know, people ask us a lot, Melissa, why, it’s all very nice. What we talked about is the firm and why we like being here as people, but I also often get asked a question about why diversity is important to our particular practice, our practice of privacy and data security. And I do think that it’s very important, and maybe it’s more unique to our practice, but I don’t really think so. But I do think there are particular reasons why diverse view points and diversity is important to our practice. Do you agree?

Melissa Crespo: I do. I think it goes beyond, right? Just as a general matter, the group wants to look like the rest of the world as far as its makeup. I think that’s a goal that you just generally have organically achieved. But in addition to that, there really is a direct benefit to our clients and how we practice and how we solve problems. The fact that privacy and data security are really new areas of law, and we have to give really practical advice that’s not always based on a hundred years of case law. So the best way to solve those problems is to have different perspectives that come in through differences in life experiences, be it race or ethnicity or—

Miriam Wugmeister: Or age, right? I mean, one of the things that is so interesting, particularly when we are doing, for example, dealing with new apps or dealing with cutting-edge technology, the insights and the understanding do not come always from our older, I should say, more senior members of our team. It is super important that we have diversity of age and experience, because like you said, we are giving advice often by analogy because there is no answer. Because the law is way behind the technology and the facts on the ground. And I really believe that our diverse viewpoints and diverse in every sense: political views, cultural views, life experience, age, race, gender allows us to tackle these problems in new and different ways, which is what our clients need and want.

Melissa Crespo: You know, one of the things that you just started is the importance of diversity of age. And obviously we have younger lawyers in the group, but I think that in order for them to actually be useful, they have to feel empowered to speak up. And I think that’s something that the group really does a good job of as far as finding ways to leverage the diversity that we have in a way that creates a collegial group, but also a group that can give these diverse perspectives to our clients. What do you think are some of the ways that we really achieve this overall approach to empowering the diverse voices in the group?

Miriam Wugmeister: I think there are a couple factors. I think one of the big ways we do it is we meet people where they are. So for example, a lot of people in our group are part-time, and I have heard people at other firms and at other practice groups say things like, well, it’s really hard when you have part-time people to balance the part-time work with other family responsibilities or whatever the other responsibilities that the person who’s part-time might have. And one of our partners actually said there’s no lawyer in our firm who has only one client. Every single lawyer in the firm balances work between and among clients. And so there is no difference between balancing work between two clients and balancing work between a client and your family obligations, for example. And so I really think we take that to heart and we look to what are the needs of the different people.

Miriam Wugmeister: And we meet them where they are. We say, okay, if these are the constraints, how do we make it so that you can do your work, you can meet your client needs, and you can also do whatever it is that is enriching your life, whether that’s having kids or it’s being a sculptor, or we have a number of people who are part-time not because they necessarily have family obligations, but because they have other interests. And so I think that’s one way that we have made it possible for people to stay is that we acknowledge that they have lives outside of the law firm, and we find ways to allow them to express that side of themselves and to accommodate that side of their lives.

Melissa Crespo: On that point, I think something that you’ve said that has really stuck with me as younger lawyers join the group or continue to join the group is really that people have different overall priorities, right? They want to be good lawyers. They want to do the type of work that we do, be presented with challenging questions and problems that we have to solve for clients. But also, like you said, having other parts of their lives as well. So I think the fact that we’re able to acknowledge that and affirm that through firm processes really does allow us, like you said, to keep on those diverse perspectives that we would potentially otherwise lose, because if a person feels like they’re in a place where they have to choose between becoming a parent and doing challenging work or another passion of theirs and working on privacy and data security matters, it does become challenging. But I love that the firm has removed that roadblock as far as feeling like you only have one option or the other, and perhaps you actually can have both.

Miriam Wugmeister: And I think this goes to a conversation you and I have had, Melissa, about both being a mentor and being a mentee. And I think the reason it works also, for example, between us, is because I don’t think being a mentor is a passive activity. Part of the reason I think it works is that being a mentor is also being an advocate. And part of it is listening. So for example, it’s not that you tell me what to do as my mentee. You don’t say, Miriam, you should be going and advocating for this, but you challenge me and you open my eyes and you bring me perspectives, which then caused me to go and advocate. But you do it in a way that you inform me, you educate me about things that I wouldn’t think about anymore or I’m missing. And I think that’s crucial to the mentor-mentee relationship, and also allows me, as a senior person, to continue to be aware of the challenges that younger lawyers are facing.

Melissa Crespo: I think that really is something that has resonated with me as I watch you mentor me and other lawyers. But I think part of that is the fact that you do listen then encourages us to be able to speak up or us to be willing to share these perspectives with you because for myself and for others that have joined the group, I don’t think that if we felt like we didn’t have a platform or someone listening, that we would feel as empowered to speak up and present new ideas or challenge different things that are established or the norm, and then without that, then you can’t really affect change. So I think it really goes hand-in-hand, as far as by you listening and empowering the younger lawyers, then we continue to speak up, and it creates this really good cycle for change and improvement.

Miriam Wugmeister: I think that’s right. And I think part of that is we try and make everybody in the firm, so I don’t just mean lawyers, but, our policy analysts and our staff, as well as the lawyers, feel like their voice matters. And that goes from everything, not just from raising issues, which of course we want to hear about, but even, I think, in the way we do our work. And again, I think it’s maybe because we are in a newer area, but maybe that made it easier for us. But we say to younger lawyers, every document you read, you should have ownership of. You should read it. You should make sure you understand every word of it. And if there’s some way you think it should be improved, you should tell us. And don’t just think because a senior lawyer wrote it that it can’t be improved.

Miriam Wugmeister: We literally say that to every first year associate. We say that to every policy analyst and legal assistant in the group. And I think because we do it both in our work as well as in other kinds of issues about which we care, I think people believe us because we don’t just say, oh, we don’t want to hear what you have to say about our work, but we care about what you say about social justice. I think we do it across the board, and I believe that that is empowering to other people and to younger lawyers.

Melissa Crespo: I think that’s it. And I think there’s also just the follow-up, right? Because it’s one thing to tell someone, you have ownership over this, read the document. You’re a critical member of this team. But I remember as a second or third year, working on a project that I was told exactly that, and then you and I got on the phone and you were like, so what did you think about X, Y, Z? Or do you think that there’s a different perspective to approach this question on? And so it really is a matter of talking the talk and walking the walk that go hand in hand to sort of empower the younger voices.

Miriam Wugmeister: And I think also another way we empower people is we set up safety nets. My mom used to always say that the job of a manager is to push people, to take risks, but to build a safety net so that if they trip, you’re there to catch them. And I think we do that too, right? I think we spend a lot of time pushing our young lawyers to be on the phone with clients, to speak up to, if we do a speech or if we have a younger lawyer in a meeting, we make sure that they actually get to talk. We don’t actually just have folks sitting there not speaking, but before we put them in that position, they write out what they’re going to say. We look at it, we make sure they feel prepared so that we give them those opportunities, but we make sure that they feel comfortable. Not always comfortable, I guess, right? Because sometimes you just get nervous no matter what, but we try and make sure they feel as comfortable as possible so that they succeed.

Melissa Crespo: And just having the opportunity to lead a call, but knowing that a partner is on the phone to support or jump in as needed, I think is a great approach to giving the person the opportunity, but then also making them feel safe to do it. Do you think also that some of the ability to put younger lawyers in front of the client earlier on is due to the type of clients we have? It’s just an interesting thing, I think for me, when I joined the group to see junior lawyers being given such opportunities earlier on.

Miriam Wugmeister: I do think our client base is also diverse. I mean, we have a lot of women clients, we have a lot of diverse clients. I mean, privacy is one of those areas where, when I started doing privacy, it was 90% women. There are fewer women now than when I started, which is sort of the opposite of a lot of other practice areas. I don’t know if that is a factor, but I think many clients, they remember what it was like to be a junior lawyer too. And many of them are open to it as long as they’re going to get the right advice. And sometimes what you have to do is you have to say to the client ahead of time, I do this. I say, look, I’m going to be on the phone. I’m inviting one of my younger lawyers to be on the phone.

Miriam Wugmeister: I’m not going to bill you for my time, or I make sure that everybody feels that it’s fair. But if you don’t give the younger lawyers a chance to talk, they’re not going to learn the stand‑up‑on‑your-feet skills. And I think in COVID, it’s even more important that we do that. You can’t just sort of have somebody come into your office or bring them to a meeting, right? We have to be much more conscious of making sure that our younger lawyers are getting that standup experience directly with clients. But I don’t really think that it’s unique to our area. I think it’s a conscious choice. And again, I do think that’s why a lot of our younger and more diverse lawyers stay with us because they appreciate that we give them those opportunities. Another way in which I think it’s super important reasons people stay is because we give them honest feedback.

Miriam Wugmeister: Our philosophy has been for a long time that there should be nothing in your annual review that you haven’t heard before. And that’s pretty standard HR employment law. But the way in which I think we give feedback is every single one of us can get better, and every single one of us is sufficiently neurotic that we want to know how we can get better. And so we try and give feedback, but to make whoever we’re giving feedback feel the reason we’re giving them feedback is because we want them to get better. We try really hard to not make constructive criticism personal in that it’s not an attack, and not in any way make people feel belittled, but really to say this section could have been written better. Here’s how I edited it and maybe we should work together on writing a little bit. Right? So in said of saying your writing in this section was terrible. How could you write so badly? Which we would never say, we talk about how you can do better and what are the steps that the younger lawyer can do in order to get better?

Melissa Crespo: That’s been my experience. I think there’s generally a tone within the group when it comes to feedback that is with the goal of helping the person to improve and get better. And then also a lot of time being spent on actually giving the feedback, because I know that obviously we’re all very busy, but there’s been clear messaging for me the entire time as I’ve grown into a more senior role, that whenever you are working with someone else that’s junior, there needs to be time spent giving feedback and it needs to be shortly after the assignment’s completed so it can actually be useful. And I think that the group does do a really good job of taking time out to give very specific feedback and then allowing lawyers to then go in and apply that in another situation. So we worked on this privacy policy and this was an area for improvement. Hey, I have a new privacy policy. Let’s do this again so you can apply just what you’ve learned.

Miriam Wugmeister: I think that’s right. And I know that one of the things I say out loud and I very much feel is my job is to help every lawyer in our group get ready for whatever is the next job that they’re going to have. Now, maybe that’s going to be being a partner at our firm. Maybe that’s going to be as a client. Maybe that’s going to be at another firm as a competitor, but that our job as the senior lawyers is to help every lawyer get ready for whatever their next job’s going to be, so that they’re going to be successful. And I think when you go in that way, younger lawyers feel empowered. They feel that you care, and they feel like a valued member of the team. And we try, I think, really hard to imbue our constructive feedback and the way we communicate with that to make every person in the group feel valued both professionally and personally. I think that’s kind of at bottom what we do.

Melissa Crespo: Yeah. I think it feels really like an investment in the person just versus an investment in the MoFo lawyer who is billing for X, Y, Z client, right? It’s more of a holistic investment in what is it that you are interested in? What is it that you see as your long-term goals? How can we help you get there? Because if you treat it that way, most people will be more inclined to stay. But also, just during their time at MoFo, much happier and able to provide better client service. And as you said, too, not everyone will stay in big law, but I think that you take very seriously your role in helping to develop them into whatever it is that they are going to be.

Miriam Wugmeister: And then I think the most important thing, which we haven’t talked about at all, is humor. We laugh a lot. I really don’t think we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I mean, we take our work very seriously, but I don’t think we take ourselves so seriously. And I think that kind of joy and humor and gentle prodding each other is part of what, I think, makes our group feel more human and more inviting.

Melissa Crespo: We work on high-profile matters and there are many times of stress or quick turnaround for a deliverable. I think the fact that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we just take our work very seriously, really helps balance that. And it makes things feel more comfortable. It makes it a more warm environment to kind of show up to everyday and to be able to actually enjoy spending time with your colleagues is really, to me, not something that I necessarily expected, but it certainly is a nice cherry on top. I think that this has been a really helpful discussion and sort of summarizes and puts a fine point on many of the discussions that we’ve had over the 10 or so years that we’ve worked together, and particularly in the last year. I think that while we’ve talked about so many of the positive things that can be done to celebrate diversity within groups and really affirm it, there’s certainly work to be done, and I look forward to being able to continue the discussion with you.

Miriam Wugmeister: Thanks Melissa. Me too. I think we’ve made good strides, but I agree with you. There’s more work to be done in our practice, in our firm, and in society as a whole. And I hope that we can keep making our little patch of the garden greener.

Speaker: 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/podcasts. Again, that’s MoFo, M-O-F-O.com/podcasts.



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