Akin Gump has hired Michele Meyer-Shipp, former chief diversity officer of Prudential Financial, as the firm’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer.
The hire makes Akin Gump the latest Big Law firm with a dedicated diversity officer, a role that has gone from obscurity to near-ubiquity in the legal industry over the past ten years. Earlier this month, Orrick announced that it had hired diversity consultant Joi Bourgeois as its first-ever global head of diversity and inclusion.
In a conversation with Big Law Business on her first day, Meyer-Shipp said there are several areas in which Big Law can learn from corporate practices when it comes to creating inclusive environments.
She said leaders need to be more conscious in their efforts to include people from a range of backgrounds on their teams.
“It’s one thing to identify what unconscious bias is, but it’s another to get people to think consciously about others in all stages of business,” she said.
But Meyer-Shipp said the corporate world still faces the same problems as the legal industry.
“Across every industry and every sector, we’re running into the same issues around the retention and promotion of women and people of color,” she said.
Meyer-Shipp, who cut her teeth as an employment litigator in Big Law, entered the diversity and inclusion field after working for New Jersey’s Division of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action and, later, as in-house employment counsel for Merrill Lynch. In 2012, she became Prudential’s head of diversity, where she was responsible for building the company’s global diversity strategy for 49,000 employees located around the world.
Akin Gump chair Kim Koopersmith said the firm chose Meyer-Shipp because of her extensive experience outside of Big Law, which she left in 2003. Meyer-Shipp previously worked at Lowenstein Sandler and Collier, Jacob & Mills.
“I’m a believer that there is much to be done,” said Koopersmith.
According to the American Lawyer’s 2017 Diversity Scorecard, 16 percent of Akin Gump’s approximately 700 lawyers are from minority groups. In the firm’s partnership, minority representation is at 12 percent. This is slightly above industry average. According to the National Association for Law Placement, minorities made up 14.6 percent of all lawyers and 8 percent of partners in the NALP directory of legal employers in 2016.
The following interview with Meyer-Shipp has been edited for length and clarity.
BLB: What are the D&I best practices you’ve learned during your time at Prudential?
Meyer-Shipp: On top of having the right policies and practices in place, I think there needs to be a focus on teaching leaders to be consciously inclusive. That’s a program beyond unconscious bias. It’s one thing to identify what unconscious bias is, but it’s another to get people to think consciously about others in all stages of business. I’ve had people say, I never realized I was missing that, or I never realized I never asked that question. I think conscious inclusion will be the next step after unconscious bias.
BLB: Do you think the corporate world is ahead of BigLaw when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
Meyer-Shipp: I think some practices are a bit ahead. For example, the Mansfield Rule [which requires hiring managers to consider a diverse slate of candidates for each new hire] is being talked about in law firms now. In the corporate world, they were talking about it five years ago.
But on the topic of unconscious bias and the inclusion piece, some law firms are ahead. I’d say a lot of companies are not comfortable having that conversation.
BLB: So what are your plans for Akin?
Meyer-Shipp: First thing is I need to go on my listening tour. I really want to understand where people are at with respect to diversity and inclusion in our various offices. I also want to do a survey of what’s going on. I want to dive in deep, to hear what’s happening.
As I think about that listening tour, I’m talking attorneys, business services staff, everyone. It’s fascinating the things that you hear when you talk to different segments of people. I need to do my due diligence, to understand what it is that I’m not going to see on the surface.
I’ll take a look at all of that input that I get and I’ll come up with a recommended global strategy that we might be able to put in place to take the existing practices to the next level.
Big Law Business: Why did you choose to move from the corporate world back to Big Law?
Meyer-Shipp: You might laugh at this answer, but I have to tell you, I wanted to come home. I started out at a law firm, I went to school as a lawyer. I thought, how neat would it be to go back home to where it all started, at a law firm, to bring these D&I practices to the legal industry.
For me, it really wasn’t about what I missed in terms of being at a law firm, it was about the fact that, as woman of color who’s a lawyer who’s remained close to the legal community, I see that as a profession we still haven’t made great strides at moving women and people of color to the partnership ranks. I see a huge opportunity there. I thought I could bring some of the best practices [from the corporate world] back home.
Across every industry and every sector, we’re running into the same issues around the retention and promotion of women and people of color. There may be some differences in structures, but candidly, at the end of the day the issues boil down to the same thing.
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