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NYC Bar Diversity Leadership Program Puts Associates at the Helm

April 27, 2017, 7:28 PM

The New York City Bar Association is gearing up for a summer leadership training program that hopes to put diversity and inclusion tools in the hands of those who might need it most: associates.

Over the course of five Fridays this summer, 50 associates, ranging in experience from fourth years to eighth years, will convene for the inaugural Associate Leadership Institute, a series of training and networking programs hosted by the City Bar’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

The program was developed to address the high attrition rates of women and people of color in Big Law, according to Gabrielle Brown, head of the New York City Bar’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion. Through keynotes and workshops, associates will learn about topics including executive presence and communication skills; networking, mentorship and sponsor relationships; personal brand building; rainmaking and business development; and career planning. The program is co-sponsored by the Council of Urban Professionals and the Practicing Attorneys for Law Students (PALS) Program.

Although sponsored by law firms, the sessions will take place at the City Bar’s offices behind closed doors, without anyone’s boss in the room.

“With any type of trust building or relationship building process, you need people to be open and honest about their experiences,” said JP Kernisan, a senior associate at Duane Morris and chair of the leadership institute’s organizing committee. “The general trust level will be taken down significantly if people felt like what is said in the room could be available to their employers or future employers.”

Kernisan said the ALI program was designed to convene associates from a wide array of historically underrepresented communities, like LGBT attorneys or black attorneys, in order to form a network beyond their individual affinity groups. While these individual groups are important, they often lack the critical mass to enact larger policy or cultural changes, he said.

“If you combine [all minority groups], many times that might be 30-40 percent of people,” he said. “That’s where there’s untapped power that we need to foster and leverage for the benefit of all of us and the benefit of the profession.”

What makes the ALI different from a typical CLE program is that it’s both created by and for a diverse group of young attorneys, according to Kernisan, who said associates make up roughly a quarter of the committee in charge of planning the institute.

Associates interviewed by the City Bar in its annual diversity survey “seemed hungry for this kind of opportunity,” according to Gabrielle Brown. “We created the curriculum based on feedback from associates, then asked firms [for their input] and married the two,” she said.

“Without us leading that drive, I think it would be silly to expect other people from an advantaged standpoint to do it for us,” said Kernisan. “It’s reasonable to expect [them] to support our efforts but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to create and execute our efforts for us.”

Most of the selected participants were nominated for the ALI by their firms, according to Kernisan, but associates were also able to nominate themselves. “What we didn’t want was associates who may have fallen out of favor with their firms, but who were otherwise great people, to not get the benefit of the program,” he said.

The cost of the program will be covered by the City Bar and 28 New York City-based law firm sponsors.

At the end of the program, each associate will be paired with a partner at their firm who will help them bring what they learned back to the participating firms, according to Brown.

Kernisan said the institute will also provide older associates a chance to teach younger associates the lessons they’ve learned about how to succeed in their law firms. For example, feedback from a partner on a memo may reflect more than just the quality of an associate’s work. It may also reflect a poor relationship or implicit bias.In a 2014 study , the leadership consulting firm Nexion found that reviewers found far more spelling, grammar and technical writing errors when they thought the author of a memo was black compared to when they thought the author was white.

“For better or worse, this relationship building is not just important with your peers, but also with your bosses,” said Kernisan. “Them feeling good about you on a personal level will affect your professional performance.”

But above all, the goal of the institute is to foster relationships between diverse groups of attorneys before they make partner, move in-house, or otherwise move up the legal career ladder.

“These are the people who are going to be the leaders of private practice in these diverse communities in the city in the future,” said Kernisan. “One of the overarching themes of this program is we feel that all the power you need to make your career successful is going to be sitting in the room with you.”