Does Gibson Dunn’s Chief Diversity Partner Splash Nudge Big Law?

It’s either a game changer or a smart gadget.

In a radical departure from the way Big Law distributes the price of the partnership, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher has elected a director (a cost center!) to the partnership.

As any freshman law student knows, you need laser-like focus — not to mention mountains of billable hours — to even be considered a partner.

Yet Zakiyyah Salim-Williams, the winner of this partnership lotto, hasn’t logged a billable minute in over a dozen years. Gibson Dunn’s chief diversity officer since 2011, Salim-Williams said her elevation came out of nowhere.

“I was on vacation in Hawaii when [Barbara Becker, the firm’s chair] called and said, ‘You’re a partner!’ “, she said. “I had no idea this was going to happen. I was crying and my daughter was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re a black partner in the firm now!’ »

Although there has been a steady trend for practicing lawyers to move into the role of Chief Diversity Officer – recently Baker Botts appointed partner Heather Souder Choi as its first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. of the firm – it is rare for a staff member to be elected into the partnership at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country.

Gibson associates averaged $4.4 million in profits last year, according to The American Lawyer. Although Salim-Williams isn’t an equity partner, meaning she doesn’t get a share of the company’s profits, she likely got a nice raise.

So why is Gibson Dunn, who announced the elevation earlier this month, breaking fashion? Is this a one-time event or does it signal Big Law’s changing attitude towards partnership and diversity?

Notable strides

“When I think of who is eligible for partnership, I think of contribution in very general terms,” ​​said Becker, president and managing partner of Gibson. “Zakiyyah has been instrumental in engaging clients and the community, and she reinforces the sense of community within the firm. It was a way to create a long-term career plan for her within the company.

And was Salim-Williams’ elevation controversial since she didn’t pay normal dues? “When I spoke to the executive committee about it, it was met with uniform support,” Becker said.

It doesn’t hurt that Gibson’s diversity stats have improved a lot during Salim-Williams’ tenure. She joins the firm from the New York City Bar Association, where she was director of diversity, after having been a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Heller Ehrman.

Zakiyyah Salim-Williams

Photo: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

The firm reports 12.7% minority partners globally this year, compared to a national average of 10.2% among large firms in 2020, based on findings from the National Association for Law Placement.

More importantly, there was a big jump in the number of black partners under his leadership.

In a profession notoriously difficult for black lawyers to rise to the top, Gibson has made notable progress in recent years. Today, it has 12 black partners, representing 3.1% of all partners at the firm worldwide (the national figure is 2.22%, according to NALP). That number might not blow your mind, but it’s a big deal for Gibson, which had just four black partners accounting for 1.4% in 2011.

“Since 2019, we’ve had more than 50 meetings with black partners who say they want to see change,” Salim-Williams said, alluding to the firm’s concerted efforts.

Becker also credits Salim-Williams for starting the company’s Women of Gibson Dunn and Black Advancement initiatives. The firm’s leader noted that female partners make up nearly 27% of all partners in the United States (it was about 15% in 2011) and that the firm’s black lawyers have increased by 80% since she joined. joined the firm.

All notable achievements, but how will his partnership affect the pace of diversity at Gibson? Let’s be frank: what power will Salim-Williams’ partner status give him besides bragging rights?

“What is missing is authority”

While it’s unclear what additional rights and responsibilities Salim-Williams will have following his admission to the partnership — neither Becker nor Salim-Williams envision any major changes — Becker said those concerns are largely moot.

“Zakiyyah has been acting as a partner since the day she joined the firm,” Becker said. “People treat her as part of the partnership. We have been attending the same management meetings since 2011.”

The partnership “will give him external credibility,” Becker added.

Others in the diversity space are more skeptical of the impact both within the company and in the industry.

“We found in our research that regardless of the title, there is no consistency in what the role of the diversity, equity and inclusion officer should be,” Sandra said. Yamate, Executive Director of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. “I see a lot more responsibility being given to them, but what’s missing is authority.”

“The question for me is whether this is all performative,” said Ari Joseph, DEI manager at WalkMe and former diversity director at Brown Rudnick. “At the end of the day, it’s about numbers and commitment. I need to see the real numbers.

But he added that “the pressure shouldn’t be on her but on the company – if they’re going to listen to her and let her own it.”

Why such skepticism towards a company that elevates its DEI director to the rank of partner?

Well, frankly, directing DEI’s efforts at a law firm isn’t the most esteemed role in Big Law. From what I have observed, it often seems that DEI managers are hired to tread water – a flurry of activity that often leads nowhere.

“Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s ticking the box,” diversity consultant John Mitchell said of Big Law’s motive for putting partners in charge of DEI. The problem, he explained, is that the partners leading DEI efforts rarely have business or influence. He said he’d be more impressed when “straight white men lead diversity efforts,” adding, “I don’t think that’s a trend, by the way.”

That said, Yamate noted, “I give Gibson credit for thinking outside the box.”

Indeed, who’s to say Gibson’s latest effort won’t steal and boost diversity? If nothing else, there is a powerful symbolism that a prestigious company would extend its partnership privilege to someone who has been dedicated solely to promoting diversity. This suggests – although the proof remains in the pudding – that she puts diversity first.

Salim-Williams said being a partner “feels different”, adding that “it’s validation”.

And will other companies follow Gibson’s lead?

“I think more DEI professionals will be elevated to partnership status,” Salim-Williams said. “It is worthy of this title. We work really hard.

About Bernice Dyer

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