Feb. 6, 2015 -- The University of Houston Law Center on Thursday hosted a panel discussion called “Perspectives on Gender and Race” in the legal profession, particularly focused on increasing opportunities for women and minority lawyers.
The discussion, whose audience was primarily made up of law students, was held in conjunction with the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting, which is being held in Houston for the first time since 1981.
In opening remarks, UHLC Dean Leonard M. Baynes noted that the representation of women and minorities in the profession is in keeping with one of the key themes of his administration -- an emphasis on training lawyers to “seek justice.”
“One of the challenges that we all face is how do you achieve that justice in a fair fashion, to make sure that there is progress, and everybody is included,” Baynes said, noting that both the state of Texas and the country are moving toward having minority-majority populations.
Baynes pointed out that in the realm of law firm partnerships, federal equal employment opportunity laws do not necessarily apply. A discrimination claim is therefore only possible if the aggrieved party is deemed a “constructive partner,” one who does not have any real management role in the firm but acts more as an employee.
Moderator Deborah Yuh, a partner in the firm of Gallagher Sharp and chair of the ABA’s Diversity in the Profession Committee, noted that while students of U.S. law schools are divided roughly equally between men and women, women make up only about one-third of the legal profession. Similarly, minorities make up about 25 percent of law school enrollments, but make up 11 percent of the profession.
Gerard Gregoire, director of litigation services with Allstate Insurance Company, said he began his legal career as a prosecutor in Dallas County. He chose that offer over another one from a major law firm, he said, in order to gain trial experience right away. Both offers came through mentors he had met in law school.
“Having somebody inside is always helpful,” he said, particularly someone who knows and is willing to vouch for an applicant.
Alaina King Benford, a partner with Norton Rose Fulbright, began working for the firm as a clerk. Internally, she said, she’s had both mentors and sponsors that have helped her progression in the firm. She stressed the importance of being vocal about pursuing experience.
Benford and Gregoire, who are both black, said they have seen improvements in diversity in the legal profession since they began, even if it’s not as much as they would like.
Gregoire said that within the corporate legal world, there remains a “significant gap” in the representation of women and minority lawyers. Most corporations recognize that fact and are trying to address the issue, he said.
One professional organization tries to match high-level corporate firms with promising mid-level firms with minority and women lawyers in order to establish relationships and foster a “culture of diversity,” he said.
Benford pointed toward a committee formed in recent years by the Houston Bar Association that is focused on expanding the opportunities for minority law students and lawyers throughout the Houston legal profession. Other programs deal with gender equity issues in the profession, she said.
Turning to the issue of networking, Sondra Tennessee, associate dean of student affairs at the University of Houston Law Center, said successful networking can and should begin at law school. But she stressed that graduating students and young lawyers should focus their efforts.
“There is no job in ‘anything,’ ” she said. “Some of you are saying, ‘Well, I’ll do anything.’ You have to focus.
“Treat every relationship as a professional relationship,” beginning with classmates, she said.
Gregoire said successful networking has to be “organic.” It’s also important, he added, to “be a nice person. You’d be surprised how being a nice person comes back around.”
Benford agreed, but added networking also has to be “deliberate.” Keeping in touch with classmates throughout their careers can pay off when they attain positions of importance later. Networking is not just about passing out business cards at an event, she said, “it’s about relationships.”
Gregoire said it’s crucial that young lawyers form relationships with both mentors and sponsors.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors,” he said, and those relationships can go both up and down the hierarchy. “Everyone you come into contact with can be a mentor.”
But while mentors can give you advice, he said, “sponsors will go into that back room and advocate for you.”
Tennessee said that being a mentee is “an active role.” Law students and young lawyers have to be willing to approach their mentors to begin the relationship, rather than waiting for the mentor to take the first step.
Benford said women and minorities should not expect their mentors to “look like you,” adding that in her own career, her mentors have largely been white males.
“We tend to move toward people who look like us. In the legal profession, there might not always be people who look like us, or are willing to take on that role, or are the best person for us. You should not hesitate to seek out people moving in the direction you want to go,” she said.
Law Center faculty members participated in several events during the meeting. Associate Dean Marcilynn Burke served as a judge on Saturday for the final rounds of the ABA Negotiation Competition, which involved four teams from the United States and Canada.