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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

Practicing Belonging:  Not everyone comes into your law firm as a “Star.”  But Stars can be made, by nurturing talent, providing opportunities, and building confidence.

Coffee with Tessa Jacob
April 10, 2024

Tessa Jacob and I caught up over coffee at Banksia.  Tessa is a law firm partner and a nationally prominent expert on eDiscovery law.  She’s a Gen Xer, of Indian/South Asian heritage. Tessa and her husband have raised two daughters, one headed to medical school and the other in college.  And though this may trigger her innate modesty, Tessa is inspiring.   

Tessa was born in Kerala, on India’s southwestern coast.  When Tessa was five, her mother moved with Tessa and her three siblings to the United States to join Tessa’s physician father, who had previously emigrated here to establish a surgical practice.  After a brief stint on the East Coast, Tessa’s family moved to Eldorado, Kansas.  Tessa recalls an isolated, family-centered childhood there.  While her family was Catholic (Kerala is one of India’s most religiously diverse states, with a mix of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians), there weren’t many people of color in overwhelmingly White Eldorado in the 1980s – certainly no one from India, much less fluent in Malayalam.   

After returning to Kerala for her first year of college, Tessa came back to the U.S., received her undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and her law degree from Washburn University, clerked at the Kansas Court of Appeals, and was then hired as a litigation associate at Blackwell Sanders (now Husch Blackwell).

Tessa realized early on that professional success means different things to different people, and that she would need to define for herself what success was, and how to get there.  To Tessa, success meant to become expert in an area of law practice, mastering the details so that she would become a sought-after resource within the Firm and to clients.   And so, when an opportunity presented itself in the mid-2000s to figure out how to practice litigation eDiscovery (at the birth of this discipline, when no one really knew what was going on in the collision of new rules and technology), she jumped at the chance.

Fast forward to now: Tessa is Managing Director of the Firm’s eDiscovery Solutions team, and she frequently represents clients as lead eDiscovery lawyer in class action lawsuits and SEC and DOJ investigations.  She also serves on the Steering Committee of The Sedona Conference Working Group 1, Electronic Document Retention and Production (if you’re not familiar, that’s a very big deal).  I’ll add that lots of folks talk a good game on eDiscovery, but after decades of determined work in the trenches developing mastery, Tessa knows how to actually get eDiscovery done, and done right.

But that’s not all that is inspiring about Tessa.

Practicing Belonging:

As a new lawyer, Tessa remembers times when she felt invisible in the office.  She would see other new associates, usually White and male, headed out to lunch with partners, but partners seldom included her.  As is often the case with persons of a different race, ethnicity, or gender, Tessa was left wondering what was it about her that caused her to be left out? 

And once, early on, Tessa was pulled aside by Partner A, who told her Partner B had said he was not happy with Tessa’s work on a brief.  Partner A encouraged Tessa to go talk with Partner B, find out what was wrong, and ask for another chance, which she did.  But Tessa was left wondering why didn’t Partner B simply tell her directly, so that she could improve the brief?  And what if Partner A hadn’t cared enough to tell her about this situation?

These and similar experiences over time left Tessa determined to help associates be successful.  She was convinced that law firms could do a better job at this, smoothing the path to success, which benefits both the individuals and the Firm.  According to Tessa:

Not everyone comes into the Firm as a “Star.”  But Stars can be made, by nurturing their talent, providing them guidance and opportunities, and building their confidence.

Tessa felt particularly so for lawyers different in race, ethnicity, or gender, who did not have the same lived experiences or the same access as their White male counterparts to informal mentoring and sponsorship from partners.  And often, as at any large law firm, such disparities would end up with high-potential associates becoming derailed, or leaving the Firm.  That’s why for years Tessa devoted her own time to getting to know such associates, listening to them, and counselling them in how to approach difficulties and opportunities.  Note that Tessa’s Firm, like other law firms, for decades had formal associate mentoring programs in place, but this was no guarantee that lawyers different in race, gender, or other facets of diversity were effectively engaged.

In early 2020, what Tessa had been informally doing for years crystalized into Husch Blackwell’s Diversity Liaison Program, officially implemented and fully supported by the Firm.  Here are some key features of the Liaison Program:

  • The Program is open to associates of diverse race, ethnicity, and gender, including LGBTQ+ associates, across the Firm’s many offices.
  • The Program is voluntary – associates must choose to participate.
  • Liaison Partners have race/ethnic/gender identities that echo those of participating associates, to build trust.
  • Liaison Partners meet (virtually) with each individual participating associate, each month, to talk with and listen to them about what is on their mind, and how they are progressing.
  • Liaison Partners have access to the participating associates’ performance reviews and can weigh in on promotion and compensation decisions.
  • Liaisons also meet with practice group leaders and the Firm’s industry group leaders on a regular basis to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the participating associates’ progress.
  • Town Hall virtual meetings are held each quarter, often featuring Firm leader Q&As.

When the Liaison Program began, Tessa and just one other Liaison covered the waterfront – imagine 50 participating associates, each with a 30 minute virtual meeting, every month.  Now, with 120 participating associates, the Firm has six Liaison Partners (two of them equity partners), each spending 200 to 400 hours every year on this effort, and with the Firm recognizing and compensating Liaison Partners for their commitment.

Tessa says the Diversity Liaison Program is different from, and complementary to, the Firm’s general mentoring programs and its broad range of DEI initiatives.  The Liaison Program is laser-focused on the career paths of race/ethnic/gender-diverse associates.  While fostering development and retention of high-potential associates is important, the Program also helps ensure that everyone gets a fair shot.

The Liaison Program also has elements of both mentoring and sponsoring.  Each is important, and Tessa explains the difference:

Mentoring is the guidance and feedback you provide to a person in the room.  Sponsoring is the advocacy you provide when that person is not in the room.

It strikes me that this all seems perfectly scalable, from firms of 10 lawyers to those of 1,000.  The logistics of course become more involved at large scale (hundreds of associates, schedules of virtual meetings, retreats, integration with associate formal review and compensation/advancement processes, and so forth).  But at its core, the Liaison Program centers on:

  • trust established in on-to-one meetings between an associate and a partner of similar lived experiences;
  • honest, direct feedback on performance and career path, with shared understanding of perspectives and goals; and
  • a sponsoring voice at the table when the Firm makes decisions affecting the associate.

Tessa added that her Firm has come a long way since she joined it nearly thirty years ago, and that Firm leadership “gets it.”  To Tessa, leaders set the tone of Firm culture, and how a leader treats you becomes how you feel about your firm.

As for what fuels her determination in this effort, Tessa attributes her success to the many people that have mentored her along the way, and she now feels the responsibility to help others.  For practicing Belonging, my takeaway from Tessa is that to help all their talented lawyers thrive, law firms should focus first on truly getting to know them.