Diversity is in our DNA at Jayaram. So when NAMWOLF, the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, hosted their annual meeting of the minds in October, we jumped at the chance to support them. Michelle Butler caught up with their fearless leader and CEO, Leslie Davis, to hear more about how she came into the position, what drives her, and what’s next for the storied organization.
MICHELLE: I feel like I’m talking to a celebrity because I was at the NAMWOLF annual conference and got to see you firsthand in action! It’s nice to be able to meet you one-on-one.
LESLIE: Oh, that’s so nice! It was a great conference. Glad you were able to be there. It was really successful.
MICHELLE: Yes, it was my first time attending, but I thought it was amazing.
LESLIE: It was my first, in-person annual meeting, too. I started my position during the pandemic, and so, this was the first annual meeting that I was able to be a part of in person!
MICHELLE: That’s great! Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I’d like to start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what your career trajectory has looked like?
LESLIE: I’m from Chicago originally. I was a Navy brat, my formative years were spent in California. But for the majority of my life, I have lived in Chicago. My family is from Chicago, so Chicago is always home. I went to the University of Iowa for undergraduate school and I’m a three-time Hawkeye, all of my degrees are from Iowa. I have my B.A., Master’s degree and law degree from Iowa. I spent a lot of time there and met my husband there.
When I left law school, I first started at Court TV in New York, during the OJ Simpson trial. It was a great time to be in television. It was especially a great time to be at Court TV. I did that for a couple of years and was doing legal analysis and some on-air spots, but not trying cases, not practicing law in the way that I planned to. I was already licensed in Illinois, and I didn’t want to take the New York bar so I decided to go back to Chicago. I started at a small minority-owned firm and then spent 13 years at a large law firm. I have lots of friends there to this day. I was also at two other firms before coming to NAMWOLF. I’m really glad to be in this role. It’s very different from any of the things I’ve done before, but it’s incredibly rewarding. I have been fighting for women and minorities my whole career and now I have a bigger, broader platform to help make a change.
MICHELLE: Wonderful! Can you tell us a little bit about NAMWOLF and its larger mission and vision?
LESLIE: NAMWOLF’s mission is to increase the utilization of minority and women-owned law firms. By increasing that utilization, the goal is also to increase the diversity of our profession. It’s all about promoting our minority and women-owned law firms and helping them get the work they need and deserve. All the work that we do as an organization—myself and the rest of the team at NAMWOLF—is really designed to ensure that the NAMWOLF firms are introduced to the corporations, governmental entities, and educational institutions that are utilizing outside law firms, and who need to have diverse teams. That is what we are doing all day, every day. NAMWOLF is the gold standard for how to ensure that you are utilizing minority and women-owned law firms that are practicing at the top of their fields and who provide great client services.
MICHELLE: What are your specific thoughts as to why an organization like NAMWOLF is so important for a greater legal community?
LESLIE: It is so critical. If you look at the statistics, it’s very clear that women and minority attorneys are not getting the same opportunities that majority attorneys enjoy, and it’s been that way since I was a baby lawyer. There is a lot of time spent talking about what the statistics are and not enough time spent trying to move the needle to make a real change.
NAMWOLF helps to eradicate some of the excuses and barriers to engagement. It is undeniable that our 211 law firms in 43 states have a ton of talented lawyers who practice in almost every practice area. To say that you can’t find diverse talent just means that you’re not looking, because NAMWOLF is here. We’ve been here for over 20 years. We’re now 21 years old. Having diverse teams is not an option; it’s an imperative. NAMWOLF is here to help make that process easier.
MICHELLE: How did you yourself find NAMWOLF?
LESLIE: I knew about NAMWOLF for some time and there were NAMWOLF lawyers who I knew and respected. I had the luxury of practicing all over the country, and there were NAMWOLF firms all over the country, and I had the pleasure of meeting people from many of those firms. When I was at a majority firm, we had the pleasure of partnering with a NAMWOLF firm to do some work for a corporation. That solidified even more for me how wonderful I thought NAMWOLF firms were and spoke to the great work the organization was doing. That partnership, with that firm, allowed me the opportunity to do work that I otherwise would not have had a chance to do and kept NAMWOLF on my radar.
MICHELLE: That’s a really great story to hear. How did you get on the path towards being more involved in NAMWOLF then?
LESLIE: There were a few people who called me and said ‘Hey, the current CEO is retiring, and we think you would be great for this role,’ and encouraged me to throw my hat into the ring for the CEO position. Luckily for me, they chose me! The transition from private practice to NAMWOLF has been very smooth. The truth of the matter is that I was really doing two jobs anyway, as a Black woman partner. I was always marketing myself and my firm. I always had to be networking and connecting for myself and the firm. Now I am doing that same job, but it’s not for myself or for a single firm; it’s for the 211 fabulous NAMWOLF firms I get to advocate for every day.
MICHELLE: One thing that I’ve seen from my own years of practicing is that women and people of color often get tapped informally at firms and companies to lead DE&I efforts anyway. You might as well move into a role where you get to have some control over those efforts as a thought leader.
LESLIE: Exactly. It is rewarding in a different way.
MICHELLE: Are there any key initiatives that NAMWOLF is working on right now that you’re particularly passionate about?
LESLIE: Oh, there are so many. Coming out of the pandemic, part of what we wanted to do was ensure that we were able to come back with our meetings and make sure we solidified those relationships in person. Not being able to be in person was hard. Part of what we do is to make those connections, and it was a lot more challenging to continue to make those during the pandemic.
We focused a lot of energy on getting people back to meetings, getting them back connecting in meaningful ways. I think we’ve done a great job post-pandemic, because we’ve now had two great meetings with the last annual meeting hosting over 800 attendees. Some real connections were being made—connections that are more meaningful and memorable in-person. We are now moving to try and increase some of the connections we have with other likeminded organizations and partner with them to increase the utilization of minority and women-owned law firms. We also have our pipeline scholarship program, which provides financial support to students who contribute to the diversity of their law school student body as they pursue their legal career, and we’re trying to expand those relationships with the recipients. At our annual meeting this year, we also started a coaching roundtable for our emerging lawyers with the goal of helping our future leaders continue to develop.
There’s no shortage of things that we’re working on all the time with the goal of connecting our firms to top clients. As things come up, and as ideas come forward, we try to roll them out in real, tangible ways and see what works. We will continue to be innovative because we recognize that there are many ways to reach the goal.
MICHELLE: I understand your point on the connection piece. One thing I was surprised to learn is that a lot of work actually comes from other NAMWOLF firms who say, ‘Hey, we don’t do this kind of work, but I remember you from the conferences and we think you’d be great. Can we refer you?’
LESLIE: That’s a real benefit to NAMWOLF. I was just talking about that today with someone. When I was in Big Law, the model was that there must be someone who does ‘X’. Even if you don’t do that, there must be someone that does so you never let business walk out the door. That is not the NAMWOLF model. Many of the NAMWOLF firms are smaller in size, but they have deep expertise in certain areas. They don’t try to do everything. It’s very easy for them to say, ‘Hey, we do XYZ but if you need ABC, let me introduceyou to another NAMWOLF firm who is skilled in that area. There is no competition—only connection. That’s a win-win for everybody. That’s a win for the client because they’re getting deep expertise from two firms, or more. When you really focus on what you do well, as NAMWOLF firms do, then you can knock it out of the park for clients.
MICHELLE: NAMWOLF is really a giant network of specialists who can handle all of a potential client’s needs.
MICHELLE: You mentioned a bit about how you really enjoy the role you serve as a connector. Is that what you would say is the most rewarding part of your work for the organization?
LESLIE: That is rewarding. Another rewarding thing is when you see a corporation, or whoever is seeking legal suppliers, finally get it. When they recognize that all of the stereotypes they had are wrong, or the barriers to working with new firms are removed, they step back and say ‘I was wrong, I really should’ve been doing this sooner.’ That is really rewarding.
I know that people are not motivated by doing what’s right per se. If that were the case, then everybody would be the best versions of themselves. You want to lose a few pounds, but you eat a donut in the morning. You’re motivated by comfort. You’re motivated by what you’ve done in the past, what feels good to you, what feels right to you. That’s what you’re motivated by. The right thing is not always a motivator. But you can’t deny the math. When you add to your team’s diverse perspectives, you exponentially increase the number of possible solutions that might work for your client. The MATH is undeniable.
MICHELLE: When people think of imperatives for DE&I efforts, they typically think in terms of moral imperatives. I like the argument that there is another type of imperative that we should really be paying attention to as well.
LESLIE: People have different morals but mathematical facts are harder to argue with.
MICHELLE: I asked about your favorite part of working for NAMWOLF so now, I have to ask you, what’s the most challenging part of your work?
LESLIE: The most challenging part is hearing the excuses. The older I get the less tolerant I am for hearing the same excuses for why people don’t want to have more diverse teams. The list is nearly always the same.
The one I least like, ‘Well, we do care about diversity. That’s why we look to have our firms, our large law firms, increase their diversity.’ Don’t get me wrong—that’s great. That’s needed too. But it’s only found in the diversity space where you are doing something for the last twenty plus years that does not work, and then make the decision to continue to move in that same direction. If you look at the abysmal numbers, businesses have been doing the same things for 20, 30, 40 years. If there was any other business practice that had not worked in 40 years, nobody would still be touting that practice. It is insulting. I’m gob-smacked every time somebody says that, because I know that’s just code for ‘I really don’t care. And I really don’t want to make a change. I am motivated by my own comfort.’
People don’t necessarily take kindly when I say that, but you tell me another practice that people have been doing for decades and decades that has not worked that people still say, “We think this will work!’ I don’t know one. There’s more than enough work to go around. The pie is big. I don’t operate from a place of lack. That’s not who I am. That’s not who I think that any of us should be. So, when you’re looking at the whole pie there is more than enough to help the minority and women lawyers in majority firms, help the diverse and women-owned law firms in NAMWOLF, and even beyond. You don’t even have to stop there. There’s more than enough.
MICHELLE: Right, and there needs to be movement on all fronts so that there is opportunity for women and people of color to move into different spaces.
LESLIE: Absolutely. So that’s the part I least like; having to hear the excuses and then diplomatically dispel those myths.
MICHELLE: What do you think the legal field can do to help better promote DE&I efforts and to support minority and women attorneys?
LESLIE: I think we need to be having these conversations more. I mean the real transparent conversations. Not the ones where you just scratch the surface because we’ve had enough of those. Real conversations where we move to strategically doing things that we know can work. I know that business development is building relationships. I’m not naïve enough to believe that you can just introduce people and say work together and then everything goes swimmingly. That’s not how relationships are built. That means that it’s got to be on the part of all parties to break down some of the barriers to building those relationships. Sometimes that means having candid conversations. Some of the best relationships I’ve had in professional settings have been with folks who didn’t look like myself, but who had the desire and the courage to have the conversation—the courageous conversations. We must engage in courageous conversations in order for the relationships to be built on trust and for everybody to be more comfortable with working with one another.
MICHELLE: One of the key moments that I remember best from the last NAMWOLF conference was a courageous conversation that someone brought up after the discussion regarding NAMWOLFs latest white paper report which indicated that minority-owned law firms were doing worse than the women-owned law firms in the organization. I just remember being so blown away by the fact that someone stood up in front of a huge crowd of people in the organization and said, ‘Hey let’s talk about this.’
LESLIE: I was glad about that. I prefer having those conversations. I took this role because I wanted to have those conversations, and I’ve been having those conversations for years now. I just didn’t have this platform at the time. This is how we actually make progress. I will tell you from that specific conversation, there have been several people who have come to me with some suggestions for ideas on how we can help remove some of those barriers for minority-owned firms. They shouldn’t have to move the barriers themselves. We’re a team. I’m very glad we had that conversation, and that people are being very thoughtful about how to make progress.
MICHELLE: It might be too early to announce, but are there initiatives to address this issue that you’d be willing to talk about?
LESLIE: It’s a little early because they haven’t been fully worked through. But you know it starts with a spark. That’s where we are. There are a few things that people have suggested that I am hoping will really work. I can tell you that one of the things that we are doing is going back to ensure that the task force that was developed to look at these issues comes back again with solutions in mind. The same folks who were strategic in getting that paper done are now getting together to say, ‘Here are some of the ideas we have about what we can do now that the data is out there.’ We knew there were issues but now we have the proof. So, you can see, there’s traction from courageous conversations.
MICHELLE: Amazing. Can you speak a little bit about a few of the takeaways from that white paper?
LESLIE: Sure. For those who don’t know, the white paper report we’re referring to aimed to provide important data about the state of minority-owned firms and the challenges Black firms in particular face in securing business from corporations. From a business perspective, the minority firms—and in particular the Black firms—are not being utilized as much as white women-owned firms. The data was disappointing, but not particularly surprising, since the statistic related to minority lawyers and firms has not changed in decades. Many questions about what to do next and how we can work together to increase the utilization of minority firms resulted from the discussions surrounding the report.
We know that for some, it’s more comfortable to work with white women than it is to work with minorities for a variety of reasons. That’s coming through in the choices that people are making. The report shows that when some companies are looking to diversify their team, they are choosing a woman, before looking to an ethnic minority. NAMWOLF just wants to ensure that there is diversity within the diversity. We want to be focused on all of our members. If there are any members who are not seeing as much success as they should, we need to shift some focus to them. But it’s not like you take the focus off one group completely and then you put it on the other. You shine the spotlight bright enough so that everybody gets some of that shine. If there are things that we need to do to make sure the spotlight is broader so that all of our firms are getting that utilization, then that’s what we will do. I’m hoping that the corporations will look at that report and see that there are actions they can take to increase their engagement with minority and women-owned law firms and ultimately better serve their internal clients.
MICHELLE: That’s great to hear. What do you think the future of NAMWOLF looks like?
LESLIE: I think that the future of NAMWOLF is bright. It is continuing to grow. We are continuing to add firms to our roster all the time and participation is at an all-time high. We want to make sure that at some point we have firms in every jurisdiction, all over the country. We now have them in 43 states, but we want all the states. I do think that we will continue to see NAMWOLF firms grow internationally, too.
People inquire as to whether any of our firms have a global presence. There has been a lot of thought about how that can be achieved. I know that our firms are thinking about how they can be more global in terms of certain practice areas because the market is asking for that. We live in a global world, and our business as lawyers is more global than it ever has been. I do see NAMWOLF firms moving in those directions. I see firms cross-marketing each other even more. I think that we will have more corporations coming into the fold because, when I’m talking to people, it’s very clear to me that they understand the math of diversity. They are not always so sure about how to get there, but NAMWOLF is the gold standard for how to help achieve diversity goals.
In a perfect world NAMWOLF wouldn’t be needed. The profession would somehow become extremely diverse, and everybody would understand that a diverse team is the only way to service clients well. I don’t know how long it will take for us to get there. There’s a lot of work left to be done. As for right now, we will keep educating and fighting for diversity. We will keep ensuring that everybody is clear about the value that diverse teams bring to any problem; in particular, the value that minority and women-owned law firms bring to any conversation related to legal supplier diversity.
MICHELLE: I think that’s a great ending note unless there’s anything that we missed!
LESLIE: The two meetings that we do each year are really great ways for people to get to know more about NAMWOLF, more about our firms, and dig into our organization. I go to a lot of conferences, but NAMWOLF is special. I’m not just saying that because it’s ours. It’s like-minded corporations and others getting together for the specific purpose of networking and meeting firms who they might want to engage with or already work with. Now that we’re back in person that makes it even better. We know the dates of our next two meetings. Our Driving Diversity Leadership Conference (DDLC) is in San Diego on March 11th-14th and our 2023 Annual Meeting is in Baltimore September 10th-13th. Those are two key dates to mark in your calendars!
MICHELLE: Thank you so much, Leslie. Every time you speak, there are a million insights to be taking note of, so this is a great way to let our readers benefit from your wisdom as well. Looking forward to hearing what’s next for the organization and seeing you at the meetings next year!