Q&A with Quarles & Brady Chair Kimberly Johnson: Clients Pushing Law Firms for More Diversity

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Q&A Interviews, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

ILTA Women

Three years ago, Kimberly Leach Johnson was elected chair of Quarles & Brady, becoming the first female chair in the firm’s 120-plus-year history. She also serves on the firm’s finance committee and its diversity committee while actively maintaining her practice focusing on trusts and estates. Johnson sat down with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) to discuss how to retain diverse talent, and to use technology and metrics to measure diversity success, as well as learn how clients are pushing for more diversity and inclusion at their outside law firms.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: How much of a part does diversity play in your firm’s culture, and has it always been that way?

Kimberly Johnson: During my tenure, we’ve tried to create opportunities for attorneys and staff firm-wide. I credit that in part to our past leaders who wanted to see everybody succeed. When we redid our strategic plan two years ago, diversity was a big piece of it. We embrace our diversity and are working even harder on our inclusion initiatives.

TWLL: Can you give some examples of how those opportunities?

Kimberly Johnson: Every time a new leadership role or a new position opens up, we make sure a diverse attorney is in the consideration mix. We do different training programs for all attorneys, starting with Junior Associates. We have QBU — Quarles & Brady University — and we also do training at the partner level. We recently sent 40 attorneys to a four-day session at the Kellogg School of Management [at Northwestern University], and also did a program a couple years before with Notre Dame. Of those two classes, 25% of those attending were diverse attorneys. We made it a point that we didn’t want everybody to look the same.

TWLL: Are there other initiatives to promote and retain diverse attorneys?

Kimberly Johnson: Every associate has a mentor, and diverse attorneys have the ability to have a second, diverse mentor if they so choose. We also have Diversity Councils that operate through each office and an organization-wide Diversity Committee. In addition, all attorneys are encouraged to grow their acumen and exposure by participating in pro bono opportunities and by creating or working with others to author thought leadership pieces. Sometimes we might see a young attorney who’s not thriving–they may or may not be diverse–so we’ll task a senior litigator: “You’ve got this trial going on. Can you reach out, let this attorney handle this case with you?” That’s worked out well.

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Quarles & Brady Chair Kimberly Leach Johnson

Looking at things earlier in the process, we also engage in outreach to diverse law students. In 2013 we founded the American Bar Association Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund in honor of the firm’s former chairman, John W. Daniels Jr.  Diverse law students are provided scholarships for their education. This aids in filling the pipeline with talented, diverse lawyers.

TWLL: How do you make sure white, older partners are onboard?

Kimberly Johnson: There’s always an issue with some of your population not buying in. We still have some who say, “Well, what about me?” Not a lot, but still a little grumbling. But one of those [resisting] went to a diversity initiative program with a client, and that changed his opinion. He asked us to think about incorporating clients into our diversity initiatives because diversity from the client standpoint is becoming more important. They want different faces, different perspectives across the table.

TWLL: Can the firm use its historic embrace of diversity as a way to differentiate itself?

Kimberly Johnson: The environment for legal services is beginning to recognize the advantages of diversity and inclusion.  At our recent all-partners’ meeting I said, “Our diversity is what makes us distinctive. This is something we can lead with.” We’ve identified a number of high potential clients who could benefit from being exposed to the firm’s diverse legal talent. We’ve asked our diverse attorneys to create a series of continued legal education (CLE) opportunities on timely issues for these clients. Now we can come in and say, “Here’s a CLE on intellectual property or on a labor issue and the presenters are all diverse attorneys.”

TWLL: Within the firm, are there metrics that you’re using to measure diversity?

Kimberly Johnson: The managing partner and the section chairs meet quarterly with practice group leaders. One metric they use is what we call a ‘diversity dashboard’ (see below) So for example, say the bankruptcy group has ‘x’ number of diverse attorneys. Well, how many of these are associates, of counsel, income partners or equity partners? Are they part-time, full-time?

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We look at their hours worked and their collections, and then we compare it as a percentage to the majority of attorneys, and try to figure out who’s getting opportunities and who’s not.

TWLL: That sounds like a significant idea since, in many cases, a lot of firms will have the right policies, but it’s all about how the policy is implemented. That’s where there’s a lack of transparency.

Johnson: Right. And now you have some clients getting into law firms’ business, saying “I’m going to give you this work, but I want the diverse attorney to get the credit or be the CRL.” When that first started, there was a little backlash: “Why should the client dictate what’s going on?”

But I think clients are just tired of change being so slow — and, of course, it’s the clients who really are in control now.