Westchester Law Firms Embrace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Throughout Westchester County, local law firms place greater priority on supporting DEI endeavors and initiatives in the workplace.

The New York State Bar Association has made it clear that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within law firms needs to be real. Lip service and tokenism are no longer enough.

“The DEI Committee at the New York State Bar Association has been active under different names for 30 years. At first it focused on diversity, but it needs to have the components of equity and inclusion,” says Mirna Santiago, executive committee member and diversity member at large for the association. “We created a diversity plan, which functions as a strategic plan for increasing diversity in bar membership and leadership over the next 10 to 20 years. Demographics have changed, and as they’ve changed, people want to see that change reflected in the people who are doing their work.”

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The plan involves making changes in a profession that was a quintessential old boys’ club.

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In Westchester, several firms have been on the cutting edge and have embraced the principles of DEI, leading to changes in how things are done, how things are thought about, and who sits at the table during decision-making.

Cuddy & Feder dei
Headshot by Michael N. Meyer, Courtesy of Cuddy & Feder

“We circulated a survey on unconscious bias, so staff could get in touch with themselves in regard to their beliefs. People can sometimes not be aware of stereotypes and biases.”
–Anthony Gioffre, Managing Partner at Cuddy & Feder

“We formally began to start our DEI initiative around 2018, but we had been organically working on it for years. We circulated a survey on unconscious bias, so staff could get in touch with themselves in regard to their beliefs,” Anthony Gioffre, managing partner at Cuddy & Feder in White Plains, says. “People can sometimes not be aware of stereotypes and biases.”

From there, the firm took the results and set out to get consultation and training. They turned to the late scholar Lawrence Otis Graham, the firm’s real estate attorney, who was also an acclaimed author and consultant on DEI issues, to lead the training.

“Lawrence’s training was absolutely fabulous, and it was based on his experience, background, and writings. He led us through the exercise of getting in touch with our own thoughts, biases, and stereotypes,” Gioffre says.

Understanding unconscious bias is the jumping-off point for firms initiating a DEI program, but it is just that, a starting point. To make it work takes an investment in human resources and the buy-in commitment from everyone in the organization. Without that investment and commitment, any program will fall short.

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DEI holiday toy drive
Cuddy & Feder employees participate in the Westchester Jewish Community Services holiday toy drive. Courtesy of Cuddy & Feder.

“It is very important that we create and foster an environment where all of our employees feel accepted, where they feel they belong, and where they feel they can work and offer ideas,” says Tanika Natal, director of human resources and administration at the firm. “It is very important for us to maintain open communication and transparency, to really build on our initiatives and to create an inclusive environment.”

DEI discussion often centers around the “D” in the initialism, but diversity is only one leg of the three-legged stool. Today, equity and inclusion are just as important in creating the right work atmosphere. Both principles ensure that everyone has a seat at the table, even if it means getting a bigger table. In the past, most decisions were made behind closed doors and only at partner meetings.

“It is important to note that our diversity committee is inclusive of partners, associates, employees, and support staff because we wanted viewpoints from every facet of the firm. We have regular meetings and emails on DEI topics, and it opens up the opportunity for dialogue between employees and our leaders,” Natal says.

Rye-based law firm Dorf & Nelson has made an investment in DEI principles in more ways than one. The company’s staffing and policies clearly show a commitment, but it doesn’t stop there. It runs much deeper.

“I believe we are the first and only law firm in the nation to be Gender Fair certified,” firm partner Jonathan Nelson opines. Gender Fair is a company that provides a scoring system for whether an organization is inclusive. “When you talk about diversity, it goes beyond people of color. It is about women, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and others. You have to look past your front door and see the community around you.”

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Cuddy & Feder
Eon S. Nichols, Partner at Cuddy & Feder and Board Member of African American Men of Westchester (AAMW), chaired the MLK Legacy Youth Awards Program. He was joined at the program ceremony by honoree Aston Hartwell of Ardsley High School, Rev. Dr. Priscilla Dixon and AAMW Board Member C. Douglas Dixon. Courtesy of Cuddy & Feder.

Melissa Andrieux is counsel in the commercial litigation department and is the chief diversity officer at the firm. Nelson credits her with much of the DEI programming at Dorf & Nelson. The firm’s DEI programming is comprehensive and starts well before any attorney or staff is onboarded.

“We partner with the local law school and the Business Council of Westchester, where we do roundtables centering on DEI issues. I’m also involved with an organization called ChIPs (Chiefs in Intellectual Property), that advances and supports women in law and policy,” Andrieux says. In October, she was a featured speaker on DEI mentorship at their global summit. The goal of immersing the firm in the community is to attract a wide array of people to the field.

Dorf & Nelson takes a proactive approach in its hiring process. The firm recognizes that it isn’t enough to be accepting of diversity; they need to actively go after the right candidates.

“When we are hiring, we cast a wide net to expand our candidate pool and that means looking beyond the traditional job sites. We also recruit from affinity groups and organizations like the Black Bar Association, and Hispanic and LGBTQ+ groups. We also make it a point to consider more than just their schooling. Instead, we look at past experience and what they can bring to the firm,” Andrieux says.

A recruitment strategy dedicated to finding all kinds of people needs to be focused and not passive. Whether it is pursuing candidates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities or simply looking beyond the Ivy League, finding attorneys from different backgrounds takes a concerted effort.

“We recruit from all available sources, both attorney and staff positions, with an emphasis on maintaining a diverse workforce,” notes William Harrington, former chairperson of the Westchester County Association and a partner at Bleakley Platt & Schmidt in White Plains. “For more than 50 years, our firm reflected the white-male demographic all too common for the time. Since then, we have been successful in diversifying our firm. Susan Galvao, one of six women partners, is the first co-managing partner in the firm’s history. Our rising stars include women and people of color.”

Embracing DEI means not just active recruitment but also developing relationships and mentorships of candidates while thinking outside the box when it comes to pursuing them. Then it becomes a matter of creating a culture that is supportive of DEI principles.

Bleakley Platt & Schmidt
Courtesy of Bleakley Platt & Schmidt

“We recruit from all available sources, both attorney and staff positions, with an emphasis on maintaining a diverse workforce.”
–William Harrington, Partner at Bleakley Platt & Schmidt

“For DEI initiatives and programs to work, you really have to have the commitment and buy-in from leadership. I sit regularly with Jon Nelson and Jon Dorf, and we have very candid conversations about what needs to be done, what works, and what doesn’t. You have to be intentional in what you’re doing and realize that not everything is going to work and not everything has a one-size-fits-all solution,” Andrieux says.

Dorf & Nelson has gone beyond recruitment, policies, and programs. Three years ago, they started a scholarship program at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in White Plains that reflects their commitment to DEI. The scholarship is both a tribute to the past and a commitment to the future.

“My mom, Beth Nelson, ventured off from her teaching career later in life and decided to become a lawyer. I was in middle school when she entered Pace Law School. I remember her helping me with my homework at the dining-room table while she was studying for her courses with her classmates,” Jonathan Nelson says. “It pointed out that it is never too late and forged the way for both my sister and me to become lawyers.”

The firm established a scholarship in Beth Nelson’s name at Pace Law School, specifically targeting women who are entering Pace later in life after having left a first career. The scholarship is a very real action to support women in the field who may face challenges in entering and graduating from law school — all while raising children, paying bills, and facing the very real challenge of being a minority in law school.

“Our first recipient of the scholarship, Venesha White, has graduated from Pace and has been hired at Dorf & Nelson,” Nelson notes.

For White, who began her career at the firm on February 1, the scholarship eliminated common barriers that women are likely to face. Working in her first career as a cancer researcher, she needed to schedule classes around a full workday and raising her family. When a required class that was only offered during the day was impossible to take, White was frustrated that it would delay her graduation by a year and a half.

“I met with the dean to discuss the problem, and she mentioned the scholarship. She said I was perfect for it,” White says. “It was because of this scholarship that I was able to actually take the class that I needed, and I was able to graduate on time. I would not have been able to follow my trajectory as planned if I didn’t have access to the scholarship.”

It is not a secret that law school is also expensive, creating an economic barrier for many, especially women and people of color. Many women who could excel in the field don’t even see it as an option. But money isn’t the only challenge.

“As a mom and a woman of color, the barriers are all around you,” White says. “The needs of your family and your children take precedence in your life, and when you add in the financial realities, law school can seem impossible. I was working in a great career, but it wasn’t like my salary was paying for law school. Like many, I relied on loans and grants. Dorf & Nelson giving back really made a difference.”

Dorf & Nelson dei
Courtesy of Dorf & Nelson

“My mom practiced her whole career in Westchester. We took her message of inspiration as both a way to honor her memory and to inspire women of today like her.”
—Jonathan Nelson, Partner, Dorf & Nelson

The most recent scholarship awardee, Heather Berkowe Wallace, transitioned from a fashion design career in midlife. Her previous career created a fascination with intellectual property rights, and she decided to pursue a career in law. Being a woman of color entering the profession is important to her, and she sees it as a step forward for the profession.

“My mom is African American, and my dad is French. It is a field where we’re in desperate need of representation, both as a female and as a person of color,” she says. “Intellectual property is an old boys’ club, but the legal profession seems to be taking real steps forward. I think to get people to truly understand everyone’s perspective and where they are coming from, there’s no better way than to have everyone represented in an organization. It makes for a very rich firm,” Wallace says.

As you might guess, Jonathan Nelson is very proud of the scholarship for what it represents, who it helps and, of course, who it honors.

“My mom practiced her whole career in Westchester. We took her message of inspiration as both a way to honor her memory and to inspire women of today like her,” Nelson says.

Despite all the positives in the DEI movement and the legitimate cause for optimism, it is important to realize that though progress has been made, there is more work to be done. Yes, diversity has increased, and yes, the legal field is definitely more inclusive, but where does the movement need to go deeper?

“I think we do see some pushback. A lot of white, middle-aged men really do feel they’re being pushed out and marginalized and not appreciated,” Mimi Santiago of the New York State Bar says. “I do diversity training, and I let everyone know at the beginning that I am standing there, just like them, with my own unconscious biases. I do my best to try to interrupt my biases before they effect my interactions. When we talk about inclusion, it is important that everyone is at the table and not just the people of color.”

Pace University dei
Courtesy of Pace University

For years, critics of affirmative-action programs have argued that they create tokenism; namely, that if you can get a representative from each minority group in your organization, your work is done. DEI principles demand going much deeper than tokenism — and they need to be ingrained in the culture.

“We don’t believe in tokenism, whatever that term means. As generally understood, that term is anathema to our culture,” Harrington says. “Everyone at this firm has value and plays an important role in the firm. We are all part of the same team. We share in our success and failure.”

Diving into the pool of candidates creates another issue. As DEI efforts have grown in the legal sector, recruitment of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds has intensified. With minorities making up a far smaller percentage of law school students, there is very much an issue of numbers.

“There is a finite pool of qualified, diverse candidates who are in great demand. We are a 50-person regional law firm. We compete with much larger national firms for the same talent pool. We are often outbid, or subsequently lose hires to those competitors. Yet, it is worth the effort,” admits Harrington.

Wear jeans to work event
Cuddy & Feder hosts a ‘Wear Jeans to Work” event at their White Plains office in recognition of the MLK Day of Service in January. The firm raised money and helped assemble kits with essentials like toothbrushes, toothpaste, gloves, and hats for community members experiencing homelessness or living in shelters. Courtesy of Cuddy & Feder.

In the end, what does it all mean to consumers? Making sure everyone has a place at the table, that everyone is represented, and that everyone feels like they belong may be the right and kind thing to do, but legal matters are seldom kind. Should consumers be concerned?

“When you include people with different insights and experiences, you are going to be able to approach a case, a legal question, or legal problem with more creativity and more innovation. Coming to a solution in this way with people with different life experiences is best for our clients,” Gioffre says. “People want to see law firms as diverse and able to offer different insights. It is absolutely beneficial to a practice.”

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