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  • InsideTrack
  • September 20, 2023

    Milwaukee Attorneys Tackle Diversity Gap with 'Hackathon'

    A competition inspired by the tech sector aims to spark ideas to boost diversity at Wisconsin law firms.

    Jeff M. Brown

    Lafayette Crump

    Attorney Lafayette Crump, Commissioner of City Development for the City of Milwaukee, speaks at the kickoff for the DEI Hackathon.

    Sept. 20, 2023 – Wisconsin’s law firms have a problem.

    The attrition rate for minority law firm associates is 33% higher than for white associates. In addition, minorities make up only 4% of partners at Milwaukee’s big law firms, despite making up 20% of the student body at the state’s two law schools.

    The gender numbers aren’t much better. While women make up about half of all first-year law students, they make up only one-quarter of partners at Milwaukee’s large firms.

    To improve those numbers, a group of Milwaukee attorneys is staging a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) “hackathon.”

    Hackathons began as competitions sponsored by tech companies, where teams of coders would collaborate to solve a problem in the span of 24 hours or a weekend. Hackathons have expanded to include workshops, speakers, and networking.

    For the DEI Hackathon, 21 teams of lawyers signed up to generate ideas for improving the recruitment and retention of diverse lawyers. The teams will present their ideas at an event scheduled for Oct. 30, with Milwaukee-area dignitaries serving as the judges.

    “The winning ideas win seed money for implementation,” reads the event’s website. “But the legal community will be the big winner.”

    Kickoff Event

    The hackathon’s kickoff event was held at Northwestern Mutual in downtown Milwaukee on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Approximately 60 attorneys gathered to listen to speakers make the business and human case for diversity.

    Jeff M. Brown Jeff M. Brown, Willamette Univ. School of Law 1997, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.

    Ryan Heinemann, Northwestern Mutual’s general counsel, told attendees that boosting diversity in the legal profession isn’t only the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.

    “If I had a law department that was filled with people who went to the same law school, had the same background, had the same life experiences – could we really give the best legal advice to the company?” Heinemann said. “I think that would be a deficiency.”

    Improving diversity, Heinemann said, is a professional responsibility.

    “If we aren’t emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our own teams, in our space and what we’re doing, we’re doing a disservice to our clients,” Heinemann said.

    Justin Roby

    “He adopted me as his mentee and brought me into the spaces that I needed to be in to do the work that needed to be done,” said Justin Roby, director of finance and human resources at Diverse and Resilient.

    A ‘Chilling Impact’

    Attorney Lafayette Crump, Commissioner of City Development for the City of Milwaukee, said that impostor syndrome is one of the biggest barriers to diversifying the legal profession.

    Crump, who grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from Duke University Law School, shared a story to make his point.

    When he was a young law firm associate, Crump was tasked with writing a reply brief. He included an analysis of an issue he thought was important, to show the judge that his side had examined the case from every angle.

    That didn’t sit well with the supervising partner.

    “It’s stupid to address that issue and bring it to the court’s attention,” the partner said.

    That remark sent a wave of self-doubt crashing down on Crump.

    “I left that conversation feeling that my instincts were wrong, that I didn’t know how to approach brief writing, and maybe I didn’t even know how to approach advocacy in general,” Crump said.

    Then the judge issued his opinion. “The judge lit into us for not addressing the issue I’d tried to include in our brief,” Crump said.

    The judge’s words validated Crump’s instincts. But the partner never acknowledged that Crump was right to raise the issue. Defeatism crept into Crump’s spirit.

    “I wondered, ‘Was my initiative valued, or did the partner not like being challenged?’” Crump said. “‘How should I approach things like this going forward, especially being one of the few African-Americans who were vying to impress and advance at the firm.’”

    Crump challenged the attendees to consider the “chilling impact” such incidents have on the legal and business communities.

    Jenny Yuan

    Jenny Yuan, an attorney at Northwestern Mutual, makes a point during a tabletop discussion at the DEI Hackathon.

    Diversity Work Pays Off

    Justin Roby is proof that extra diversity work by those at the top of the corporate ladder pays off.

    Roby, who’s Black, is the director of finance and human resources at Diverse and Resilient, a nonprofit serving LGBTQ people in Wisconsin. He told attendees about the countless hours a white executive spent mentoring him.

    The executive even served on his dissertation committee.

    “This man cried when I defended my thesis,” Roby said. “He adopted me as his mentee and brought me into the spaces that I needed to be in to do the work that needed to be done.”

    team from DeWitt LLP

    A team from DeWitt LLP at the DEI Hackathon kickoff event. From left: Attorney Shannon Allen, Marketing Director Michelle Freeman, Attorney Tim Steward, and law clerk Tyrice Denson.

    Lift Every Voice

    The best ideas to open law firm doors to more minorities will be sung as chorales, not arias. That was the message of Molly Dill, managing director of gener8tor, a Milwaukee accelerator that invests in startups.

    “It’s important that everyone’s voice in the group is heard, and that you all talk about your ideas openly, so that you understand the breath of all the solutions you come up with,” Dill said during the kickoff event.

    Dill gave the attorneys tips for the pitches they’ll make during the competition.

    She recommended that each team prepare a five-minute pitch using storytelling tools. Slides should be heavy on pictures and light on words, Dill said.

    “People should not be reading the slide – they should be listening to what you’re saying.”

    Leave details for an appendix, Dill said. Dill also told the attorneys that their teams should practice their pitches, often.

    It was sage advice. Given the depth of the problem, making the pitch for more diversity at law firms will require perseverance.

    “Don’t get discouraged after five pitches,” Dill said. “Take a lot of shots on goal. This is about getting as much feedback and information as you can.”

    ​The State Bar of Wisconsin​ and Northwestern Mutual are​ Presenting Sponsors (the highest sponsorship level) for the DEI Hackathon. ​The Hackathon had 17 total sponsors, including the Milwaukee Bar Association.

    The kickoff event was organized by a team at Northwestern Mutual whose members are experienced in using the hackathon model.

    DEI Hackathon

    One of 21 teams that signed up for the DEI Hackathon engaged in a tabletop discussion during the hackathon’s kickoff.

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