June 19, 2024


Built General Tough

Law Firm Innovators 2021: Maria L.H. Lewis

Following the firm’s February 2020 combination and almost immediate move to a remote work environment due to the pandemic, Lewis understood the value of connecting firm leadership with diverse lawyers. She launched an initiative to connect law firm leaders with diverse lawyers for one-on-one conversations that offer support, advice, connection and insights. In addition, she provides confidential and on-going career counseling for our diverse lawyers and supplements the supports offered by the affinity group for our diverse lawyers.

The firm was deeply affected by the disturbing and terrible events surrounding the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Driven by Lewis’ guidance, the continues to is advance its commitment to combat racism by initiating the following immediate actions. A team led by Lewis facilitated over 40 virtual, small-group conversations over five days in all of our U.S. offices to discuss racial injustice.

Necessity is the mother of invention. What need was your firm inspired to address with your innovation?

We are constantly looking for ways to innovate our approach to advancing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, both inside our organization and within the legal profession generally. To help us continue to move the needle in an effective and holistic way, we recognize that collaboration with our clients is vital to success. With that in mind, we created a program built to address opportunities to materially increase diverse representation on Faegre Drinker legal teams performing for clients. The three components of the program that work in tandem to achieve results are accountability, innovation and intentionality.

Accountability includes the use of data to hold ourselves accountable as a firm and to our clients. To foster greater innovation, we challenge ourselves to venture boldly to try new things with specific focuses on retention and advancement, and leadership and strategy development.  And lastly, intentionality, which to us means understanding that relying on natural tendencies, even when coupled with good intentions, is not enough to accomplish our goals.

For example, we prepare real-time client-focused dashboards that evaluate the diversity of legal teams and contributions in both hours worked and fees billed based on demographic representation and tenure. We have a multi-pronged approach to develop associates, which among resources provided, includes a robust advisor program that pairs an associate and partner together for the purpose of intentional 1:1 guidance directed at the associate’s growth and development. Our ability to create fully engaged, diverse and inclusive teams is part of how we view success. It fosters innovations, enhances client service, promotes inclusive experiences on client teams, ensures consistent approaches to development opportunities, and allows us to consider everyone in an equitable manner.

Innovation within a law firm requires a strong vision and a lot of coordination internally. How was your firm able to turn a vision into a reality during such an unpredictable year?

The past year has been a trying one on many levels for our colleagues and clients, especially those who are diverse. Racial justice moved to the forefront of the national conversation in 2020; the events behind this focus affirmed and highlighted the need and responsibility for Faegre Drinker to continue our work and increase our efforts to support systemic change. Law firms are uniquely positioned to analyze and advocate to change laws and policies encouraging, perpetuating or allowing racial injustice.

Our clients are equally as passionate about affecting positive change and that has driven our collaboration and partnerships in these critically important matters. Within the legal industry, recruitment and retention work hand-in-hand – one does not exist without the other. At a time of constricted and virtual summer programs we doubled down and engaged our client in collaborative opportunities to develop a diverse pipeline. As a result of our recruitment initiatives, the 2020 Summer Associate class was represented by the following – female: 60% or 36 of 60; racially/ethnically diverse: 43% or 26 of 60; LGBTQ diverse: 3% or 2 of 60; total diversity 73% or 44 of 60. In 2021, the diversity of our summer associate class is represented by – female: 73% or 28; racial/ethnic and LGBTQ: 63% or 24. We have been just as intentional regarding diversity when making firm decisions on lateral partner and associate recruiting, and promoting from within to position diverse colleagues for partnership.

Additionally, we seek justice and equity through pro bono efforts, including the important work around voting rights, which has received recent attention. Faegre Drinker engages in non-partisan voting rights efforts to protect democracy by making it fairer, safer and easier to vote. People of color, particularly the Black community, have been systematically disenfranchised in this country. An example of recent work in this area is Minnesota litigation seeking to allow individuals who have been convicted of felonies to vote once they have served their sentence. Additionally, we have utilized our knowledge in this space to further educate our clients and the legal community at large of this important work.

What obstacles did the firm need to overcome to execute that vision?

Just one month after our firm’s formation through the combination of Drinker Biddle & Reath and Faegre Baker Daniels, our firm transition to a remote work environment in response to the pandemic. We were challenged not only to come together as a new firm in a virtual environment, but to have that happen during a year of reckoning related to social justice. Overcoming these challenges required us to work together on our shared goals as previously detailed.

Creating a more inclusive environment is a challenge that extends beyond our firm and even the legal profession itself.  But while there is still much to be done to move the needle, a critically important dialogue around diversity and inclusion has been fueled and there is a tangible momentum that we cannot let slip through our fingers. Our firm, and our clients, have doubled down on diversity and inclusion efforts and we’ve capitalized on the synergies and collaboration already taking place. Outside of our client collaboration program, we have tailored programing to enrich our core values, providing a number of opportunities to raise awareness and provide education opportunities extended to both our colleagues and clients. By building community within the firm and with our clients, we bolster our capacity to contribute meaningfully to advancing the communities where we operate.