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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

Practicing Belonging:  Be curious.  Care enough to find out what your lawyers want to be, and help them get there.

Coffee with Diana Kander
May 29, 2024

I brought a carryout Roasterie coffee when I recently met with Diana Kander.  Diana asked for no coffee, perhaps because her laser-focused energy could power half a continent without caffeine.  Diana is a Millennial, and she and husband Jason are busy raising their two young children.  And in case you didn’t already know, Diana is a New York Times bestselling author, business development consultant, and corporate keynote speaker in high demand across the country.

Diana was born in the port city of Odessa, Russia (now in Russian-besieged Ukraine). Times were rough for Jews in Russia – Diana was required to have “Jewish” on her identification papers, and her parents faced discrimination and oppression.  At age eight, Diana left Russia with her parents and grandmother and emigrated to the United States.  The first few weeks in New York City welfare housing were also rough – it was a coin flip whether the cockroaches or rats had the upper hand.  And so, Diana’s parents decided to move their family to the Midwest, joining other Jewish Russian émigrés in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.

Fluent in Russian, Diana spoke no English when she began third grade.  A semester-long ESL course (plus watching American TV cartoons) soon solved that early challenge.  And at age nine, Diana decided she wanted to be a lawyer, because “I was fascinated by a country where laws meant something.” 

Diana excelled in school, and she joined her high school debate team.  Through that she first met her future husband, who debated for a rival high school’s team, and the two eventually competed against each other in Forensics at a national qualifier tournament.  College at UMKC was next for Diana, followed by law school at Georgetown.   

By then Diana’s career goal had shifted, driven by her entrepreneurial fascination with business.  She saw herself ending up in a corporate boardroom, and she concluded her path would be to become a successful law firm partner, then a corporate General Counsel, and ultimately use that gravitas and experience to run the business.

During law school Diana was a summer associate at three different large law firms, and after graduation she accepted one of the firms’ offer to become an associate lawyer.  These were formative experiences for Diana, though perhaps not in the way her law firm intended. She put in crazy-long working hours as a new associate, and she also developed significant new business for her firm, so much so that at her first year review meeting she was offered a large bonus and accelerated career advancement.  Instead, Diana had already decided to resign from her firm and pursue entrepreneurial business ventures on her own.  And she did so, with a string of start-up successes.

Practicing Belonging:

Diana recognizes that her law firm experiences were from many years ago, and that firms have no doubt progressed since then.  Regardless, she recalls a “rude awakening” in the transition from law school summer associate (interacting with many partners and having flexible hour expectations) to new associate lawyer (doing solitary work with high, inflexible productivity expectations).  The billable hour requirements were a breeze for Diana – her relentless work ethic left those in the dust.  Yet she recalls feeling isolated at work, and that “no one cared about me as a human being.”  Diana explained that what was missing was the law firm and its partners expressing interest in what Diana wanted to do in law practice and listening to what she could and would build as her career.  The message she received was “don’t worry about all that – just get your work done.”

Diana’s core professional passion was for clients’ businesses and for how to develop the Firm’s business with the clients.  To her, it made no sense for new associates to be sequestered from business development, especially since down the line such skills would be crucial to becoming a law firm partner.  As she puts it:

Business development is a long-term game.  New lawyers need to develop those skills over many years to be ready for partnership.  Firms should invest in their associates’ early development of these skills, to show your people that you value them.

As I listened to Diana, I knew that she was never destined to have been an “average” new lawyer (whatever that means), especially with her uncommon, determined drive to dive headfirst into business development.  What I heard was her frustration, felt many years ago, in being treated like that average new lawyer.  More specifically, it was the frustration that results from a law firm assuming that all new associates are basically the same, instead of treating new lawyers as individuals, with unique talents, lived experiences, and aspirations.  It sounds like Diana’s law firm decided to do just that by the time of her annual performance review.  But for Diana, by then it was too late, as other opportunities had called to her.  

Lest this come off as 20/20 hindsight criticism by me of Diana’s old law firm, I must confess that I did the same thing by making assumptions about her interview for this blog. 

I went into our meeting looking for Diana’s insights on how it feels when events outside of one’s control thrust one’s identity into the spotlight, or what may feel like the bullseye – in Diana’s case, being from Odessa in light of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, or being Jewish in the midst of Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack, the Gaza war, campus protests in the U.S., and resurgent antisemitism.  I decided that this would be a great angle for this post, and I was expecting to hear Diana’s thoughts on what law firms and partners should say or do to support people who find themselves put into that spot.

Diana was having none of this.  She told me she simply does not view her life through that lens:

You have a choice when you wake up every day.  I identify first as a human, and I choose to approach life each day from a place of curiosity, which helps me understand and evolve.

I stubbornly looped around to my question, rephrasing it a couple times, with the same result.  And it wasn’t until later that I realized I was the problem here.  Instead of having the humility and curiosity to simply ask what Diana thinks, and to listen to who she is, I was making assumptions.

We’ve surely all heard that old saying about what “assume” makes of you and me.  And with diversity, it’s even worse – since our assumptions are shaped by our own experiences, they can be even farther off the mark when we apply them to folks with lived experiences quite different than our own.

I’ve learned so much from Diana over the years, and this time was no exception.  Law firms should avoid making assumptions about their lawyers.  Assumptions close doors, while humility and curiosity open them.  So, resolve to be curious. Firms should care enough to ask and listen to who their lawyers are, and what they can and want to be, and then help them get there.