Advancing diversity in law: There's still work to be done

Laura Newpoff
Liza Kessler, Jones Day

Across the region, many law firms are being intentional about addressing a persistent issue: Law remains one of the least diverse professions. Whether it’s the new Gender Equity in the Legal Industry collaboration among local firms, the Columbus Bar Association’s Managing Partners’ Diversity Initiative or internal efforts within firms to increase opportunities for diverse lawyers, the industry is showing a willingness to change.

In the Columbus region, several large firms now are led by women, where in the past there were just one or two. Columbus CEO’s first Diverse Leaders in Law forum brought together five high-ranking women attorneys to talk about the strides that have been made in increasing diversity among the ranks of law firm leadership and the work that still needs to be done. You can access the conversation here

The participants of that Oct. 6 virtual conversation were:

  • Liza Kessler, partner-in-charge, Columbus office, Jones Day
  • Janica Pierce Tucker, partner-in-charge, Columbus, Taft Stettinius & Hollister
  • Traci Martinez, deputy managing partner, Columbus, Squire Patton Boggs
  • Victoria Beckman, chair of the Latin America desk, Frost Brown Todd (sponsor)
  • Holly Heer, lead, community development tax finance group, Barnes & Thornburg (lead sponsor)

Here are excerpts from the forum, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Liza Kessler describes herself as a Jones Day “lifer.” She started at the firm as a summer associate while she was studying law at Ohio State University in the early 1990s. After joining the firm, she took the traditional track to partnership and was appointed by the firm’s global managing partner to oversee the Columbus office in 2008. Her practice involves complex litigation covering matters involving scientific, technological and medical issues with claims in consumer fraud, breach of contract and medical monitoring.

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Janica Pierce Tucker has worked for small, medium-sized and now a large law firm. She started her career at a plaintiff’s law firm where she was a litigator. She later joined Chester Willcox & Saxbe, which later merged with Taft. Working at firms of all sizes and practicing on both the plaintiff and defendant sides of the courtroom gave her valuable experience that helped her rise to her current position leading the Columbus office of Taft. Her practice focuses on representing clients in all aspects of employment and labor law. She, too, received her law degree from Ohio State University.

Traci Martinez has spent most of this year transitioning to succeed one of the city’s most well-known and respected attorneys—Alex Shumate, who has held the role as managing partner at the Columbus office of Squire Patton Boggs for 30 years. Prior to law school, Martinez was an elementary school teacher for seven years. Martinez is an experienced civil litigator and labor and employment lawyer. She also received her law degree from Ohio State University.

Victoria Beckman, a native of Colombia, originally went to college to become an engineer, which led her to the United States to work in the technology and automotive sectors. She later graduated from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and spent years as a public defender in Arizona, where she was assigned to capital habeas appeals and major felony cases. Over the past eight years, she’s honed her experience as the co-chair of Frost Brown Todd’s privacy and data security team and as chair of the Latin America desk.

Holly Heer spent the first 11 years of her legal career working part-time. She joined Barnes and Thornburg six years ago and leads the firm’s community development tax finance group, where she helps clients with entity formation, negotiations, lending, asset management and workouts with a particular emphasis on transactions involving the low-income housing tax credit, historic tax credit and new markets tax credit. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.

Advancing diversity

During the forum, Martinez described efforts to move the needle at Squire Patton Boggs. “Prior to the last couple years, it was just putting some money on a table and getting people to sponsor different events, without any real focus on how are these things are really advancing the needle,” Martinez says. “And so a few years ago, I and a group of other leaders in our office really tried to tackle this problem. Our biggest question was, ‘How are we going to actually measure what outcome is coming from all the different things that we are doing—sponsorships and different things like that?’ ”

The firm engaged with outside consultants to develop a task force to track and identify what is and isn’t working in terms of gender, racial and LGBTQ+ diversity, including one-on-one training to help lawyers advance their careers.

As a firm with a huge policy practice, Squire Patton and Boggs also has connections to legislation. The firm has been active supporting hate crime bills in Georgia, police reform, being part of an anti-racism alliance and doing pro bono work for LeBron James’ More Than a Vote program that is fighting against Black voter suppression.

Kessler says while women hold prominent roles across Jones Day’s offices, improvement is needed when it comes to lawyers of color. Yvette McGee Brown, the first Black female justice to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court, is spearheading those efforts as the firm’s global partner-in-charge of diversity, inclusion and advancement.

“We get a front row seat to the work that she is doing leading the firm on that in terms of where we’re going and lawyers of color,” Kessler says. “It really is pipeline. And so we’re trying to encourage talented young people to choose the law and to choose Columbus.”

One of those efforts is the SEO Law Fellowship. It’s billed as “the only program of its kind to offer talented incoming law school students of color the opportunity to work at a top firm before law school.”

At Taft, 50 percent of the seats on the firm’s executive committee are held by women and attorneys of color, Tucker says. “To me that’s how you make changes because you bring more diverse voices to the table,” she says.

The firm also believes diversity and inclusion can benefit from a focus on retaining diverse attorneys. “Part of our efforts have been to not just invest in some of the programs, but to invest in people individually,” she says. “When you realize that I may have a passion to get people out to vote, other people may have a passion to go feed the homeless. How do we bring that together and make sure that the firm supports you in your community outreach?”

She believes that support will motivate employees to work hard and be successful at the firm.

Heer, with Barnes & Thornburg, often finds herself wondering why so many attorneys leave law firms after year three. Firms can improve the ranks of diverse employees by understanding what their needs are and supporting them, such as extended maternity leave. The firm also is focusing on how it can support its employees who are working in the social justice space after ongoing civil unrest tied to the murders of unarmed Black men. “We’ve got a social justice fund that our management committee seeded a significant amount of money to, and I know they’re trying to get 100 percent participation across the firm.”

A major challenge for women in the industry is that childcare often is their primary responsibility. Amid Covid-19, many female lawyers have found themselves having to juggle work with the extra responsibility of having to educate their children from home. Law firms that have traditionally “been a little bit of old school” can support parents by understanding they may need to juggle their work hours because of their childcare responsibilities these days,” Beckman says.

As with childcare flexibility, firms also can also increase the odds of attracting and retaining diverse workers by understanding their unique needs and showing compassion and support around those issues, Beckman says. “There were issues with social justice. How does your firm react to that? Do you feel like you’re being supported—like they’re reaching out to you and saying, ‘How is this affecting you?’ ”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Janica Pierce Tucker, Taft