A Chat With Gibson Dunn Diversity Chief Salim-Williams

In this monthly series, legal recruiting expert Amanda K. Brady from Major Lindsey & Africa interviews law firm management from Am Law 200 firms about how they are navigating an increasingly competitive business environment. Discussions delve into how these key management roles are changing and introduce the people who aspire to improve and advance the business of law.

Next in this series is a conversation with Zakiyyah Salim-Williams, chief diversity officer at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. She started her legal career as a federal law clerk, which piqued her interest in diversity in the legal industry, beginning with attempts to improve the diversity in the clerkship pool itself. She practiced at several law firms, including Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, and worked at the New York City Bar Association before joining Gibson Dunn in 2011.

Q: What attracted you to Gibson Dunn?

A: It’s a well-run firm. I got the sense that when the firm focuses on something, it gets results. When I joined the firm, I was very inspired by the success on the pro bono side and I wanted those results in my own work.

Q: What does your role as chief diversity officer encompass?

A: The CDO role knows no boundaries. It crosses all departments and all functions, from recruiting to business development to professional development. I see my role as making Gibson Dunn an even better firm; that’s what I strive to do through diversity and inclusion.

Q: What are the greatest challenges you face as the CDO?

A: In such a dynamic and entrepreneurial workplace, it can be difficult to stay focused on achieving your core goals. But I think that’s where the most exciting work is, and it’s where my strengths lie: identifying issues, collaborating, building relationships and achieving the goals that we set.

Q: How has increased public attention on diversity in the workplace impacted your work as CDO?

A: We find it really energizing. At our firm, we have a strong dialogue about these issues. We try to constantly engage and stay ahead of what’s happening, so that we’re anticipating future conversations.

The more clients are talking about it, the more people we’re engaging at our firm on the topic. I present to our executive committee twice a year and all of that information, public and client interest, is shared with management.

Q: Describe one of your greatest accomplishments in your current role.

A: The entire profession has been focused on advancing women. It is something that Gibson Dunn has always prioritized, and it’s been an interesting part of my role for the past five years. Last year, 50 percent of the partnership class were women. That was something that we were really proud of as a firm.

Our approach is “we listen, we learn, we focus, and we get results.” We are focused not only on promoting internally but also on lateral hires. In five years, we’ve hired and promoted 34 female partners at our firm. That success came from a lot of collaboration and a lot of work.

Q: What do you believe contributed to Gibson Dunn’s success in that area?

A: The increased dialogue helped for sure. We also held three women’s retreats, expanded our women’s efforts globally and launched unconscious bias training.

We also work diligently to monitor the pipeline of female talent at the firm. We want women to know that there is a future here if they want a future here. We’re actively engaged with them, we know who they are and we talk about them with leadership. We help them identify what they need to do to get to the next level and help them achieve it. We also create opportunities through our diversity programming. All of these efforts extend to all of our diverse lawyers at the firm.

Q: What is the best way for law firms to demonstrate their commitment to diversity to existing and potential clients?

A: There’s so much work that firms can do internally, especially when they partner with others. We try to collaborate often. Every year we host over 460 programs, meetings, affinity group events and more, and many of them involve our clients, community organizations or other institutions.

For example, we host multiple programs every year with Girls Who Code across the country. Alongside our clients and community organizations, we talk with the participants about how technology and law intersect as well as social justice efforts. Partnering helps to get the message out.

Q: When it comes to diversity, how do you correct inequities at the firm level when the problems you are addressing are systemic and much larger than a single firm?

A: We approach diversity the same way that we would client work: you really have to learn about and understand the issues before you can dive in. For us, that starts with educating the leadership so we can have purposeful dialogue about these issues from the top down, not just in the U.S., but globally.

We also discuss issues that the larger society is grappling with related to diversity. For example, after the election, people wanted to talk more about systemic issues, so we set up book club discussions where we talk about issues like race, religion, gender, income inequality and #MeToo. It started in one office; now it’s in five offices with hundreds of attorneys participating firmwide. People are hungry for these conversations.

We also recognize the diverse perspectives and identities that exist here. For example, we’re conscious about not lumping all women together — we have women of color, LGBT women, even a Europe-Middle East-Asia women’s initiative, and there are intersections among all those groups. It’s really about leadership making it clear that this is a dialogue we want to have. What starts up top sets the tone for the firm.

Q: What attracted you to the legal industry?

A: I wanted to be a lawyer because of Thurgood Marshall. That’s been the driver of my life, to join this profession to continue to do the work, and I think what lawyers are doing now is going to change the world.

Q: If you weren’t in law firm management, what career would you have?

A: I would probably be doing the same thing somewhere else: making great institutions better. I never thought that I could do that at a law firm, but I feel like I get to do that every day at Gibson Dunn. It is definitely the best job I’ve ever had.

This article was originally featured on Law360 on July 18th 2018.

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