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Meet #Superman Joseph K. West

Each year, the Ms. JD Honors recognize exceptional members of our community in connection with our annual conference. This year, our Eighth Annual Conference, Superwomen JDs, took place at NYU School of Law on Friday, February 19. The Tim Initiative Award is given to a man who is an active champion for women’s advancement in the legal profession. Ms. JD launched The Incredible Men (“TIM”) Initiative in 2014 to celebrate men who not only value equality and diversity in the profession, but earnestly and enthusiastically support women and women’s initiatives. This year's awardee for this honor is Joseph K. West. 

Joseph is a Partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Duane Morris LLP at Washington D.C. He served as the President & CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association ("MCCA"). He implemented a number of programs focused on increasing the MCCA’s ability to expand opportunities for women and minority lawyers, such as the MCCA Academy for Leadership and Inclusion. He also created the MCCA Blueprint program and the MCCA Exchange, programs designed to help in-house counsel with career development and law firm members to hone their business development skills.  As a result of his efforts, MCCA’s membership almost tripled during his tenure. For four years, he was the head of outside counsel management of Walmart. 

He managed and oversaw more than 600 external firms and 25,000 lawyers and paralegals with an annual outside counsel spend of more than $300 million. Joseph and his team implemented Walmart’s origination credit certification requirements designed to increase retention, reduce costs and provide advancement opportunities within outside firms. Joseph has received a number of awards, including the Washington Business Journal 2014 Minority Business Leader Award and the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms ("NAMWOLF") Advisory Council Member of the Year Award. I had the lucky chance to interview Mr. West for our Ms. JD readers. 

You will receive this Friday The Incredible Men Initiative Award. What was your reaction when you were told the news?

First of all, the name is pretty cool! I was incredibly honored. I’ve been following Ms. JD and I appreciate the work it has done. Ms. JD identifies many of the barriers women still face in their careers. A lot of women lawyers don’t get over that hump in their trajectory in law and that is why organizations like Ms. JD are so important. I was really honored when I learned I was receiving the award from Ms. JD.

Based on your experience and the work you do, how do you define equality?

I define equality in two ways that might seem unusual and counterintuitive to most people. First of all, equality means the elimination of barriers. If you provide people the opportunity and tools to succeed, they will have a much better opportunity to be successful. We have to work to eliminate those barriers so women and minorities can have the chance to do that.

The other way I define equality is the opportunity to fail. Far too often, women and minorities don’t have the opportunity to fail along the way. In short, I would like for women and minorities to have success by the elimination of barriers and equality defined by opportunity without penalty.

You were President & CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association ("MCCA"). Can you tell me more about your experience of implementing programs to promote women in the law?

One of the first things I did was collaborate with other organizations. We established a joint working arrangement with the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and with the National Association of Women Lawyers. We shared resources and research and supported each other with the information we had to promote women in the law. We also made sure that each of our organizations included a significant representation of women.

For example, we designed and implemented the MCCA Academy for Leadership and Inclusion, a training program designed to identify barriers to inclusion in the profession and to eradicate them. We also created the Blueprint program, which is designed to help in-house counsel with career development and law firm members to hone their business development skills.  We always made sure that we focused on the underrepresentation of a certain population.

The MCCA also has a very robust research and survey platform that tracks demographically or lack thereof of lawyers in the profession. They publish research to recognize and promote diversity efforts and related best practices in the legal profession. The MCCA is more of a convening organization. We have a gender and raced constituency. We cover a wide range of diversity issues, with an emphasis on the professional challenges faced by race/ethnic minorities; women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lawyers; and people with disabilities.

Part of Ms. JD’s work consists of addressing challenges that women still face in the legal profession through many programs. What type of challenges, if any, do you see minorities and women still facing in the legal profession? How do you think they should be addressed? Any story you might want to share is welcome.

When I was working at Walmart, I was head of outside counsel management. Walmart had implemented an initiative that required law firms to demonstrate a meaningful interest in the importance of diversity. We wanted to make sure the firms were recruiting minority and women attorneys. We also wanted to know what activities they were coordinating to promote diversity at work.

About a year into that program, I remember talking to a black female attorney about it. When I asked her how it was going, she had this odd expression. She took a deep sigh and said, “I don’t know.”

She explained to me that it was harder since she became the relationship partner [the person primarily responsible for overseeing Walmart’s legal matters within the firm.] The male attorneys didn’t give her a lot of support since she had assumed the job. She wasn’t getting origination credit. I was livid. She said “Joe, don’t worry about it. I don’t wanna rock that boat.”

I realized that no matter how well-intended the programs were, there were still some issues we had to address. So, our team proposed that we require the firms to certify in writing that the relationship partners we put into place were receiving origination credit. The goal was to support the women and minority relationship partners and protect them from recriminations within the firm for having been selected as relationship partner. It was also to allow them to benefit financially from the relationship in much the same way that male majority relationship partners had benefitted by passing the work from one to another.

I have to be honest with you. I did get a lot of criticism for this. There’s even an article from the Daily Journal. A few firms said that the client was overstepping. But, the beneficiaries were thrilled. I really believe that if you really want to make change, you need to get people out of their comfort zone. That’s what we did. I also required all of Walmart’s outside counsel flexible work hours. That was helpful as well.

Women and minorities tell their stories every day about how bias continues to be a reality in the practice. Do you think this normalizes the culture we’re trying to change? If so, what can men do?

We should not overlook this. While at MCCA, we started doing implicit bias programs. This has a meaningful impact on people in their lives. These are actually the types of barriers of inclusion I was talking about before. It is our responsibility, both men and women, to identify and eradicate them. Equality should be the norm in law firms, not the exception.

You’re in charge of your firm’s diversity efforts. Can you tell me more about it and your experience so far as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer?

Well, I’ve been here only 6 weeks. What I’ll say is that I came to Duane Morris after I left the MCCA despite having the opportunity of expanding my work. I chose Duane Morris for two reasons. First, the leadership of the firm was committed to a meaningful approach to diversity and inclusion. They want to expand diversity programs and take it to the next level.  Second, we have very structured programs. For example, there is an established women’s initiative in the firm that has a very active mentorship program to help woman lawyers. This is the kind of place that believes in collaboration. I think it will help to make our efforts more sustainable around diversity and equality.

You have an incredible track record in litigation and serving as counsel for Fortune 500 companies. What would you say to law students who aspire to your same line of work?

First of all, I would tell them to be as flexible as possible. Approach your career the way you would approach a trial witness in cross-examination. Have your game plan ready and your questions prepared. They may lead you to a more successful outcome. Be willing to explore opportunities that might not catch your eye at first. Secondly, learn how to communicate. People from my generation have honed their ability to communicate in a personal way. That’s a skill a lot of younger lawyers have to work on. It’s very different. Learn how to communicate like a dinosaur. Learn how to talk to people. I hope that’s not too strong!

What has been the best thing about expanding opportunities for women and minorities? How does it feel to be part of changing conventional norms and practices in the profession?  

I think it’s incumbent upon all of us. If we’re in a profession that is the least diverse of white collar professions, then something’s wrong! You cannot live like that and you have to make sure that the profession works for everybody. As much as I’m honored to be receiving this award, I’m really just a piece of the overall work that’s being done. This change has included other organizations and other people who have been working for a long time. They’re people that are making sure that this profession stays at the vanguard of all possible change and on the front lines. What I really appreciate about this award is that it extends a message to the legal community about making sure that we’re not just allies but actual participants in changing perceptions about diversity. We have to recognize that we all have an obligation and a duty. Nobody receives justice unless everybody does.

Along that same line, why do you think men should have an active role in promoting women in the law? What’s in it for them?

That’s a great question. What’s in it for them? Everything! If you’re a man and not a proponent of justice and fairness, you should still focus on making sure women are a part of your firm and for selfish reasons! I’ll explain why. Catalyst published a report on diversity a few years ago and found that gender-diverse teams led to higher performance. In a law firm, your goal is to be more effective. Productivity generates profit. So, pick the best talent because you want your team to win! If you increase the percentage of women in a corporate board, you increase the likelihood of profitability. Men, if you won’t do it for altruistic reasons, then do it for selfish ones.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Ms. JD network?

Not really, I think we’ve covered it all. What I will say is that I have a 14-year-old daughter and I would love to leave behind a world where she has the same opportunity her brothers do. I’m working every day to make that possible. 

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