Hiring for Diversity: DBA President Dan McCune Interviews John Palmeri
by Daniel R. McCune
Dear Fellow Bar Members,
As I indicated in my first Docket article, I intend to use "Fireside Chats" to communicate with you about important issues by drawing upon the knowledge and experience of others. In this "Fireside Chat," I interview John Palmeri, co-Managing Partner of the law firm Gordon & Rees, about the importance of diversity. I have always believed that the more diverse an organization, the stronger that organization will be if it embraces the different experiences, viewpoints and opinions that accompany that diversity. Please join me now as I interview John Palmeri:
Interview of John Palmeri
August 7, 2013
Dan: What I wanted to talk to you today about is diversity and your firm’s practices and focus on diversity. So can you tell me, does your firm have a position on diverse hiring?
John: We do. Our firm has been active in the diversity and inclusiveness arena for a number of years and really is firm-wide. So that’s very helpful for us here in Denver. Among the offices across the country, there are diverse managing partners in four offices, the New York office, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, and Atlanta.
In terms of Denver, one of my partners, Franz Hardy, is a diverse attorney and is actually heads up the firm’s diversity committee, so we rely on Franz, locally, to help us with our diversity program here.
Dan: And can you tell our readers about the types of diversity you have in your firm?
John: Well, I think across the country, we’re fortunate to have probably diverse attorneys in any area where you define it. Locally we’re proud that we have ethnic and racial diversity. We have a number of women attorneys. So I think, broadly speaking, we try to have diversity in all areas.
Dan: Okay. You see a lot of firms that talk about their hiring of diversity. And to me, hiring diverse members is one thing. It’s another thing that you have—if you have senior attorneys that are diverse. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what your hiring numbers look like and what your senior attorneys look like in terms of diversity.
John: I agree with you, Dan, and I know your firm has a number of senior attorneys who are women or otherwise diverse as well. From our perspective, not to get bogged down in the numbers, but overall, 58 percent of our attorneys are women, and over 20 percent of our attorneys are ethnically or racially diverse. That’s for the Denver office.
But to speak to your point, I think we’re more proud that over 40 percent of our senior attorneys are women. And again, about 20 percent of our senior attorneys are ethnically or racially diverse.
And as you make the point, probably a majority, or not probably, a majority of the lawyers coming out of law school now are female. So to say that we have 58 percent of our attorneys are women speaks at least in part to that. But the fact that we can maintain that, that they have senior positions, that they have leadership positions, I think really is important to develop and maintain a strong diversity program.
Dan: Are there business reasons that you and your firm perceive for diverse hiring and diverse senior attorneys?
John: Absolutely. And I’m sure your firm and most firms across the state would see it as well. From a corporate or business perspective, to the extent you’re working with medium or larger-sized businesses, it’s a factor.
If you’re going to fill out a request for proposal or the like, there are now requirements from most of the medium or larger-sized corporations to describe your diversity program and to make sure that you’re going to have diverse attorneys on that team.
But even beyond that, setting aside the medium and large-sized corporations, it’s important. I think that it’s important from a community perspective. Personally, I think a majority of the people to whom I report are women, not that I’m going to fill that bill with them, but hopefully I’m going to have women on the team and that they’re going to be meaningfully participating there, and I think it’s important.
So even from the large corporate side down to the smaller side, certainly from a business perspective, it’s important and we, as lawyers, I think have to respond to that in terms of our marketing and business development.
Dan: Okay. Let me ask you this. Putting aside the business aspect, are there practical benefits that you have perceived in having a diverse firm like you do?
John: Definitely. And it’s something that we have to continue to work on, but I think it’s the right thing to do. And as our profession, in particular, deals with society and societal issues, I think it’s important for attorneys and law firms to be out front on this. But even setting that aside, just from an office managing partner perspective, it’s great to have that diversity.
It’s a reflection of the community. It provides different perspectives. From a
problem-solving view, I think you have a broader discussion. I think any time you can broaden that discussion and get points of view from different people and different views and backgrounds, and walks of life, I think it makes for a more robust conversation.
Dan: Do you perceive any challenges with having a strong diversity presence in your law firm?
John: I think it does. And, again, we always need to be aware and work on it, but I think, fortunately, we’re a little farther along in the diversity conversation, I think, as a Bar Association, as a profession, that people are aware of it. But I think that you have to have that awareness and continue to be aware of it when you’re hiring attorneys, when you’re hiring staff, when you’re marketing, because it’s an important factor.
I don’t think we’ve quite reached the point now where it’s just a given and we don’t have to make the effort, and it’s still going to continue there. I think it’s something that has to be a consideration and, again, I need to give credit to the co-managing partner, Tom Quinn, for his awareness of this and to Franz Hardy for him keeping it on our agenda as well.
Dan: I guess the other thing I wanted to ask you about when I was talking about the challenges with diversity, maybe you can comment on this, but it’s been my perception that most people accept at having diversity, whatever that diversity may be, and out of that grows better ideas, more creative thinking, and those type of things. But it also represents a challenge because it represents change and working with people that may come from a different background that you may, and that may be threatening to people.
John: I think it is threatening, and to be honest with you, even from my perspective, it’s been a challenge for me, and I think that that challenge has to be met head on because it is change for people. But I think once you start to make that change, then hopefully, it creates the support system to address that concern.
In particular, what I’m talking about there is mentorship. When you and I began practice, I think we could identify someone who would have some similar interests to us and we could call on that maybe as an introduction to develop a mentorship relationship. I think it’s more difficult if you’re going to have a diverse candidate, at least where I fit into that paradigm.
But I think as we have developed the diverse group that we have and in particular to have some of those diverse attorneys move into the leadership roles and the more senior roles in the firm, I think, that’s where you can deal with those challenges.
So it’s difficult, especially to begin, but you need to begin, and once you start, I think that the process, if you can develop some of those more senior relationships, then has a recipe for success.
Dan: And you talk about begin, I mean, you need to begin. Let’s talk about that. I’ve heard hiring partners from various firms say, you know, Denver is just not a real diverse community. We can’t hire diverse members other than, perhaps, gender diversity. How do you go about hiring for diversity?
John: I think those are valid concerns, but I think you just need to deal with them. And certainly, I know that the law schools want to have a diverse and well-rounded class, and I think that from the managing partner, the hiring partner perspective, those candidates are going to be out there.
In particular, with our economic challenges that we’ve had in the past few years this may be the best time for any hiring that we’ve seen at least in my career during the time you and I have been in practice, almost 30 years now.
So there’s certainly young candidates out there, but how do you go about doing it?
You know, it’s difficult and it takes effort, and it is a challenge. But I think you just need to have that as a consideration, not that you’re going to have certain numbers or certain requirements, but I think you want to look for that as a factor. And we’ve tried to do that, not just to do what the NFL calls the Rooney rule and bring someone in for an interview, but really to look for qualified candidates, and they’re out there.
Dan: Do you find that once you break that inertia and start diverse hiring that it becomes easier?
John: I hope so, and I think that we’ve been a beneficiary of that. And I think in large part again it goes to Franz and one of our female partners, Heidi Chesley, another diverse partner, (name at 11:19 on the audio), another woman partner, Amy Darby. And when they sit in the interviews, the recruiting time, it’s easy to talk about diversity. And we’re not just talking the talk, but hopefully they can see that we’re at least trying to walk the walk. And I think once you can do that, then, it becomes a much more attractive place to recruit.
Dan: Anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
John: No, I think that again, like so many things, I think the Bar Association has been a great supporter of the diversity efforts. With our firm, we were fortunate to receive the 2011 CBA/DBA Leadership Award.
And I think that to have the Bar Association out front with some of these issues and to do that recognition, I think just raises the awareness. You get some of that positive reinforcement out there. And so we really appreciate the Bar’s support for the efforts as well, and it gives us something to continue to work on and to strive for.
Dan: Well, thank you for taking your time to chat with me today.
John: I appreciate that, as president, you make this an important topic for everyone to address. (Conversation concluded.) D
Daniel R. McCune