Developing your career as a diverse lawyer

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Finding support, advocates, stretch projects and opportunities for client engagement are all crucial for developing a career as an attorney. Here, four diverse WilmerHale partners explain how they navigated their careers and what combination of factors worked best for their advancement, whether their eye was on the partnership or a period of government service.

Chambers Associate: When you started out as a lawyer, how did you feel about the prospect of attaining partnership?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: It’s funny – as a young lawyer starting out, I never planned to become a law firm partner. I think there were some of my colleagues who did have that view, and I think those people probably did not end up as partners, at least not at my firm. I just tried to do the very best job I could on each project and develop meaningful relationships with my colleagues.

When I first went to the U.S. Attorney’s office, I would joke with my friends that I’d love to be the U.S. Attorney one day, but I never planned that out or said to myself, ‘Okay these are the steps I need to take in order to be the U.S. Attorney.’ For me, it was always about understanding the experiences I wanted to obtain at each stage of my career to become the best lawyer I could be. 

“…you should try to enjoy the current situation, build your relationships and hone your skills as best you can in the current role that you are performing.”

It is always good to have goals, but I think young lawyers starting out have to be careful when it comes to looking too far down the road because life as a junior attorney takes a lot of twists and turns. You get married, you have kids, your spouse gets a job somewhere else and you have to move; it is such a pivotal time and I think building in space and flexibility for life to happen is critical. That is not to say you should not plan or set career goals. But I think as a rule of thumb you want to plan two to three years ahead rather than ten to twenty. You will never get your next “career position” unless you focus on doing outstanding work in your current job. I would say you should try to enjoy the current situation, build your relationships and hone your skills as best you can in the current role that you are performing.

I always tell people the story of how much I loved being an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I worked my way up to the homicide unit, but financial stability was always an issue for me and my family. I remember going to the then U.S. Attorney at the time and telling her I really loved it here and I wanted to stay, but I needed a few more thousand dollars to make that work as my wife and I had just had another son. I always joke that if I had gotten that few thousand dollars, I would probably still be at the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting homicide cases.

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: Partnership wasn’t something that I thought about until much later in my career. When I first started out, I was in a class of so many talented and enthusiastic attorneys and really doubted myself.

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New YorkWhen I started my legal career, it was not my goal to become a law firm partner, and I honestly never thought I would stay at a law firm for this long. Instead, I focused on developing as an attorney – learning as much as possible and becoming a better writer and oral communicator – and along the way I discovered that I really liked the variety and pace of work at the firm and that there was a path for me to make partner. When I speak to younger attorneys, I always give them the same advice: instead of focusing on making partner, focus on developing as an attorney and what you are interested in, and you will have plenty of opportunities.

“…invaluable mentors who explained not only what would be required to have a shot at making partner, but what would be required to be successful if I ultimately reached that level.”

April Williams, partner, DC: As a junior associate, I saw the prospect of making partner as an incredibly challenging, but possible task. If I decided that I was interested in that route, I knew it would require a lot of hard work, but otherwise was not sure how to get there. Fortunately, over time, I developed relationships with invaluable mentors who explained not only what would be required to have a shot at making partner, but what would be required to be successful if I ultimately reached that level.

Chambers Associate: How do you feel diversity efforts have evolved to provide increased support for diverse lawyers who wish to become partners?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: There is a lot more of a focus on diversity efforts and intentionality around devoting resources to support diversity initiatives. But it’s very much a work in progress, and we still have a long way to go. When you look at the numbers and diversity data across the industry, the legal profession is generally perceived as lagging behind other professions in the area of diversity and inclusion. We’re learning more about unconscious bias and some of the subtle barriers to success that can really play a role in creating challenges to diverse attorneys moving forward.

As we continue to shine a light on these inequities, we need to implement effective programming to eliminate unconscious bias and promote inclusive leadership. I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress. In general, I think law firms recognize that as an organization, you cannot survive if you do not have diverse talented lawyers and support staff.  Diversity is a strength for successful organizations, and I think WilmerHale is better at providing support to diverse lawyers than just about any other law firm. It really is our crown jewel although there is still a lot of room for improvement.

“As we continue to shine a light on these inequities, we need to implement effective programming to eliminate unconscious bias and promote inclusive leadership.”

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: Even a few years ago, I felt that conversations regarding diversity and inclusiveness were often loaded and uncomfortable. There is now so much more of a dialog, which helps create connections, understanding, and ultimately mentors and advocates.  Clients are now focusing on diversity and inclusiveness, which has helped create opportunities for associates and counsel to develop stand up skills and build client relationships. These opportunities in turn strengthen the path to partnership. 

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New York: Broadly speaking there continues to be recognition that the legal profession is one of the least diverse professions, and that the number of diverse partners is extremely low, so various organizations have developed programs to provide support for diverse attorneys on the path to partnership. I have participated in a number of these programs and have found them effective in helping me develop soft skills, enhancing my public speaking abilities, and increasing my network of contacts.

April Williams, partner, DC: I have always believed that diversity is important to the firm, but in the current climate, there seems to be much more focus in this area. One of the key efforts I have seen is the attempt to develop deeper and more strategic mechanisms for not only getting diverse attorneys in the door, but ensuring that their experience at the firm is a positive one that will hopefully result in their desire to remain at the firm long term. I think there is more of a recognition of the challenges that diverse attorneys face, honest conversations about where we as a firm can and need to do better, and concrete steps taken to address these issues.

Chambers Associate: Now that you are a partner, do you provide support to junior diverse lawyers who wish to follow in your footsteps? If so, what have you found to be most effective?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: Yes, I try to do that. I spend a lot of my time supporting, providing opportunities on my matters, and just talking to junior diverse lawyers about their career goals. I try to utilize the network that I’ve built over the last 25 years of my career to assist junior diverse lawyers in getting experiences that will best prepare them for success, whether it is within a law firm, a corporation or the government.

“I have participated in a number of these programs and have found them effective in helping me develop soft skills, enhancing my public speaking abilities, and increasing my network of contacts.”

It is extremely gratifying to see how many associates have gone on to outstanding careers in the law and it is really a privilege to have been able to play a role in assisting them achieve their career goals. I can honestly say that observing many of these junior attorneys develop, progress and achieve their aspirations has been one of the most meaningful aspects of my career. I truly believe that when you are at the end of your career, no one is going to talk about how much money you brought into the firm. The measuring rod for your success will be what you did to develop and help others progress. I try to always remember that, and to do the best I can to mentor younger attorneys.

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: I am admittedly still figuring out how to be a partner, but mentorship is the most rewarding part of my job. In the same way that partners created opportunities for me, I look for opportunities for my team members. I also make diversity and inclusiveness part of the conversation and look to bring attorneys together to find peers and mentors for support.  And I am always more than willing to share my moments of self-doubt to let junior attorneys know that such thoughts are normal yet not worthy of validation.

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New York:  Yes, I provide support to junior diverse attorneys and it is one of my favorite ways to spend my time!  I have a number of mentees – both formal and informal – with whom I spend time, provide advice or create opportunities. I also often speak on panels at law schools or those sponsored by various diversity-focused organizations about my path to partnership, and to encourage more diverse law students to pursue careers in the securities and technology practice areas. As far as effectiveness, I believe it’s nearly impossible to tell what type of support could have the most significant impact on someone’s career, so my goal is to be available and to look for opportunities to help others. 

“I am always more than willing to share my moments of self-doubt to let junior attorneys know that such thoughts are normal yet not worthy of validation.”

April Williams, partner, DC:I have been fortunate to have people on my path to open doors, give me opportunities, and provide wise counsel, which has had a tremendous impact, so I believe it is my responsibility to pay that forward. Those who know me know that my door is always open for anyone looking for advice, support, or just an open and honest conversation about navigating the legal world. I have consistently been a mentor, official and unofficial, to our diverse attorneys, who often feel they have so few people to turn to. It’s extremely important for our diverse attorneys to know they are not alone in this journey and that they have people they can talk to in confidence. I am grateful to be in a position to be a resource and take every opportunity to provide as much support as I can. I believe that I take away just as much, if not more, from those experiences as the individuals that I mentor.

Chambers Associate: What advice would you give to diverse lawyers who are aiming to become law firm partners?

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: Build a support network of mentors, friends, and advocates. Raise your hand. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and take a chance on yourself.

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New York: Diverse lawyers aiming to become law firm partners should continue to do excellent work for their internal and external clients with a focus on adding value, continue to build their external profile and their network, and to the best of their ability take the steps necessary to confirm there is a business case for their elevation. For example, if technology or new legislation is beginning to change an attorney’s area of expertise, he or she should become an expert in that area so he or she has the knowledge that will be in demand for clients. 

“Your opinion is valuable, and you should make sure your case teams know it and that your clients benefit from it.”

April Williams, partner, DC: It is imperative to produce high quality work and to remember that we work in a client services industry, so being responsive and anticipating the needs of your clients is key. Work hard to develop yourself as a lawyer, seek out challenging opportunities, and don’t be afraid to speak up. Your opinion is valuable, and you should make sure your case teams know it and that your clients benefit from it. And you can’t start too early establishing strong relationships with senior attorneys at your firm, as well as with colleagues in the legal arena more broadly.  Treat everyone you encounter with professionalism and respect, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because your reputation will follow you throughout your legal career.

Chambers Associate: In what ways was your development as a lawyer supported at WilmerHale?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: I have been at the firm since 1993, and it has been invaluable to my development as a lawyer. I remember working as a summer associate and developing strong relationships during that time. As a result of those relationships, Russ Bruemmer, a partner from Wilmer, ended up being one of my references for my federal clerkship with Judge Damon J. Keith. Russ was a partner here in the financial institutions practice and one day over lunch, he suggested I try to do a federal clerkship. Prior to that discussion, I just thought I was going to go right to a law firm after graduating from law school. I had not even thought about doing a clerkship and did not realize or appreciate the importance of federal clerkships.

“…the relationship I subsequently developed with Judge Keith ended up being a foundation for all of my future endeavors as a lawyer.”

Thanks to the guidance and encouragement from Russ and others, I applied for a clerkship, which ended up being the most significant career decision of my life, because the relationship I subsequently developed with Judge Keith ended up being a foundation for all of my future endeavors as a lawyer. But that opportunity and relationship really stemmed from my Wilmer experience as a summer associate.

Throughout my career as a younger lawyer, Wilmer was always very supportive of me going in and out of government. I remember working with Bill Perlstein, who at the time was a bankruptcy partner and would subsequently become WH’s managing partner and would stress the importance of government service. I think that is different than at a lot of other firms. Wilmer has always been a place that has recognized the value of getting strong government service experience at a young stage in your career, and then we do a great job of attracting those talented lawyers back to the firm down the road.

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: I had great mentors that helped pick me up when I was down and gave me the push when I needed it. I truly felt that people were invested in me and wanted to see me succeed. At the same time, I felt that WilmerHale was transparent about what I needed to do to progress and gave me the opportunities I needed to build my skills and grow as an attorney. 

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New York:I felt supported in many ways.  First, I was provided with many great stretch projects – projects that were in some ways a bit out of my comfort zone but gave me the opportunity to have an increased level of responsibility and to increase my visibility with clients and/or regulators. My colleagues also facilitated ways to expand my profile both internally and externally. Internally, they spoke highly of my work and created opportunities for me to work across practice groups and offices. Externally, they facilitated introductions to clients and included me in client presentations. In addition, my colleagues provided me with opportunities to speak on panels and the necessary support to excel in these speaking opportunities.

“…they facilitated introductions to clients and included me in client presentations.”

April Williams, partner, DC: I have been fortunate to have the support of many people along the way, from giving me the opportunity to work on matters that would allow me to develop certain skillsets, to putting me in front of clients and helping me learn strong business development skills. And sometimes, just having someone give you encouragement in an environment that is often challenging and prone to shattering your confidence, is just as important. I have always felt that I could go to any number of people in the firm with questions or concerns, and those individuals have consistently taken the time to counsel me and provide thoughtful insight. I have truly been amazed by how people genuinely want to be helpful.

Chambers Associate: What was the most effective avenue of support you received as you approached the partnership and why?

Nora Passamaneck, partner, Denver: There were so many people that helped to support me on my path to partnership, and in hindsight my becoming partner really was a group effort – from partners who worked with me every day and actively advocated for me, to others in the firm that supported my contributions to the firm, to clients who offered me excellent opportunities. 

Tiffany J. Smith, partner, New York:I am not sure if one particular avenue of support was most effective as I approached partnership because so many factors are critically important to make partner. Sponsorship is very important – you need people in rooms you are not in to sing your praises and gather widespread support for your elevation to partnership. Client relationships are another important factor because there has to be a business case for your elevation. You need clients that are invested in you, and that are willing to keep investing in you and to continue to seek your counsel on new matters.

April Williams, partner, DC: There were a number of individuals who supported me on my path to partnership, and the co-chair of my practice group, Ron Machen, was key. He was always open and honest about my prospects of making partner and what was required to get there. He went out of his way to give me opportunities to demonstrate what I was capable of. He was very focused on identifying opportunities for me to develop client contacts, obtaining speaking engagements, and even identified other individuals to help serve as mentors. He also consistently praised my work, both publicly and privately, and provided feedback on areas that I should continue to work on to progress as an attorney.

“He was very focused on identifying opportunities for me to develop client contacts, obtaining speaking engagements, and even identified other individuals to help serve as mentors.”

Chambers Associate: What training opportunities are there at WilmerHale to help with developing a client-focused practice?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: Our firm’s training has really evolved and I believe our firm has extremely practical training for our associates and counsel which allows them to develop their skills to the greatest extent possible. Young WilmerHale attorneys learn the importance of really thinking through issues on sophisticated matters before they have to do it for real on behalf of a client. I am amazed whenever I sit in on our firm’s training programs about the comprehensive nature of the sessions and the real-life experiences we provide to our associates.

Chambers Associate: What would you say to diverse lawyers about the opportunities that are out there in the government space?

Ron Machen, partner, DC: When I talk about the most meaningful work I have ever done, it is not about representing corporate defendants on cross border investigations. It is about being a homicide prosecutor and bringing justice to the victims of families. There is a great amount of personal satisfaction you get out of doing government service. You impact lives in whatever form of government service you take. It is a very mission-oriented role, where you actually are part of a team and you learn a collaborative approach to problem solving.

“…not only can you really have an impact on the lives of others through government service, you can also further your meaningful career experiences.”

Opportunities in the government space often require a lot more collaboration than you typically experience in a law firm, where you may have just one partner running a matter and telling you how to perform a project. You also get a lot more opportunities to do things yourself, such as argue in court or negotiate a resolution with another litigant. You are far less likely to get those opportunities when you are at a large law firm, because clients are paying and they are going to expect partners to handle those matters. So, not only can you really have an impact on the lives of others through government service, you can also further your meaningful career experiences.


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