The legal profession is often thought of as less progressive than other industries when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, there is history to back this up. In 1980, only 8% of the nation's lawyers were women. Around the same time, just 2.5% of U.S. lawyers were nonwhite, and all minorities are still underrepresented in the legal profession. This was also the time when Harry Redmon became the managing partner at Phelps. Forty years ago, he saw this problem and wanted to put Phelps on the path to improve this disparity. He knew that to be a generational law firm, Phelps needed to evolve with the generations, and that our lawyers needed to reflect the communities we served.
Kickstarting the Pipeline to Find Diverse Talent
Harry's focus on recruiting diverse lawyers hit some road blocks at first. When Harry approached local law schools about a pipeline to Phelps, they told him the firm's reputation wouldn't attract diverse candidates. Phelps had an environment that encouraged and supported diversity, but law students didn't trust that claim, because the types of lawyers currently at the firm didn't reflect them. So Harry got to work to make Phelps a firm where diverse lawyers could see themselves building a successful practice.
Harry pivoted his recruitment focus from new lawyers to experienced lawyers that were established and well respected. He hoped by hiring and supporting diverse lawyers that he and the community admired and respected, the talent pipeline from law schools would follow.
Once Harry accomplished this goal, he turned his attention back to law schools. To make sure these kinds of barriers to entry never happened again, he worked with Tulane's Minority Clerkship Program to interview diverse students each year for the firm's summer associate program. Many of the firm's talented lawyers were hired through this program.
Creating a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion
Bringing Judge Reuben Anderson to Phelps was a milestone for Harry and started to build the perception of Phelps as a diverse and inclusive place to work. When Reuben was stepping down from the Mississippi Supreme Court, he chose to continue his career at Phelps. He said Harry was instrumental in this decision. After 15 years on the bench and a storied business career, Reuben was impressed by Harry's vision for the future of the firm and wanted to join him. Reuben saw Harry as a leader that was "heads and tails above" other law firms in the area, and he appreciated Harry's practical approach to diversity. Harry wanted to expand Phelps to serve the entire Southeast, and as Reuben puts it, "He knew if the firm was going to flourish, it had to change, and change meant becoming more inclusive."
Throughout the time that Harry was managing partner, Reuben said Harry always supported him in his practice and encouraged him to reach out to other diverse lawyers. In the early '90s, these new lawyers contributed to the Jackson office's booming litigation practice. Reuben describes Harry as a "man of integrity who was going to say what was on his mind" and "the kind of leader everybody lined up behind." And 30 years after joining Phelps, Rueben still believes he made the right choice.
Partner Nan Alessandra echoes Rueben's sentiment. She chose to join Phelps based on the strength of Harry's vision for the future of the firm and her place in it. Nan describes him as "a five-star general with a masterful battle plan who convinced me he was going to succeed." This is no surprise, since Harry is a pilot and entered the U.S. Air Force as a Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, serving as a prosecutor until his discharge as a Captain in 1962. He used the skills gained from this experience in his trailblazing mission to diversify one of the oldest law firms in the South, a mission Nan calls "bold" and "ahead of its time." Nan credits the amount of women and minority lawyers at the firm today to Harry's blueprint set in the mid-'80s.
Phelps carried out Harry's vision with a boots on the ground approach. To enhance the firm's diversity, it sought out the best and brightest in the legal community who had reached the pinnacle of achievement, like Judge Fred Banks, Kim Boyle and Judge Freddie Pitcher. Nan said Harry made a concerted effort not only to recruit diverse candidates, but also to help them succeed at Phelps. He welcomed them and made sure they felt supported to grow their practice and their presence within the firm. Nan describes this support as reciprocal. Harry encouraged feedback. He asked her to tell him what she needed to succeed, and then he would find the best way to provide those resources. At Phelps, Harry made sure everyone was invited to the table, encouraging everyone to work together and creating an atmosphere of community. He sent a clear message through his actions that diverse lawyers were as much a part of Phelps as anyone else, and that everyone contributed to the firm's pursuit of excellence.
Lessons Learned for Business Leaders to Boost Their DEI Efforts
Phelps is where it is today in part because of the decisions Harry made in the '80s and '90s to drive diversity and inclusion across the firm. He humbly shared the lessons he's learned over 40 years and how other business leaders can make diversity a priority:
- Audit your pipeline and business model. How are you recruiting new, diverse talent? If you're not sure how to find candidates, ask your local schools and organizations. To attract new employees, you may also need to review your business model to make sure you're creating an environment that promotes diversity.
- Don't take a cookie cutter approach to DEI. Set goals that work with your business model, and then find a way to achieve them. Trust your goal and your vision and stay accountable to them. Review your diversity and inclusion process and policies and personalize them to keep you on track as you make progress toward your company's DEI goals.
- Create a plan, then take action. Once you can recruit and hire diverse candidates, don't stop there. Inclusion is an important piece of the puzzle. Including, empowering and putting diverse candidates in leadership roles are all effective paths to build a diverse and inclusive culture.
"Commit to your vision, know your environment and be ready to adapt to make your goals a reality," said Harry. "Empowering capable leaders ensures you will never lead alone and will drive both your business' and your employees' success."
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