I do a little happy dance whenever a person of color gets tapped for a leadership position at a major law firm. And if it’s a woman of color, I’m practically doing somersaults.
Alas, though, that feeling of elation fades quickly. Two minutes later, I am thinking of the pitfalls—how minority leaders face unique pressures, how they’re viewed as representatives of their race and how people often expect them to fail. Always lurking in the back of my mind is the question whether they’re armed with the requisite institutional support to succeed.
I went through the stages of awe, celebration and anxiety when I learned about Shauna Clark’s elevation to global and U.S. chair of Norton Rose Fulbright. As the firm touted in its press release in December 2020, Clark will be “the sole woman of color to chair an Am Law 200 firm.” The release also noted, “Shauna will focus on a range of strategic priorities, including development of client relationships; diversity and inclusion; and community engagement.”
It all sounds amazingly groundbreaking but I wanted details. So I asked Clark how she defines her mission as chair of that mega (3,200 lawyers worldwide) firm. She says there are two main components of her job: “I will be advancing the interest of the firm in client relations and in diversity, equity and inclusion.” She adds, “as global chair, I’m thrilled to be fighting for justice.”
The client relations part of her job seems like a relative cinch, but advancing diversity and fighting for justice? My goodness, those are tall orders. And once again, it seems, minorities are charged with the daunting (impossible?) task of fixing diversity.
But before I go there, let me say that the title of “chair” creates expectations. It sounds grand, but how much power does it carry? It turns out that varies by firm and geography. “The chairs in the U.S. firms are more active; they call the shots and run the firms,” says Lisa Hart Shepherd, the founder of consulting firm Acritas, which is now part of Thomson Reuters. That said, “chair” and “managing partner” are sometimes used interchangeably. At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, for instance, Barbara Becker, the new head of the firm, holds both titles.
In the case of Norton Rose, being chair is “more ambassadorial in nature,” says Dan McKenna, spokesperson for the firm . “She does not lead the firm globally or in the US, as those roles are filled by Global CEO Gerry Pecht and US Managing Partner Jeff Cody, respectively.” (Clark and Pecht are all Houston-based. Cody is based in Dallas.)
McKenna explains that the global chair position is rotated among the firm’s five regional chairs and that each chair picks an area of focus.
A lifer at the firm (she joined in 1994 after graduating from Tulane Law School), Clark heads its U.S. employment group. Though Clark had served as a member of the management and executive committees, she resigned from those posts when she became chair.
So here’s my question: If Clark is no longer formally part of those key committees, how will she succeed in the tricky business of promoting diversity at the firm? Isn’t she worried that she lacks leverage to get buy-in from those on the top?
“The top is fine,” Clark tells me. “It’s the middle we have to work on. They are the ones who are afraid of losing opportunities; they think others will gain at their expense. That insecurity is the issue.”
I get what she’s saying. Getting support from powers-that-be might not be such a hard sell because they’re in positions where they can focus on policy and think large. But telling those climbing the ladder that underrepresented groups deserve more programs, more mentors, more sponsors, more attention can brew resentment.
To make that pitch requires “changing the mindset,” says Clark. “I want to change the fiber of the firm—formalize a sponsorship program with a focus on Black lawyers.” She adds that the lack of sponsorship is a major roadblock for minorities, particularly Black lawyers. “I want to challenge people to think about sponsorship and show what good sponsorship looks like.”
Clark also says it’s vital to shed light on unconscious bias. “The margin of error is razor thin for people of color,” she says, alluding to how minorities, particularly Black lawyers, are often judged harshly for making a mistake. “I’ve run interference for those I feel deserve another chance,” alluding to a Black associate who ran afoul of a partner. And she cites the generosity of senior partners in her own career who “gave me the margin” that allowed her to make mistakes, learn from them and flourish. “I am an example that it’s worth the effort.”
It’s a laudable mission but one that seems extraordinary difficult. As challenges go, changing people’s mindset on race ranks up there. And, yes, I’m still bothered that people of color have the primary burden of enlightening the majority on matters of race.
“You’re right it seems people of color are always given that task,” says Clark. But she says that the firm has a robust DE&I group that reports directly to the management committee. And though her term as chair lasts only one year, she says, “the changes and initiatives that we implement this year will continue to grow and reap benefits for our firm and its people.”
She stresses that she doesn’t feel put upon to champion diversity: “I wasn’t asked to do it or assigned the job.” She adds, “It might fall on me to do more but my feeling is that we have to do it.”
Perhaps it’s not fair for people of color, but do we have a choice?
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