As a 10-year-old growing up in Houston, Chris Porter experienced racism early when a store clerk falsely accused him of being a thief.
“Buy something now or leave the store,” the clerk told the African American youth while completely missing that Porter’s two white friends were stealing from him.
As a law student at the University of Texas School of Law, Omar Alaniz worked as a summer associate at two law firms. But no lawyers at either firm offered to mentor Alaniz, and that void in guidance became a large reason why neither firm offered him a job after law school.
As an accomplished trial lawyer who worked her way up from associate to equity partner in Big Law, Nicole Williams still felt unfulfilled. She was surrounded by trial lawyers who didn’t support women being first-chair and firm leaders who were unwilling to make the changes needed to create a more inclusive environment, leaving her questioning whether she wanted to continue practicing law before finding a new home in her legal career.
It is these types of personal experiences that drove these three diverse lawyers to become the successful corporate law firm leaders they are today. On Friday morning, Porter, Alaniz and Williams — a Black man, a gay Hispanic man and a white woman — swapped stories, described their leadership styles, shared their approach to DEI in the offices they manage and gave career development advice to young diverse attorneys in the room at the Texas Minority Council Program’s 31st Annual Conference in Houston. The moderator of the panel discussion was Sergio Leal, head of compliance at Ericsson.
Porter, co-managing partner of Quinn Emanuel’s Houston office, said he recognizes that the people he is managing are not one size fits all. Some are introverts, some are extroverts, and so on. So he tries to learn who he is managing in order to work with them in an individualized manner that resonates.
When problems arise, Porter tries to “learn clearly what’s going on” by resorting to “listening, hearing [people] out and staying calm.”
He also prefers to give people the benefit of the doubt — particularly in light of his life experiences as a Black man. He’s learned that nobody can gauge someone’s ability as a lawyer if they “look a certain way or talk a certain way.”
When another partner is considering whether to let an associate handle a hearing and they ask for Porter’s opinion, “I say, ‘I don’t know, let’s put them in court and see.’”
“After I see you [in court] I’ll make a decision, but until then I’ll give you a chance,” he said.
Alaniz, who is managing partner of Reed Smith’s Dallas office, said he operates similarly, and that he wants everyone in his office “to feel valued and heard.”
This includes when someone is in trouble. As a hypothetical example, he said if he were to learn that a senior associate up for partner is treating younger associates terribly, he would avoid approaching the senior associate in an accusatory way. Instead, he said he’d frame it as, “Hey, I want to help you,” explain that their behavior is not partner material and say he wants to work with them so that it’s not an issue when the decision about their promotion is being made.
“I don’t want anyone in the office to feel like I’m against them,” he said.
Williams, who became managing and co-founding partner of Thompson Coburn’s Dallas office in March 2020, said she tries to “treat everyone the way [she wants] to be treated” and tries to model the mentors she’s had in her career.
It’s also important to her that she is accessible to everyone in the office so that people of all ranks, including the most junior associate, can feel comfortable calling her cellphone. If she’s out and people call her, she always answers the call when she’s available or tries to call them back as quickly as possible.
She’s also learned that when issues arise, it’s not helpful for them to “fester,” so she makes an effort to nip it in the bud as early as possible.
“If I can start addressing the issue when it happens, it helps,” she said.
While she acknowledged that “no matter where you work there will be political issues,” she tries to keep clear and open communication and explain the importance behind certain decisions.
‘If you’re not asked to dance, you’re not part of the system’
Alaniz emphasized the importance that corporations have in bolstering DEI within the legal profession.
Alaniz said he’s noticing more corporate legal departments requiring originations for their legal work to come from a diverse lawyer.
“Money talks,” he said. “If you have an in-house [lawyer] driving it, it makes a significant impact.”
Wholeheartedly adopting the “equity” and “inclusion” components of DEI are just as important as the “diversity” part, Alaniz noted. When Alaniz was a younger attorney, he said the conversation solely revolved around getting diverse talent in the door — which, as we all know, isn’t (and never was) effective in truly moving the needle toward a more diverse profession.
“If you’re not asked to dance, you’re not part of the system,” he said.
Porter emphasized the importance of who is getting the first call from a client; if a diverse lawyer is on the receiving end of that first call, it makes a magnitude of difference for their career development, he said.
He also does his best to provide associates — diverse associates included — as much mentorship as possible when given an important “first” opportunity so that they are better set up to succeed.
For example, Porter said, if he is giving an associate the opportunity to question a witness for the first time in a deposition, “I’ve helped associates by giving them an outline so they can see my thought process.”
To that end, Alaniz chimed in, he will provide pushback when fellow partners “never want to work again” with a young associate who messes up on a matter.
“We’re not in the model anymore of, ‘one chance, and you’re out,’” he said.
Williams said a crucial element of improving diversity, equity and inclusion is ensuring that a law firm’s incoming class has more than one or two diverse associates because they can feel left out as time passes and their white colleagues, who tend to have much more in common with one another, bond without them.
One of the most effective tools for retaining diverse talent, Williams said, are the partnership mentor programs that many in-house legal departments have created in recent years with their outside firms. In those programs, diverse associates are paired with in-house lawyer mentors who show them the ropes on thinking about legal issues from the business perspective, help them network and problem-solve with them on any hurdles they’re facing.
By the end of those programs, Williams said, the associates who participate “probably know more people than I do at the company.”
Williams’ No. 1 tip to associates in the audience was, “If you get asked to do an opportunity like that, I don’t care how busy you are, you have to say yes.”
Porter advises young associates to “learn how to be a lawyer first” when entering the legal profession. He said he’s often witnessed first-year associates “try to do way too much” by getting involved in too many committees and outside organizations.
The common result, he said, is that these associates get overwhelmed by their overcommitment, and their work at the law firm suffers as a result. He advises first-year associates to only get involved with one extracurricular organization and “otherwise focus on your work.”
Alaniz agreed, adding, “You have to be an expert in your craft.” For those wanting to advance to partner and other leadership positions within the firm, “It’s [also] all about the relationships,” he said.
Inevitably there will be lawyers who are “less social” within a firm, Alaniz said, and he tells those lawyers that “you have to be uncomfortable to be comfortable.”
“Billing consistently for five years is good, but it won’t push the needle,” he said.