Making The Case For Diversity In The Legal Community

By Nicole Norfleet
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Ann Jenrette-Thomas the chief diversity and inclusion officer at law firm Stinson Leonard Street. Jenrette-Thomas explains whey there is a need to focus of diversity and what programs are being implemented to recruit more diverse candidates.


Law firms continue to struggle to diversify their ranks, with people of color making up less than 7 percent of law firm partners and women about one-fifth.

While many law firms leave diversity efforts to attorneys who juggle other daily tasks, Stinson Leonard Street hired Ann Jenrette-Thomas to solely focus on the firm’s diversity and inclusion goals throughout the firm’s 13 offices, which include several in Minnesota.

“Everyone here is truly generally interested in moving the needle,” said Jenrette-Thomas, who is chief diversity and inclusion officer. Her hiring comes at time of a renewed push for firms to diversify their ranks. This past September, two dozen of the top lawyers from companies from Wal-Mart to PepsiCo signed a letter pledging their support of efforts to diversify law firms.

Q: Why do you think more firms are getting separate people dedicated primarily to diversity?

A: I think there are a number of good reasons why. First and foremost, when there is somebody at this level like a chief diversity and inclusion officer, this role is responsible for driving the diversity strategy and its impact across the entire firm, not just an HR function for example. It deals with recruiting, retention, business development, infrastructure. I think in order to really drive change, create an inclusive culture that lets all attorneys thrive, we need to make sure that we look at the firm comprehensively. I think that’s why you are starting to see some movement. Some firms are not going as far as Stinson Leonard Street in terms of going for C-suite individuals in this role, but you can see that law firms are starting to realize, “Oh, this is really important not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s important to many of our clients as well.”

Q: What are your primary responsibilities at the firm and what are you most excited about pursuing in your role?

A: I’m really thrilled to be here. My responsibilities are twofold. They are both internal and external. Internally, it’s along the lines of really driving the strategy with respect to diversity and inclusion. How can we create an environment that really allows all of us to thrive and succeed so that there are clear pathways to success so that there is the right support, the right infrastructure to achieve those outcomes. Inevitably, that also includes making sure that we have a solid number of diverse attorneys and staff, making sure that there are programs in place that ensure that people are not left in silos but are really able to be integrated into the firm.

With respect to marketing and business development, what I see is being able to help shape what we do making sure that we are responsive to our clients’ needs and that we are reflective of our community at large and our clients and making sure we continue to keep a forward motion as it pertains to diversity. Externally, I see my role as being able to continue to let the rest of the world know that Stinson Leonard Street is really committed to moving from a position where we have cared about this issue to a place where we want to be a leader in this realm.

Q: How do you think you will be able to help Stinson Leonard in terms of recruiting and retaining people of color, which has become a larger cause that stakeholders in the region are concentrating on?

A: With recruiting, I think part of it is being very clear on what kind of targets we want to achieve. If you don’t know what kind of goal you are going toward, it’s difficult to measure. Just being clear about how we want to raise our demographics here. With respect to retention, it’s a combination of things. It really just isn’t one thing. Can the individuals, the attorneys of color feel connected, included, welcomed, and that there is a clear pathway to success and that they have the support for that. From a firm perspective, it’s about looking at programs comprehensively to understand how we can impact the individual. Let’s say we recruit some attorneys of color from the East Coast or West Coast. There are certain things we can do in the firm, but we can also encourage partners that have lived in the area to take out the newbies and introduce them to the area. We can encourage them pairing up and bringing them to affinity bar groups or other types of networking events. If we can start to get that sense of family or connection or community, then that will go a long way in keeping people.

Q: Why does it make business sense to have a diverse law office?

A: There are so many reasons. No. 1, it’s about innovation, being able to be creative. When you have people who bring different perspectives, different histories, different world views to the table, they are able to find solutions for clients that if everybody were similar, they might have had a blind spot and missed. When you have teams of people who are different from one another, learning to work together, there’s more agility when it comes to problem solving. These are not just my words. These are studies that have shown the business case for why diversity matters. Our clients, they are dealing with issues of diversity for their customers, their clients, their workforce, etc., so we have to be able to understand what our clients are doing as well, and one way to do is to make sure that we have the representation as well.
Age: 41
Education: J.D., Western New England Law School; master of law in taxation, Georgetown University Law Center
Quick career bio: Currently chief diversity officer, Stinson Leonard; previously, CEO and founder of Esquire Coaching Inc.
Family: Wife, Valerie Jenrette-Thomas, and dog Sophie
Little-known fact: Went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, which she says wasn’t easy

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