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| 24 minutes read

CMO Series EP79 - Laura Toledo of Nilan Johnson Lewis on Embedding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in law firm culture

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Most law firms have a working group or committee in place to create, communicate and manage their DEI strategy. While these initiatives are well-intended, they can be difficult to retrospectively integrate into the core values and culture of the firm.

Today’s guest is here to share what it’s like to work in a truly progressive firm. Ali Bone is so lucky to welcome Laura Toledo, Director of Business Development & Marketing at Nilan Johnson Lewis to hear how their values are embedded in the firm’s culture and how they impact marketing and business development on a daily basis.

Ali and Laura cover: 

  • How Laura came to her role at Nilan Johnson Lewis and why her interview was so significant 
  • The firm’s history in terms of culture and where the progressive nature came from
  • How to keep conversations about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion going to continue progressing
  • How culture influences day-to-day activities and how those values translate externally
  • How working in a progressive firm enables career progression as a marketing and BD leader
  • What a progressive culture means for professionals in the legal industry and how it could benefit firms and individuals if they were to take this approach
  • Advice for other marketing and BD leaders looking to embed their DEI values into their firm’s culture


Intro: Welcome to the Passle podcast, CMO series.

Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast where we discuss all things marketing and business development in professional services. Today we are discussing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as we all know it is at the tip of most people's tongues, and most law firms have a working group or committee in place to create, communicate, and manage their DEI strategy. Whilst these initiatives are well intended, they can be difficult to retrospectively integrate into the core values and culture of the firm. However, this isn't the case for today's guest who is here to share how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are deeply embedded at the heart of her firm. 

We're so lucky today to welcome Laura Toledo, Director of Business Development and Marketing at Nilan Johnson Lewis, and she's gonna share with us what it's like to work in a truly progressive firm and how that impacts marketing and business development on the day-to-day. Laura, welcome.

Laura: Well thank you for having me.

Ali: No, it's an absolute pleasure. I know we, and our previous recording, we were meant to do you were unfortunately, sort of snowed in, or caught out with a snowstorm in Minnesota. So thrilled that we're able to get you today.

Laura: Yeah, I mean, we still have a snowstorm, but I'm safely ensconced at home.

Ali: Brilliant. That is good to hear. Well without any further ado, I'm really excited to obviously get into this day. We've had some fantastic conversations building into it. And actually, as a really nice place to start, Laura, I was hoping you could kick off by telling us and telling the listeners a little bit about how you came to your role at NilanJohnson Lewis and specifically about your job interview because from the conversations we had, I think it already helped to set the scene for today's topic.

Laura: Yeah, I love telling the story because it is kind of unusual. So I've been in law firms for about 15 years and I happened to be looking when I was pregnant with my first child and I'm sitting in an interview room with the woman who was to be my future boss, and me feeling guilty. I admitted being pregnant and I think Jenna turned to me and says, oh, congratulations. And that was it. And I remember being very shocked about what a non-issue it was. And then it took a little while for them to make a decision, but what they ended up doing was revamping the job description to better fit my experience. So at the end of the day, they made a job for me, and, and that's how I got hired on.

Ali: That's absolutely brilliant. I mean, it just shows you kind of from the very outset how they're approaching things. The fact that you know, probably for a lot of firms and businesses, the idea of hiring somebody who's pregnant at the time may be a little bit more daunting. So that's, that's brilliant to hear. So let's say like day one, you know, the firm's culture is definitely feeling really quite unique to you. So can you tell us a little bit about the firm's history and, and where that progressive nature of the firm all started, please?

Laura: Yeah, so it was started by three gentlemen back in 1996. They had been a part of a big firm and sort of broke off. One of them is an African American man named Don Lewis, who's pretty well known in the community here. He does a lot of work for the legal community, kind of Philando Castile you know, those types of special investigations. And I love the story. When they built the firm, one of the partners coming on board was a lesbian and she had a domestic partner. So when they were building out benefits for the firm the named partners were basically like, you need to make sure you include domestic benefits. And the person putting it together basically said nobody else does that. And they told her, well do that, or, you know, you're fired basically. So we've had domestic benefits since 1996, and it's, and I, and to tell you the truth, I heard that story two years ago and I've been here for eight years. So on some levels I don't think the firm does such a great job of bragging about ourselves when it comes to that, but it's, it makes you feel good because it's, it's embedded in the culture. It's not something they talk about. It just is. And so it lives within our paperwork, basically.

Ali: I think that’s brilliant. What’sreally noticeable about this, and I know it's gonna continue throughout the conversation, is that these are all very relevant examples that actually happen. It's not just the sort of stuff that you've been talking about, either example before, maybe even DEI was really being considered in the way that it is today. And in the previous conversations we've had, you had mentioned the firm now being female-owned. I'd love to hear a little bit about that as well, please.

Laura: Yeah, we're women-owned. It's a lot of work. I, you know, I don't know the particulars of partnership structures and all of that, but, you know, we were, we were male-owned, right? The majority male-owned. So to be able to move those shares around to make ourselves majority female is, is a process. A lot of firms in a lot of businesses that become women-owned or, you know, certified minority-owned generally start out that way. We went from a male structured partnership to female ownership. And now, it's kind of unbelievable, honestly. But it's something the firm had talked about and explored, and we chose women-owned as opposed to minority-owned because we just don't have the numbers yet. But that's, that's our thinking is that being women-owned is the first step and we're not sure what's gonna come next, but it was just, it was something the firm aspired to and we, and we got it done. And it's, we're very proud, I think, of ourselves in a lot of ways.

Ali: You should be, and so you should be.

Laura: Right?

Ali: When you really think about it, it's something that, I mean, I certainly don't know any businesses that are women-owned. And again, you're probably inthe real minority there in terms of having been able to do that. And it's such a huge shift as you say, that you've gone from being male-owned to women-owned. And you know, you now got that female-owned, certification, which is absolutely amazing. And when we previously spoke, you said that it's not just about gender, it's actually about being equitable across everything. And I think you're about to allude to that. So how do you keep those conversations going and, and have that open dialogue so the firm can keep progressing as time moves on and things start to change?

Laura: You know, I think that has a lot to do with the makeup of the firm. We're very strong on culture, and you know, like I said, I'm not the only employee who they carved out a job for. It happens quite frequently, actually. I mean, not quite frequently. You know, we don't, it's different for attorneys, but I'm talking mostly about administrative staff. It's just, you know, we've already, we're willing to have really tough conversations and we will even, you know, now that we're women known, we go back and have conversations about white men to make sure they're included, right? Like, you know, we have new people coming on board and we wanna make sure that they feel heard and seen and promoted, right? And regardless of colour or gender. So again, it's embedded in the firm's culture. We are willing to ask the questions, to talk about it, to make changes, and to listen to everybody in the firm, not just attorneys. And I think it brings this, it just brings this world of diversity and you have all of these voices that, you know, it makes finding a conclusion easier because we just have so many brilliant people who are willing to speak up.

Ali: Yeah, definitely.

Laura: And it's not just one person driving the conversation, which I think we all appreciate.

Ali: Yeah. And am I right in saying as well that in the conversations we had previously, that what, on that kind of equitable element, you approach the compensation in a slightly different way for, you know, be that your associates, your partners in terms of the way that people can structure their time?

Laura: Yes, yes, absolutely. A couple of years ago, the firm decided to have associates choose their hours for the year. Yeah. So, that is a constantly evolving process. So I know this year it looks slightly different, so they're tweaking it. The idea behind that is right, that we wanna move away from the traditional rainmaker model, right? You know, we don't have people who wanna bill 20 hours a day. We want people who have lives, who have other interests, but who wanna work really hard. So we're trying to figure out how do we allow people to do that, you know, still be able to be profitable and still give people interesting work. So we're, you know, it, that is solving a, what, 300, 500-year-old problem, however long legal's been around. But I love the innovation. I love that we, that's what we're striving for, because it means that we realise what's going on. I mean, the pandemic just sort of forced you into change.

Ali: Yeah, 100%. And something that is, I've never heard of it happening elsewhere, where you can almost choose the hours that you're working, but as you said, it makes, it makes it equitable, it moves you away from the traditional rainmaker in the firm. And also it just allows everybody to have a little bit of that, you know, the classic work-life balance. And it's just very, very progressive. And that sort of touches a little bit, I suppose, around how culture is influencing those day-to-day activities for you. You know, but does this sort of translate into the values that you externally promote towards your clients and, you know, is that a factor when you're taking on your business? I mean, everything you've, you've spoken about so far is incredible and, and very internally focused. But how does that look when you kind of look outside of the firm itself?

Laura: Well, I think when it comes to traditional marketing, we do struggle with that. Like, it's, we don't wanna brag about ourselves because we, you know, you see a lot in the marketplace. You know, a lot of big firms can throw money at problems. And I'm not saying they're not doing a good job, it's just we, how we stand is we really needed it to come internal first. Right? That needed to flow outward. It, it couldn't go outward and, and come internal, because if we're, if we're saying things in the marketplace that we don't actually feel like, what does that, what does that say about us? So we really, really concentrated on the internal piece first and making sure folks were on board that people knew what we were talking about, that everybody was comfortable that they have the right talking points to talk about being a women-owned business. So, you know, it's, you can say whatever you want and it doesn't matter, when somebody sets a foot inside the firm, because if they don't feel that they're gonna be gone. And I think one of our firm's biggest strengths is that we have a lot of people internally who love this place. And so it's very easy to see when you have conversations with them how, like, what it means for us to be women-owned. Like, they're so excited. And, and so I think our clients see how we feel about it and, and know that's part of our culture, I guess. Like, yeah, we just don't, we don't do as much externally as we do internally.

Ali: Sure. Well, I imagine just based on what you're saying there, it kind of just oozes off everybody, you know, emanates out towards, you know, the market and your clients because people live and breathe. And that's everything that we spoke about in our previous conversations. It really is part of the culture there and working in a nice progressive firm. How have you found that in terms of enabling you to progress as a marketing and BD leader? And with that, have there been any examples where that's been a factor in projects or campaigns for you, Laura?

Laura: Oh yeah. I mean, I am firmly of the belief that the better you're treated at the firm right, or whatever your job is, the better work that you're gonna produce. You know, technically I'm a millennial and you could say I should be moving around jobs, but I hit my eighth year in November, so it's hard to explain because it just makes you feel so good, right? Like, I love going to work, I love the work that I do. I love the people that I work with, and it allows me to have this creative range to explore things. So for example, when the pandemic hit our attorneys were producing content like gangbusters. I'm talking, you know, one to four articles a day in that, you know, we are a small firm, we've got a team of one and a half - it's not sustainable. So I was able to put together this experience database that I made out of Airtable and I automated it to help workflow. And, you know, now, now it's getting implemented firm-wide at some point. So the firm really allows us to have a lot of leeway when it comes to solving problems. So it's not like you're doing things, you know, that are fun and have no relevancy. It’s, you know, this might be a future project. So yeah, go ahead and spend the time. So I spend all this time building this database and eventually we'll get an intranet that hopefully sort of encompasses that. So all that work I was doing for my own workflow is now gonna be a firm-wide initiative. So, and you know, I don't know, if I was at a big firm, I'd be able to spend time working on a database like it, you know, that's not necessarily part of my job description, but I think the firm does a great job of allowing its employees to really choose an area of interest like we are the drivers of our own career.

Ali: Well the whole idea is bringing your whole self to work, I suppose. And from speaking with you, you are, you know, love your tech whilst being a marketing-led individual. So has this been a chance for you to combine the two?

Laura: Yes. Yeah. I get to be very creative. I, I'm actually an English major and I do not do corporate law. Like, it's just not my thing. If you've ever seen me at an LMA conference, of course I'm in jeans and a t-shirt. But you know, I get to be myself. I get to bring my personality to work and people respect me. I remember the day I set foot at the farm I don't think I worked very long and I already had credibility. The sheer fact that I got hired there made me credible. Like, again, you know, not everything I say went, it was just, they knew if they had spent all that time hiring me that I was a right fit. And, you know, I knew my stuff, so I had already come in and they, you know, I had confidence and it's amazing what confidence can do for you in your work product. So it's hard not to get excited about everyday work now because it's something I love doing and they give me the room to do it.

Ali: Yeah. More, more than understand. Unbelievably exciting. And it's a huge compliment to you that in the very first instance, they took the time to essentially shape the role around what your skills were and, you know, so no surprise that they've allowed you to kind of continue to bring those to the forefront in what you are doing. Laura, if we were to zoom out, I guess a little bit here as well for, you know, for those firms that are perhaps slightly behind the curve when it comes to creating an equitable workplace, can you explain what a progressive culture could mean to professionals in the legal industry? And when you consider that a little bit more, how would it benefit firms and individuals if they were to take this approach, please?

Laura: I actually think it's all about authentic conversation. If you cannot have a hard conversation, I think you're screwed to be perfectly frank, because that's what all of this is. It, you know, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, a lot has to surround feelings. I mean, yes, it could be colour, it could be race, could be ethnicity it's whatever. But at the end of the day, you're dealing with people's feelings. You're dealing with people's lives and you know, happiness. And to ignore that and to not have difficult conversations where you might have to look at yourself and say, you know what, that's not right. Or I've been doing this wrong. And, you know, that's not the law firm culture traditionally.. So I think it all starts with just having that really hard conversation. Why are people leaving? Why are our black partners leaving? Why are women leaving? Or why aren't they satisfied? Or why when they come back from, you know, maternity leave, do they not have books of business? You know, that's a really tough conversation to have because you're dealing with, you know, fundamental change, unconscious bias, like, so it, it all starts with just being real and honest with each other and, and getting it out into the open because otherwise, it's just, you're never gonna get on the same page.

Ali: Definitely. I suppose it's, it's just like anything in life, isn't it, where you are able to have those direct and honest conversations it opens up the lines of communication a lot more. And actually who, if you'll just surround yourself with that the whole time, it kind of emanates from there. And more and more people get involved rather than just setting the scene of like, this is what our DEI initiatives are, and this is what we're doing. It's actually living and breathing it, which is clearly the case for you and Nilan Johnson Lewis, which clearly is resonating very well at the firm as well. So if we were to kind of, look ahead in terms of what's come down the line, you know, what is next for Nilan Johnson Lewis? When you look into 2023 and have you got any exciting new initiatives in the pipeline, Laura?

Laura: Maybe too many. Of course, right. The problem with doing a good job is you get more work. So, you know, what we are seeing is, I think a shift. Like yes, we wanna go out into the marketplace and really decide what our external diversity strategy is gonna be. And then I think it's looking internal and using our marketing skills to do internal marketing so that we can better get to know each other. So for example, you had talked about like kind of ways you live and breathe diversity. So one of the things that our DEI committee ended up doing was we have these, what we call DEI moments at the beginning of every meeting. So it's practice group meetings, it's internal meetings now, and it's just a question to get to know each other. So for example, like, you know, what is your fall tradition? And it can, you know, they can be kind of silly and personable, but like, it, it sets us all equal. We learn a little bit more about each other, we learn a bit more about what makes you so they're tick or what makes us different. And I think it kind of pulls us together. It's another excuse to get to know each other. And so that's where we're looking towards is to really, you know, how can marketing use our skills to be able to help drive that culture internally as well. You know, we tend to be much more external focused or business development focused, and I think that's an area we can help with. And then we had some exciting new hires in our admin team so we hired a, she's a senior financial analyst, but she's really looking at pricing and profitability and like, you know, we don't always do a good job of bragging about ourselves in commanding high rates. You know, we're in the Midwest, so we tend to be lower than in either of the coasts, but, so it's, it's things like that where we're, we're using strategy and hiring key people to keep that culture. So the other person we hired is a chief talent officer for our attorneys.

Ali: Cool.

Laura: Yeah.

Ali: Nice.

Laura: Super cool. So she's gonna help them with their career planning. So like, are you doing the right kind of legal work? Do you have the skills that you need to do in order to do this legal work? What does your workload look like? And I think that's gonna help the retention and culture piece. So we're really, you know, you can't do marketing anymore without DE and I. It's just, it's part of it now. So I think we're really trying to figure out what the next thing is gonna be. And again, not just women-owned, is it minority-owned? Is it, you know, we're rethinking women's events. Do we need, you know, again, we wanna be more inclusive, which includes white men? So these are the things that we're thinking about, just really kind of outside the box.

Ali: Yeah, I love that, for me, what just comes through so much is it is, it is not paying lip service to any of these things. It, it's so genuine and it's so easy, you know if I take myself in any environment to kind of talk about it. But actually, if you're not just living and breathing it daily, how's that kind of filtering out into what you're doing? And that's why I love what you are doing at the firm. You mentioned those new hires and sort of some of the exciting things that are coming down the line for you. Do you, when it's in the hiring process, how much does, I guess the DEI element come up? Is that something that gets discussed or is it kind of, you know, yourself and other senior individuals get a feel for it in the way that maybe someone speaks?

Laura: You know, I'm not always privy to the hiring process, but if I look at our hires, they're far and away diverse candidates. We're pretty big on culture. So like we really look for people who get along with us and like I said, people in admin are really drivers of their own career. And that right, you can't come in and just, you know, follow along necessarily. That's just, you know, we need a driver, somebody to shape the program. So that's kind of the type of person that we're looking for. And it's a lot of word of mouth. So when we hire out, we make sure they come in, they meet our attorneys. Or again, it's a lot of word of mouth. It's people that we know or we meet people and we're like, oh, we can see how you fit in. That's how I think we got this Chief Attorney Talent Officer, she's still a practising attorney, but she's been, I think she was GC of St. Thomas here in Minnesota. So she's been part of higher education and is just like this brilliant woman and she wants to come in and coach lawyers.Oh yeah, we'll let you do that. You know, so she's a friend of our CEO.

Ali: It’s just another good example of I guess a little bit like your story of shaping something to somebody's desire, ultimately when it comes to landing that you're still able to do your normal day job. Actually, we can fit X, Y, and Z into the role as well, which is pretty cool.

Laura: Yeah. same thing. Our senior financial analyst isn't actually like a true finance person. She's a businesswoman. Which I love because once she sets the rates, her job will then be on the business side. Right. I'd love to see the evolution of this, because I think the people who are doing the hiring are just, are really smart in looking at the person. Yeah. Like we have an idea for where, like, what we need in terms of the job, but really it's about the person and what they bring and what their passions are. So yeah. Can you do the job, but, you know, can you make it into something that's yours? I think that's the question we tend to ask.

Ali: Yeah, of course, of course. No, that's, that's absolutely fantastic and thanks so much for that, that insight into it. Laura. it comes to the final question and you know, this is one that is very much around advice and there's been some brilliant takeaways so far. So I'm interested to hear what you have to say here, but as I say that final question, you know, to wrap things up would be, you know, what's your one piece of advice to other marketing and BD leaders looking to embed their DEI values into the firm's culture?

Laura: I think don't get discouraged. You know, I, it's been a while since I've been at other law firms and I think, you know, sometimes they can be very insular. So, you know, you hop on board a law firm and you think that that's how all of them are. You know, again, I don't come from a conservative culture. I'm weird, I'm out there. I have a big personality and I knew if I wanted to stay somewhere for a long period of time that, you know, they would need to deal with that essentially. And again, I like that I can come to this place and be myself. So, you know, don't give up on finding that workplace if your current one doesn't let you do that. There are places out there, keep talking. Keep saying things, you know, this is one of those, I guess I don't see the world very black and white often, but this is one of those black and white things to me that if they don't have that, then they're not a good workplace. Like, you need to go somewhere else. There's just, there's no excuse anymore. You know, to not have people be equal. Like, I remember being at another law firm where it was clockwork where a woman would go outta maternity leave and come back and her book of business was literally gone. They were a shareholder and you know, now they go back down to associate or whatever because their book of business is gone. Just unbelievable.

Ali: Not a very good place to be when it comes to that. Is it?

Laura: No, and I, you know, things won't change unless people change them. So keep doing the work, just keep doing the work.

Ali: Keep keep being a trailblazer is, is what I'm, I'm taking from that. And, and find what works for you.

Laura: Yeah, yeah. Don't, you know, don't rock the boat to rock the boat. I'm known to do that. But you know, there are places out there and I, I think the workplace is changing because of the employees. It just has to. The pandemic taught us that that culture is not sustainable.

Ali: Certainly, I think if I've learned, learned anything from, from the conversations with you building into this and, and the conversations day is that, you know, it is about, as you said earlier, like having those honest conversations, but really just like live and breathe it. You know, if it's something that you are wanting to drive, the more that you'll live and breathe it, the more that it's gonna impact everybody else around you. And that's only gonna be a positive effect. So Ilove all of that and I love everything that you've shared with us, Laura, today. It's been brilliant. Thank you.

Laura: Oh, thank you.

Ali: Brilliant. Well look, an absolute pleasure to have you on the main bulk of the podcast talking through everything. As you may know, we have a little tradition of doing a bit of a quickfire round at the end just to get to know you a little bit better. I know throughout this, your personality has massively come through and that's why we are so excited to record this because it’s, I think in many ways, incredibly personal. So to kick us off, in terms of quickfire round, what's your favourite business and non-business book, please?

Laura: Business book? Oh, IT by Stephen King. I'm a huge horror reader. I dunno if I read business books!

Ali: Hey, don't worry you're not the first one to say that and won't be the last. So as long as you are immersing yourself in fiction. That's what I love. I’m a big horror fan.

Laura: Yeah, I read to escape, so.

Ali: Yeah. No, it's, it's brilliant. Second would be, what was your first job?

Laura: Dairy Queen.

Ali: Brilliant. what makes you happy at work?

Laura: Music. I love blasting my music.

Ali: I'm sure that everybody appreciates that when you're in the office.

Laura: Oh yeah.

Ali: What are you listening to at the moment? Is there podcast, music, audiobooks?

Laura: Oh, I have a list on Spotify that I've kept for about 10 years. It's my like list. It actually got me through radiation treatment randomly. They get to play your playlist during radiation treatment. So all the nurses enjoyed my random selection of music.

Ali: Yeah. I’m sure it’s something that's important to you. So that's what matters particularly with everything that you went through there. And the final question is, where is your favourite place to visit and why?

Laura: Oh my God. Favourite place to visit. I love cabins. I’m in Minnesota so you can drive half an hour anywhere and get to some kind of woods, forest. I love lakes. So summer you'll find me at a cabin on a lake.

Ali: With the dogs as well, I assume.

Laura: Yeah. Mostly kids.

Ali: Lovely. Laura, look, it's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. I've thoroughly enjoyed this. And I hope you've enjoyed it too.

Laura: I did. Thanks. It's been nice chatting with you.

Ali: Brilliant. Thank you very much.



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