Like the city it serves, Davis Wright Tremaine’s Los Angeles office is a place where diverse individuals thrive. Even by the standards of L.A.’s legal community, our team is remarkably diverse. Over two-thirds of our L.A. attorneys are either female, ethnic minority, and/or openly LGBT.
Ask the team in L.A. how this came to be, and you’ll hear a diversity of reasons: leaders who have gone out of their way to reach out; a uniquely supportive atmosphere; and simply hiring the best lawyers available, with a focus on people who will fit with such an inclusive group.
“We try to create an environment that fosters advancement and excellence for everyone,” says the L.A. office partner-incharge, Mary ‘Missy’ Haas. “That not only furthers diversity, it results in even better service to our clients.”
“I think that companies generally, including our clients, are coming to understand the advantage and power of having different perspectives at play,” says partner Emilio Gonzalez. This is particularly true in Gonzalez’s field—employment counseling and defense—where lawyers advising clients, and representing them in the courtroom, have to be sensitive to the country’s highly varied workforce and bring a broad cultural understanding and awareness.
It’s well-known in the legal profession that hiring tends to be the easy part of the diversity and inclusion mission. Retention and promotion are the greater challenge. Here, too, DWT’s L.A. office has excelled.
Gonzalez has been with the firm since he joined as an associate in 2001. “There’s a momentum that’s created when you have diversity in the partnership ranks,” he says. “It has an impact on diverse associates when they see someone like myself being successful. They say, ‘I can do it too.’ A challenge for diverse associates can be, ‘Are people looking out for me and giving me access to the tools and information I need to succeed?’”
“We stay in close touch with our associates, make sure they’re developing, joining outside organizations, gaining client exposure,” says Camilo Echavarria, also in the employment group, who rose to partner at DWT in 2010. “Our practice group chair, John LeCrone, sets that tone. Our associates’ views matter. When we interview lateral candidates, our associates are part of that process. And if they don’t think that person is a good fit for our culture, we don’t hire.”
“Missy [Haas] seems to be invested in the individual attorney,” observes Karen Henry, a senior associate in our media and First Amendment practice, who is African-American. “I’ve received tremendous support, but I’m not sure it’s part of a concerted diversity effort. I’ve been fortunate enough to be connected with programs and coaches to develop the skills I need [see related story, p. 12]—in part, because I’m not ashamed to say what I don’t know. If you vocalize what you need, you get help. The firm is very good at that in my experience.”
The L.A. office maintained its strong diversity commitment even during the recent economic downturn, as many other firms were making cutbacks. The office has grown over the last five years, from 47 lawyers to 52. Here are the stories of some of them:
Born in New York, Emilio Gonzalez spent his earliest years in Bolivia. He returned to this country with his mother at the age of 6, where he joined an L.A. kindergarten, not knowing a word of English. After five years of public school, Gonzalez was able to attend parochial school, and an all-boys Catholic high school, thanks to his mother’s hard work to afford the tuition. After doing well on standardized tests, Gonzalez found himself admitted to Columbia University, where his world opened up.
“For me,” he says, “the road out of a cycle of poverty was getting into and completing my four years at Columbia.” The degree not only provided him a sense of being connected to, and having earned his way into, a rich Western intellectual history that he might otherwise not have known, it also provided him with a powerful credential among future employers and clients. “Rightly or not, it makes a difference in what things are checked off in people’s minds when they think of me,” he says.
Having personally felt “the transformative power of education,” Gonzalez devoted his first years out of college to teaching. He was part of the “charter
corps” of 500 in the inaugural Teach for America program in 1990, working at a mostly low-income and immigrant elementary school in Central L.A. until 1995, at which point he headed to law school.
Today, Gonzalez continues to pursue his passion for education by serving on the board of a charter school in East L.A. The school is in its fourth year of operation and is “knocking it out of the park in API scores,” Gonzalez says, referring to the California Department of Education’s Academic Performance Index.
Gonzalez came to Davis Wright after three somewhat unsatisfying years in commercial litigation at a Big Law firm in San Francisco. “I didn’t feel I was learning enough or getting enough autonomy,” he says. “I thought maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a go-getter associate; maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the type of law, maybe it’s the firm. It turned out to be all three.”
At DWT, he says, “my contribution was taken more seriously, and as a result my commitment increased.” A turning point came when Gonzalez undertook pro bono representation of a convicted felon, who claimed he’d been beaten, punched, and choked by several deputies during confrontations in the Los Angeles County Jail. Five years after taking the case, Gonzalez served as first chair at the client’s jury trial, and won a unanimous verdict. “The ability to take ownership—that
really changed the game for me,” says Gonzalez. “Instead of doing enough to complete the task, I was doing what was necessary to win.”
In his billable work, Gonzalez was also getting more responsibility. The firm had brought in LeCrone to grow its California employment practice, and the new partner took Gonzalez under his wing. “He was confident enough in me to introduce me to his clients, have me work with them, and help me learn how he cultivates business,” says Gonzalez. “I was able to flex muscles by training with him, and ultimately become a business generator—the key to making partner.”
John LeCrone, who graduated law school in 1984 and is openly gay, says that, coming up in the profession in his early years, he had often felt different and not included, so he understood that feeling. He had made it a priority to be inclusive with partners and associates alike, and he has always tried to insure that associates are a visible, vocal part of the client relations team.
“I like hearing from our associates about what they think we should be doing,” says LeCrone. “You will often get very valuable suggestions.”
LeCrone has since built a highly diverse employment team of 11 in L.A. One of the firm’s largest health care clients, which surveys its outside counsel on diversity every year, reports that the DWT employment team is its secondmost diverse in California, just behind that of a small, minority-owned firm.
“Every one of the partners in this office is very positive about diverse opportunities,” says LeCrone. “That has resulted in a successful process overall.” This past year, he was the recipient of the firm’s H. Stewart Tremaine Award, recognizing a partner who exemplifies the role of being a team player within the firm.
For Karen Henry, DWT’s diversity-awareness also helped provide a pathway to a successful career. In 2003, she was in her fifth and final year attending law school at night, while working full-time as a courtroom clerk by day, when she heard about a job fair being put on by the Western Region of the National Black Law Students Association. Her own school had not been invited to the fair, but she decided to show up nonetheless. “I pulled together my résumé and some things I had written and tried to talk to the interviewers between their scheduled
appointments,” she recalls.
One of those interviewers at the fair was Alonzo Wickers IV, an openly gay partner from DWT’s media team. Henry approached him between his other scheduled interviews, and impressed him so much during a five-minute conversation that he invited her for a callback interview and to dinner with a colleague. “Then one night Al called and offered me a job,” Henry says. She had offers as well from the L.A. District Attorney’s office, but accepted. “I came to DWT not because I wanted to do media law,” she says. “I didn’t know the firm and I didn’t even know that was an area of practice. I came here because everybody was so nice to me and it seemed like a really great place to be.”
Henry’s background by no means suggested a future on one of the country’s most renowned media law teams. Most of her formative years were spent in rough L.A. neighborhoods such as Compton. “It was like going to school in a war zone,” she recalls. “There were fights and weapons. We lost a lot of friends, people going to jail or being killed. It was not an ideal learning environment.”
Nevertheless, Henry managed to go on to college, attending a small Catholic university near San Francisco. With a degree in Legal Studies, she returned to L.A., where she succeeded in getting a job as a municipal courtroom clerk. “I thought it was super interesting,” says Henry. “You’re literally at the judge’s right hand, making sure the wheels of justice spin.”
But while Henry was savoring her new life, her boss had other ideas. Recognizing potential in her bright, young clerk, Judge Teresa Sanchez-Gordon asked her: “Why aren’t you furthering your education and continuing to move forward?” She suggested Henry attend law school. “I was a twenty-something with a super job, a salary, vacation, a car, and clothes. I was having a great time,” she says. “I wondered: ‘Why would I want to go back to school?’”
But soon enough, Henry showed up in the judge’s chambers with an application. She continued working for, and receiving guidance
from, Judge Sanchez-Gordon through law school. “I’m so lucky that our paths crossed,” says Henry of the judge, who is now on the bench at L.A. Superior Court. “She was a tremendous unofficial mentor to me—for no reason, other than that she’s just that kind of person.”
Henry is now returning the favor in multiple ways—such as participation in a mentoring program at Dorsey High, a school in South Central L.A. During visits to the school, “we just talk about ourselves and how we became lawyers,” says Henry of the program, which is sponsored by the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles. “We’re all products of public school systems. We’re there to show these students that there are avenues available to them, and that their current circumstances don’t have to define their future. We show them, ‘Someone in circumstances very similar to you has made this change, and there’s no reason you can’t set and reach your goals.’”
Henry has received many honors for her public service and pro bono work over the years. Her billable work, too, lets her “feel like a champion of justice,” she says. “You’re seeking access to court proceedings and public records, making sure media entities are able to provide the public with information they should know about. I got into media just because that was Al’s practice area. It’s just worked out that I’ve been trained by some of the country’s top First Amendment lawyers.”
Diversity of backgroun can take many forms, of course. Kristen Blanchette, a third-year associate on the health care team at DWT, was raised in a small New Hampshire mill town in a family where college, much less law school, was not part of the picture. Her great-grandfather immigrated to Berlin, N.H., from Montreal, and the auto body shop he founded, Blanchette’s Garage, lasted three generations. Her father has worked as a logger and general jack-of-all trades. The closure of the mill ten years ago led him to pick up construction work. Blanchette’s mother has worked a variety of odd jobs. “That’s part of being in a town like that,” says Blanchette. “You have to adjust and change.”
Blanchette’s academic promise and ambition were evident early. She spent a summer at the famed prep school St. Paul’s, participating in its college-level Advanced Studies Program, which draws public and parochial high school juniors from around the state. “I grew up with all white Catholic kids,” says Blanchette. “The experience
opened my eyes a little bit to the diversity that exists in New Hampshire.”
Blanchette went on to win admission to Dartmouth College. “It was my dad who encouraged me,” says Blanchette. “He had spent some time in the Dartmouth Grant,” a rugged area owned by the college that is reserved for forestry and recreation. “He was talking to the guy controlling the gate and decided I should apply!” An anonymous donor funded Blanchette’s education. “I can’t put into words how much I changed in four years,” she says.
From there, Blanchette entered the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where she spent her last two years in an honors program—unique in the country—that gives students admission to the state bar at the end, without further exam.
“It’s a small legal community,” says Blanchette. “This program provided a way to make contacts and get greater opportunities.” She spent two years working at a New Hampshire firm doing health care law. Through a Dartmouth alumni contact, she later connected with the health care practice at DWT, and came for an interview—her first time visiting Los Angeles.
She has since been working with various healthcare partners in the Los Angeles office, including two senior woman partners, Kathy Drummy and Terri Keville. With Drummy and Keville, Blanchette has worked on medical staff and bylaws issues, Medicare and Medi-Cal administrative appeals, and general regulatory and compliance matters. Recently, she’s also been assisting clinical labs under the tutelage of a new partner in Seattle, David Gee. “He’s really taken me under his wing,”
says Blanchette. “I truly feel like my department wants me to succeed.”
Blanchette has always shown a serious commitment to public service, and in the year since she arrived at DWT, she has joined the firm’s Pro Bono Committee as well as well as the Associate Leadership Board of Public Counsel. Among her clients is the Achievable Foundation, which assists low-income individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. The Foundation recently opened a medical clinic in Culver City, and Blanchette used her experience to advise the clinic on regulatory compliance and create an employee handbook.
Public service has also been a big driver this past year for senior associate Michelle Bussarakum, who, together with some other young lawyers, recently founded the Thai American Bar Association (TABA)—the first organization to support Thai and Thai-American legal professionals in the United States. “Before this, I literally didn’t know any other Thai lawyers, except my younger sister,” says Bussarakum. “It seemed strange, since there are so many Western companies doing business in Bangkok, and a lot of American law offices there. We now have over 50 TABA members—nationwide, but based mostly in Southern California. It’s been great to find and support each other.”
While professional networking is a benefit, the organization has also wasted no time in finding ways to help the large Thai community that exists in L.A., home to the nation’s only Thai Town. In November, TABA joined with the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles to put together a law clinic at a low-income senior
housing facility. “Living by yourself, and needing to protect yourself, as an elder are foreign ideas in Thai culture, so these people are particularly vulnerable,” says Bussarakum. “We tried to educate them about wills and powers of attorney. We had translators on hand. It was fun and challenging.”
TABA is looking to do more of this kind of work, Bussarakum says. “There are many issues that the Thai community needs help with. Immigration is always a hot topic and we are waiting for the new reforms to pass so that we can educate the community. We also have some amazing Thai restaurants here, but a lot of them have run
into trouble with wage and hour laws—both on the employer and employee side. There can be cultural issues, as well as language barriers. We’re hoping to establish ourselves in the community as a resource so we can reach out to them and other small businesses. We’d like to hold workshops and clinics. We want to give the law legitimacy, let people know it’s not something to be afraid of, that we can help.”
Bussarakum herself grew up in the community to immigrant parents. “We had no lawyers in the family,” says Bussarakum. “But my father, a physician, was very struck by how litigious America is—the law comes into play whether you’re buying a house or getting medical care. He serves the Thai community here, most of whom are low-income and uneducated, and they can get taken advantage of. He was struck by how helpful it would be to know something about the law, and he encouraged me to enter the field. It didn’t hurt that I had interests, like reading and writing, that lent themselves to the profession.”
After a few years at a Big Law firm in San Francisco, Bussarakum joined DWT’s L.A. employment group in 2011, and says it was just what she was looking for. “I walked in the door and they said, ‘Here are 12 cases you are going to run.’ It’s a really collaborative and collegial group. They pay attention to personality fit, as well as substantive skill. The diversity we have is not accidental.”