In the latest episode of the CMO Series REPRESENTS podcast, we delve into the critical mission of creating a safe and supportive environment for nurturing talent, a top priority for many firms. However, the task of devising effective strategies to foster a culture of allyship and empower diverse lawyers to achieve success is more challenging than it may seem.
Join us as Yasmin Zand welcomes Lynnette Espy-Williams, an Equity Partner and the Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer at Cozen O'Connor to CMO Series REPRESENTS. Lynnette, recently named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Women in Diversity & Inclusion by The Chief Navigators Magazine, joins the series to share her personal journey as a diverse lawyer and the transformative experiences that have influenced her career.
During this episode, we explore the influential role of innovative marketing and mentorship while delving into Lynnette's invaluable insights and practical advice on how to bring allies together to shape a future where inclusivity not only exists but thrives.
Yasmin: Welcome everybody to the Passle REPRESENTS Podcast today. Our podcast is called Thriving Together: Cultivating allyship, safety, and diversity in law firm culture. Building a safe and supportive environment for talent to flourish is up there on most firms' agendas. However, developing a meaningful strategy to cultivate a culture of allyship to enable diverse lawyers to succeed is easier said than done. Lynn Espy-Williams, Equity Partner and Chief Diversity Officer at Cozen O'Connor joins CMO series REPRESENTS today to share her personal journey as a diverse lawyer and the experiences that have shaped her career.
We're going to discuss the power of innovative marketing and mentorship and unpack Lynn's insights and practical tips on how to unify allies to sculpt a future where inclusion thrives.
Lynnette: Thank you, Yasmin. I'm so glad to be here.
Yasmin: Of course, we're so happy to have you. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to join us today. I'm sure everybody in the crowd is wondering how you came to your role as Chief Diversity Officer at Cozen O'Connor.
Lynnette: Well, you know, it's funny because it's a winding road, as some may say. I started at Cozen many, many moons ago, in about 2006. At the time that I started, I had always been involved in the diversity committee. I've always had a passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so I really made it a priority to get involved early on in my career. And it really stuck with it all of these many years later. Candidly, my mother was also a diversity advocate. And so, you know, as the saying goes, it's kind of something that was, I grew up with and it was something that was super important to me. But, you know, being in the professional realm, I just always had my toe in DE&I, and it was something that was always in the back of my mind and something that I always prioritized as a part of my career. And so fast forward to about five years ago. Our firm decided that we wanted to create a chief role and elevate the role to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And so we decided for the first time to have a senior partner come in um and take this on as a part of their responsibilities. And that's when I was appointed to the Officer of Cozen in December of 2018.
Yasmin: That's amazing. And you said that your mother was a diversity advocate, which is incredible. So how have other, you know, parts of your personal experiences, especially as a woman of color in the legal profession, shaped your approach to diversity at the firm?
Lynnette: That's a good question. I mean, I think it's just who I am. You know, watching the incredible impact that she had on her students, she was Head of Diversity for a nursing school in Columbus, Ohio. It made me realize the impact that you can truly make on an organization and the imprint that you can make on an organization. You know, when I decided to take on the role, I was actually living in Atlanta at the time and I was a pretty new partner at the time and I was building a book of business, but also I had just bought a house 18 months in and when the firm approached me to do it, you know, I had some hesitations because it would require me to move to the East Coast and, you know, my husband was deployed at the time. And so it was a big move for us. And I think for me deciding to come into this role, it was a conversation that I had with our managing partner and he said “We really want you to lead these initiatives. We think you'd be great to really transform our firm and transform our culture.” And so it was a big ask. And I said, “Well, you know, it sounds great. I'm passionate about it, but you know, what's my job? You know, am I supposed to come in and make sure that, you know, we get more black lawyers, we get more Hispanic lawyers, you know, lawyers identify LGBTQ+? Like, what's my job?” And, he paused for a second and he said, “No, that's not your job, that's all of our jobs.” So for me, that was a turning point and that's when it really solidified that this was gonna be a great role for me. I'm still able to practice law, which I love, but I also can, can also make an impact in the DE&I phase and it was when I realized that this was gonna be a perfect fit for me. And it was an intersection of all of the years of experience that I have acquired to be able to put it into motion.
Yasmin: It sounds like such a forward-thinking firm. And I think since you've been at the firm for 18 years, you probably have seen so much change in how, you know, other attorneys are speaking about DE&I. How has the landscape changed in that time for firms? Like from a DE&I standpoint, of course, like from your perspective, as you know, a practicing lawyer.
Lynnette: Yeah, I mean, you know, in that amount of time, obviously, the landscape of DE&I has changed a ton and I remember, you know, back when I first started practicing law, it used to be that it was acceptable for law firms and clients to just have, you know, a woman of color or a woman or a person identified as LGBTQ+ as a part of a pitch. But, you know, back then, you know, it didn't matter if they spoke, it didn't matter if they really contributed or had any substantive contributions. But just as long as you had someone in the room that was sufficient, well, fast forward to 2023 and that's just no longer sufficient. And I think clients' commitment is now becoming and have become much more intentional about outside counsel and their true commitments to diversity and inclusion. You think about the relationship partners and making sure that they're adhering to the principles of diversity and inclusion and that match with the clients' goals and morals. So I think it's just a much more intentional approach now. We receive so many requests for data and information about who is working on files, and who's leading files. And who, what did the team look like? What do the teams look like? What is the makeup of the teams? And that is very different from when I first started practicing law. I think one inflection point of note that most people know but was the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. And after that, you saw kind of a shift in the legal community in the industry where law firms were no longer complying with the status quo with diversity and inclusion. They started hiring chief Diversity officers, they started pouring more resources and money into diversity inclusion training. And you really saw this groundswell of support for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and programming. And I think that that was a good and welcome change, but it was very different from, you know, the 2000s, the early 2000s when I started out in this business and I think that this is a good change for us and I hope that it continues.
Yasmin: So you mentioned the inflection point with the murder of George Floyd. And of course, you mentioned kind of your mother's dedication to diversity and inclusion as well. In your experience, what are the most, I guess the three most influential things, whether it be, of course, people or experiences generally that have impacted your career in legal? Again, I know you mentioned George Floyd, but out of curiosity, are there other bits as well?
Lynnette: Yeah, I mean, for me, they're probably three personal things and it's kind of hard to pick just three things. But, you know, I would say just personally, my clerkship was in Georgia right after law school, I clerked for the Georgia Supreme Court. I had the honor of clerking for the first African-American female Chief Justice of a State Supreme Court in the United States. Her name was Justice Leah Ward Sears. And that was just such an amazing experience, not just for me as a woman and a woman of color, but to be clerking for such an outstanding jurist in that type of environment, but also so early in my career. That was an inflection point for me personally, because she was such an influential person in my life. At that time, it was my first legal role. But it was really my first legal mentor. With the exception of my father, who had practiced for 50 years. So this was just an amazing way for me to kick off my legal career. So I'd have to say that that clerkship was one of the influential things and people and experiences that impacted my career in the industry.
The second was my sponsorship relationship with the managing partner at Cozen O’Connor. And many people have heard the story. But when I started at Cozen very early on, I reached out to the Managing Partner. I was in the Atlanta office. He was in our Philadelphia office. And at the time, he may have been like an administrative partner. But nonetheless, I reached out and I said, “Hey, you know, I'm a young associate in Atlanta. I'm looking for a sponsor and it's your lucky day. Like, would you like to sponsor me?” And, you know, in hindsight he was a bit taken aback because he knew my name but didn't know me well. And he was like, “Well, what's it gonna cost me? “ And I said, “Oh, it's not gonna cost you a thing.” But, you know, I realized early on that if I wanted to ascend for management, if I wanted to get substantive opportunities to get client-facing matters and to get that experience I had to reach outside of my office and connect with someone else. And so he agreed to sponsor me, which was 18 years ago. And he's still my sponsor to this day. And he was really an influential person in my life, and also impacted my career, because he made sure I got opportunities, he made sure that I had opportunities to lead committees at our firm. He made sure that he supported me in my bar association when I was the president of a bar association in Georgia. So I'd have to say that that was the second person that really shaped my career and changed the trajectory of my career. And then the third thing I would say is fast forward to now, which is serving as Chief Diversity Officer. And for me, this role has really brought me full circle. It's allowing me to marry two loves; practicing law, but also making an impact in my own community and other communities that I feel so passionately about. And it really has come full circle as far as my career. You know, I consider myself a pretty young lawyer even though I've been doing this a long time. But I feel like this is a good pinnacle for me because I'm able to do all of the things that I care so passionately about. So if I had to only pick those three things, it would probably be the clerkship, the sponsorship relationship with the managing partner at my firm, and my current role as Chief Diversity Equity and Inclusion Officer.
Yasmin: Lynn. So you seem very outgoing, of course, you are like, so I feel like you're such a natural with people. How do you do this, is more for the younger folks who are gonna be kind of listening to this podcast. How did you kind of come up with it? I mean, how did you get these opportunities? I mean, to message the managing partner and say, “Hey, I want you to sponsor me.” That takes a lot of gut. So how did you kind of get there to get to that point to do that?
Lynnette: You know, that's a good question. I don't know. I think at the time I just, the way that I was raised, I was raised to go after what you want to be relentless in your pursuit of your dreams, but also your happiness. And I think for me, at the time, I was a young lawyer, I was hungry, I was ambitious. I really just wanted to make sure that everything within my power to be able to have a long career at this firm that I that I loved was gonna happen. And I think I also had in the back of my mind that as a woman and a woman of color, I knew that this wasn't an environment that most of us thrived in. Now, if you think about the statistics, there's, you know, people of color and women, they don't last at big law firms past seven years. And I didn't want that to be my story. And I knew that in order to not make that story, I had to make those relationships and I had to, you know, through grit and hard work and perseverance. I had to put all those things into play to be able to thrive in an environment that has not traditionally been an environment which people like me thrived in. But to that point, you know, as a woman of color in the legal profession, I had to realize that the experience that I had at Cozen with a sponsor and someone who truly cared about my career was the exception. It wasn't the rule. And so for me, I set out to decide that I wanted my experience to be the rule. And in order to do that, I had to make certain changes and recommendations and I had to get involved on the management level so that I could make sure that there were things put in place so that people like me and others could thrive in this environment. And so that's probably the short answer to your question, but I, I truly don't know what made me call him that day. But I can honestly say that I don't regret it.
Yasmin: I love that answer. It's just something that you really can't help but think about is what it takes you that step further to make those kinds of calls and pick up the phone. So thank you for sharing that. And I think that really feeds into our next question really well, which is what we had kind of spoken about before, about you wanting to be remembered as a good lawyer, but an even better firm citizen. I think you're so natural, and of course, I think it comes down to the type of person that you are and how you were raised, what you were just talking about. But you also speak about, you know, allyship and creating a safe space, right? And making sure that you're making your experience the rule. Can you tell us more about your approach? The training that you've implemented in Cozens maybe to help cultivate that environment.
Lynnette: Oh, absolutely. So I mean, I am a huge allyship fan in training and, honestly, allyship is so critical to the development of a psychologically safe and inclusive environment. And what does that mean? It just means that without allyship change is not sustainable. And so, you know, I oftentimes joke and say that my superpower is the opportunity to be able to transform a culture into something that works for everyone. And in order to do that, you have to have allyship. So, the number one thing that I have heard just in my role as the Chief Diversity Officer at Cozen, but also in other places, is that there are so many people who want to be positive and contribute to diversity and inclusion within their workplace and their environment, but they don't really truly know what to do. They don't know what's best to be inclusive and they're afraid to make mistakes, and potentially, you know, alter a relationship with a coworker that may not look like them and may change their involvement or their work relationship. And so the thing that we did at Cozen and we continue to do is to focus on allyship and that's empowering our employees, empowering our managers and our management to understand what it means to be a good ally and what does that look like and that could look like bystander intervention. And that means that if someone who's around you, who may be a diverse lawyer or a diverse staff member or a colleague or a peer, you know, if something is to be said, say there’s a microaggression that's launched against this particular person, how do you reject so that it's respectful so that it's not awkward so that you can create a safe space for someone who may be on the receiving end of a comment or something that may be unwanted. And so, training folks to learn what bystander intervention really means and how to effectively carry that out. Other things that we've done are pronoun usage and providing training on what that means. You know, a lot of the younger generation know exactly what pronouns mean, the application of using someone's pronouns correctly. But we had to educate an older generation to let them know why it's so important to get pronouns, right? When someone is requesting to be addressed in a certain way.
So providing that type of training so that individuals know they can be a good ally by simply using someone's correct pronouns and going out of their way to make sure that they get it right. Also encouraging folks in our firm to participate in affinity groups, even if it's not a group that you traditionally may identify with. So at our firm, we have six self-identifying constituencies that make up our six affinity groups. We have black lawyers, Hispanic lawyers, Asian lawyers, lawyers who identify as LGBTQ+, lawyers who are differently abled as well as lawyers who are veterans. We encourage all of our lawyers and our staff who have ERGs as well to participate, even if it's an affinity group that you may not necessarily identify with. So we have allies in our LGBTQ+ affinity group. We have individuals who are a part of our black lawyers because they support the black lawyers at our firm. And so, those are just two examples, but we encourage everyone to participate and that also creates a culture of inclusiveness but also psychological safety for all of our employees and our staff.
Yasmin: I love how you explain to people too, like you don't, you don't have to be a part of this affinity group in order to participate and be an ally. I think people really miss that, right? They think, oh if I'm, you know, not like a black lawyer, I can't be a part of the black affinity group, right? But everybody can join and, like everybody, can support one another. So I think that's incredible and that's something that a lot of, you know, folks in legal can take home with them too of like, oh yeah, you know, we can all participate and support one another. In that same breath. You talk a lot about these initiatives and how you're kind of supporting and cultivating the safe space of and psychological safety. Where do you find the role of legal marketing and BD professionals in all of this? And how can they contribute to driving inclusion to enable diverse talent to thrive?
Lynnette: You know, that's a really good question. And, you know, I certainly don't purport to be an expert, you know, in this space. But I know the things that I have seen work, for instance, promoting diverse talent, you know, whether it be making sure that all of your diverse lawyers and your women and the women in your organization are getting submitted for award submissions. There's so many that come out and that can really bolster a diverse lawyer’s career or your diverse talents’ career. Thinking about ways to use social media. Social media has been a super powerful tool for legal marketing. And also I've seen it work for business development as well. Certainly in the personal entry space and other spaces like that. So, making sure that you are strategizing on the social media front when you want to bolster or give spotlights on diverse talent. Press releases, you know, I know press releases look a lot different now than they did when we first started out in our career. But pushing those out whenever you can. Speaking and writing opportunities, you know, I always tell individuals who are thinking about building business there's no better way to try to get business than speaking and writing. And taking every opportunity even when you don't want to do it, and providing that for diverse talent and those are ways to help them thrive as well. On the business development front, that's always tricky because I think that that's always such an individualized thing for that particular lawyer or talent, but giving opportunities, that leads to long-term relationships and voluminous assignments, making sure that they're not just in the room, that if it's appropriate and it's an area that they can lead from a substantive perspective to make sure you're putting that lawyer out there first, is another opportunity. Or for the lawyers that are coming up and they're in the pipeline, giving them opportunities to pitch and work with lawyers that may not be diverse but are more senior where they can get that training and development and be intentional about that. And then the last thing that I would say is financial support, like making sure that the diverse lawyers that are involved in bar associations or trade organizations are able to travel and attend those conferences or lead those organizations. I remember when I was president of a bar association back in 2013, Cozen supported me financially so that I could make sure that I was sponsoring the judicial receptions and that Cozen was sponsoring with me as president, the galas, and things of that nature. And it gave me, as a diverse lawyer and woman of color, opportunities to look like I was leading a national law firm because I was the headline sponsor for that particular event. And, you know, sometimes these things can come across as, you know, just throwing money at it, but it really does matter and it creates a brand and it creates opportunities for the diverse talent to stand out amongst their peers, which is super important with respect to marketing and business development.
Yasmin: Lynn, how did you propose to Cozens that sponsorship opportunity? And how did you bring that up if you don't mind me asking?
Lynnette: I mean, they knew that I was involved, I had worked my way up with the organization. So I've knew several, you know, maybe three years in advance that I was gonna put my name as president and of course, you have a year for president-elect. So I was very vocal about my involvement. You know, I wasn't afraid to ask for financial support. And for me, you know, they always say, don’t toot your own horn, but I say absolutely toot your own horn. You know, you have to tell people what you're doing and there's a professional and appropriate way to do it. And I think that that's why the ask was easier for me because they were already aware of my involvement and I gave them several years um notice that I was going to be asking for a budget. And so, you know, I say all the time don't be afraid to treat your own horn and be prepared to be able to provide information so that wherever you're asking that they're prepared to respond to the ask when you make it.
Yasmin: Thank you. I think that's one piece of advice that I would probably take away from all of this that you've shared is of course, you know, get out there and be proud of what you're doing and toot your own horn. But I think for our final question, you know, if you had to give one piece of advice and I feel like your experience is amazing. So your one piece of advice is probably like the golden nugget. But if you…
Lynnette: No pressure!
Yasmin: No pressure at all, none. But if you did have to pass on one piece of advice to other law firm leaders looking to cultivate a culture of safety, allyship, and diversity, what would it be?
Lynnette: That's such a loaded question, Yasmin. But I would say, you know, I think my one piece of advice would be to not, don't be afraid to take risks and don't be afraid to fail. I think when I first got into this role, I was so hypersensitive about getting it right and making sure that I could do all things for all people. And I think, you know, taking an intentional and purposeful approach in everything you do and not being so caught up about something not working, whether it be like an initiative or a program. You know, and you will fail, you'll try something and it won't work and you need to step back, regroup, tweak it and then do it again. And one example that I can give is that I forever wanted to work with women's initiative to start a co-sponsorship program in our firm because I knew sponsorship worked because it worked for me. And that was my first step in making sure that my experience was the rule for everyone and not the exception. And so I wanted to develop this co-sponsor program. So I got with the women's initiative, we developed it and we started it off with a pilot. And we're in the middle of the pilot right now. But I think what took me so long is I was afraid that it wasn't gonna work. So I would just say, you know, if you have an idea, no matter how crazy jump right in, develop a team, be intentional about it, talk to your colleagues at other firms, figure out if they've done it, figure out what their failures were so that you don't repeat them, but don't be afraid to take risks because the greatest risk gets back the greatest return.
Yasmin: Lynn. Thank you so much. That was great. I think the piece that I'll take away is figuring out people's failures, because that is such a great way to learn about how people are working and what they're doing and what their experience is because otherwise, you'll never get that perspective. Fantastic. Well, Lynn again, thank you so much for coming on to the podcast today to everybody listening. I mean, you have a lot of great takeaways from Lynn. So definitely key in and I won't tell everybody to come knocking on your door to ask for advice, but I mean…
Lynnette: That's okay, that's okay.
Yasmin: But again, thank you so much for your time, Lynn, and to the folks who are listening, thank you again for joining us here on the Passle REPRESENTS podcast. Feel free to reach out to us if you guys have any questions or if anybody else wants to invite anybody to join the podcast. We're just so lucky to be able to speak with people like you. And so thank you so much. Your experience is invaluable.
Lynnette: Thank you for having me.