Socioeconomic Diversity in the Legal Profession: A Conversation
PUBLISHED ON: 09/18/2019
Brown Rudnick is pleased to have sponsored the second class of its 1L Social Mobility Diversity Fellowship in the summer of 2019.
The fellowship is a groundbreaking program aimed at first-year law students who are also the first members of their families to graduate from college. The fellowship, unlike any other law firm-sponsored honors program, provides the recipient with an opportunity for substantive work and professional development experience, as well as a significant scholarship.
The first Social Mobility Fellowship in 2018 was a terrific success, and Lydell Benson, the first Social Mobility Fellow, exceeded the firm’s expectations, returned as an associate for a second summer, and will be starting as a first-year associate at Brown Rudnick's New York office in the fall of 2020. This year, Arianna Goolsby, a rising second-year law student at the University of California, Irvine, and Ryan Periera, a rising second-year at Georgetown University, worked in Brown Rudnick’s New York office as summer associates.
Towards the end of 2019's summer associate program, Bill Baldiga, Brown Rudnick’s CEO and a first-generation college graduate himself, sat down with Ryan and Arianna to discuss the challenges and opportunities of socioeconomic diversity in the legal profession. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill: Arianna, Ryan. Thank you both for speaking with me today. I'm curious, what attracted you both to the legal profession to begin with?
Arianna: As a child I was naturally strong willed, analyzed everything, asked a million questions and always wanted to know the reasons and logic behind things. My parents told me I’d make a great lawyer, and I internalized that early on.
Ryan: For me, realizing I wanted to practice law was a bit of a circuitous decision. I was working as a consultant on security issues and I really loved the work but felt that a lot of projects were stymied by bureaucracy and politics. I realized the law could be an instrument to get around the impediments that were preventing me from making an impact in people’s lives.
Bill: Can each of you describe your entry into the workplace after college? Was your experience influenced by the fact that you were a first-generation graduate?
Ryan: Being a first-generation college graduate is an invisible obstacle. It’s not something people often talk about, but it’s something that has followed me throughout my professional career. I can feel being an outsider when I enter a room full of professionals and don’t know how to navigate the room, or when I'm trying to communicate with personalities that are very different from the people I grew up with.
Arianna: I graduated from college a semester early and then got a job as a legal secretary for a law firm in New York. Working in a corporate environment as a first-generation college graduate was different from what I expected. My parents always told me, just work hard. If you work hard you will be recognized and rewarded. But I've learned that working hard is not enough. I had a lot to learn about how to behave in a professional environment — small, cultural things that I had to adapt to, things I could only learn through observation, conversation, and advice from mentors at the firm.
Bill: What attracted you our Social Mobility Fellowship?
Arianna: I looked into fellowships at several different law firms and while there are a lot geared toward diversity in terms of race or gender, Brown Rudnick was the only one out of dozens geared toward first-generation college grads. I thought it was really something special. I also came across the article about Lydell, and in reading it realized this program is something the firm is passionate about—they did it once and didn’t stop there. They decided to do it again and, this time, to expand it to two fellows.
Ryan: I found the Fellowship powerful because, if you look at me, I look like an ordinary white, straight, cis-gender male—so understandably many people think that I’m among the privileged of society. It’s undeniably true that each day people face obstacles because of gender, racial and religious discrimination—markers that are traditionally associated with diversity. But there are also invisible cultural barriers, and the Social Mobility Fellowship understands that. To see a firm speak truth to that struggle, and to invest so many resources and build a program around it, is something that is really progressive and forward thinking.
Bill: Race and gender are immediately apparent, but you wouldn’t otherwise have to reveal that you are a first-gen college graduate. How do you feel about being a diversity candidate in this particular area of diversity?
Arianna: I’m a black woman, so when you see me you know I’m diverse. I have absolutely no apprehension with being identified as a first-generation college graduate. I view it as the start of a legacy and something to celebrate.
Ryan: I have mixed views on this. On the one hand, I share Arianna’s sentiment—I’m proud to be the first and to know I’m building a legacy my family is proud of. I don’t have apprehension about identifying as a first-generation college grad, but it was initially difficult for me to recognize it as diversity status. Being a part of the fellowship and working with other people at the firm in the same situation has allowed me to reinspect my own experience and realize the idea that the fellowship is based on — that diversity is broader than the traditional markers. I’ve come to see that acknowledging the barriers that I face doesn’t take opportunities away from those who face more visible barriers and, in fact, can help bridge gaps between us.
Bill: What should leaders and others do to connect with those who come from a different background than themselves?
Arianna: Focus not only on diversity, but inclusion. Bringing diverse candidates in is just the first step, you also need to make sure that the workplace is inclusive, that events for the firm aren’t just reflective of the people who make up the majority of the firm, but the minorities as well. You have to be cognizant of how the things you say affect people and make sure people feel like they’re welcome and that they belong.
Ryan: You have to recognize that the way you view the world may differ from those you work with and be willing to put aside biases. It’s important that everyone not only feels included, but that they have a designated seat at the table.
Arianna and Ryan had a few questions for Bill, as well.
Arianna: Where did this idea for the fellowship come from?
Bill: We knew we wanted to do more to foster diversity at the firm, and when Ari Joseph, Director of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, presented the idea, it was immediately embraced by the firm as something that could be impactful. We seized it, went with it, and the quality of the applicants has been tremendous. We’re already a better firm for having done this, and I think the fellows involved will help to change the culture of the firm in ways that we can’t even predict now.
Ryan: How do you view the value that socioeconomic diversity brings to the firm, compared to the types of diversity that are discussed more often?
Bill: I think every type of diversity is important and in every metric we as a firm could and should do better. But being a first-generation college graduate is overlooked within not only law firms, but a lot of professional environments. Even though it’s a less visible obstacle to overcome, it’s very real and if we can give concrete examples to such people that they are not only welcome but can succeed here, then we will have achieved something worthwhile and important.
There is a worry that the process of getting to work for a major law firm and making a big law firm salary engenders a sense of entitlement in many people. There is no such entitlement in people who come to this job through a less privileged pathway. The persistence that overcoming a socioeconomic burden engenders in a person will always serve that person well and benefit the firm she works for.
My dad framed houses for a living, and all four of his boys, when we turned 12, were expected to work to pay for the things that we wanted. While our friends when to little league, we worked very hard. We would come home, barely crawl to bed and fall asleep. This wasn't a bad thing. We learned a lot. But to this day my dad still says, "none of you guys will ever feel like you’ve ever worked as hard as you did when you were 12." I am regarded at Brown Rudnick as a really hard worker, but I’ve never felt that I was working hard. The lessons you learn growing up in that way stay with you for a long time.
Arianna: Now that the summer is over, what do you hope fellows like Lydell, Ryan and I take with us back to school, and to our future careers?
Bill: Working with colleagues and clients every day who are at the top of their game, and receiving targeted support from partners, associates and members of firm management, is a unique opportunity. One thing I hope we as a firm have accomplished is to help you, and everyone else who joins Brown Rudnick, develop confidence in the fact that you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a real opportunity to succeed. Insecurities will crop up, but we hope that knowing how other first-generation professionals like Ari and I have succeeded will remind you in times of doubt that you can do this—that you’ve earned a right to be at this table.