OPINION: How Innovation Meets Diversity in the Cali Tech Scene

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chambers diversity usa san fran
30 Sep 2019

Are the Bay Area’s tech giants leading the way when it comes to improving diversity and inclusion in the legal industry?

OUR Chambers Diversity Awards: USA 2019 ceremony was illuminating for many reasons, but one area that received an honourable place in the spotlight was the effort being made by the Bay Area’s tech elite. Among our winners were Patricia Svilik, eBay’s senior counsel, who won our future leader award in the minority lawyer category, and Willie Hernandez, deputy general counsel for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who was crowned our CSR lawyer of the year. They spoke with us to explain more about the innovative programmes they’ve been working on and the reasons for their success.

eBay and the Law in Technology Diversity Collaborative

“The challenges are structural,” says Svilik when reflecting on the barriers that have blocked the significant emergence of diversity in the industry. “The shift that needs to happen begins with building out the pipeline.” That’s exactly what Svilik set out to do – together with her colleague at eBay, David Pilson – by launching the Law in Technology Diversity Collaborative, an innovative, cross-company internship programme that includes eBay, Facebook, HPE, LendingClub, Symantec, Turo, and Uber, with support from Diversity Lab. Previously, Svilik had run the eBay Legal Internship Program (for 1Ls – first-year law students), started by Pilson in 2016. She leveraged that expertise to scale the programme to other legal departments, but did so in an innovative way: by building a shared, collaborative programme that can scale as opposed to expanding as a franchise.

Svilik led the other six company teams in the Collaborative to launch their own 1L internship programmes within a matter of months. They followed the framework of the eBay programme, an internship with a novel twist: each year, two successful underrepresented minority law student candidates would split their ten-week summer in half between eBay and a partner law firm.

“We had a formula that worked,” Svilik adds. The programme gave the students the “competitive edge” of securing in-house experience – a scarce opportunity for law students generally, and a

Patricia Svilik, senior counsel, eBay.

preferred characteristic for hiring managers at in-house legal departments. Svilik goes on to explain that the “unique perspective” gained from working in-house “will make our students better attorneys in law firm practice because they will have seen how legal advice is given and used by in-house legal teams, and they’ll have seen how a company’s business model is paramount to tailoring that advice. This means they can add more value.”

The problem was eBay’s limited reach at the time: it could only accept two candidates each year. Knowing that the programme’s formula worked (every 1L student on the eBay programme secured an associate position following their 2L summer at a law firm), Svilik and Pilson began reaching out to contacts within surrounding tech companies and at law firms. “We were looking at how we could scale this programme. We pitched it to other companies and then guided the group, step by step, to build the programme. We all worked collaboratively. It was a joint effort – all of the legal teams invested significant time and resources into turning the programme into a reality.”

The result? The Law in Technology Diversity Collaborative was born. Alongside the six other tech companies that Svilik had successfully rallied, fourteen law firms (spanning Cali-born tech whizzes like Orrick and Cooley to other domestic heavyweights like Hogan Lovells and Baker McKenzie) also partnered up to host the 1L summer programme “where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Svilik goes on to explain what this greater effect achieves: “Working together as a collaborative unlocks added value to the students and attorneys in the programme. Each in-house legal team has fixed resources and can only host a limited number of students and events. By sharing in this programme together, as legal teams we can take advantage of economies of scale and distribute the substantial workload that goes into recruiting, interviewing, and planning intern events. Of course, we also expand our own networks as well. It’s a win-win.”

However, Svilik adds that “most importantly, by working together, we are more effectively giving these students the skills, the networks, and the confidence to ascend the ranks wherever they land.” The importance of networks cannot be underestimated, Svilik reveals: “By creating a single, cross-company class of interns, we have critical mass for a social network among the interns (similar to a law firm’s summer associate class), designed to mature into a network of professional contacts. This ‘horizontal network’ is a boon to the students that, in the long run, may prove to be equally, or even more useful, than the resume credentials of being part of the programme.” Similarly, the students on the programme have been able to expand a “vertical network” of mentors and contacts, as they get to meet attorneys from the other tech companies involved.

With the above list of names on board, the programme quickly expanded: “As a result, we reviewed 250 applications, interviewed about 100 students in person at eight law schools around the country, and grew from two to sixteen internships in the first year of the Law in Tech Diversity Collaborative,” says Svilik. Reflecting on this achievement, Svilik notes that “our strength was in collective action – in terms of increased impact and creating economies of scale – but for many reasons, we also had to make space for the companies to act autonomously within the programme. This is what was innovative and fun about building the programme. What drove all the attorneys to dedicate so much time to this was knowing that we would be making a real impact in the career trajectories of these students, and by building a sustainable and scalable programme, we could be making an incremental change in the profession.”

Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the Legal Career Mentors Program

As a fellow member of the Collaborative, Hewlett Packard Enterprise is taking a demonstrable stand on diversity, but its deputy general counsel, Willie Hernandez, has been taking the company’s efforts one step further. As a first-generation lawyer (he was the first in his family to go to college, “let alone law school”), he knew how it felt to enter the world of law with no prior point of reference: “It is intimidating. On the one hand I could see that I was every bit as smart and capable as the other lawyers around me. On the other hand, I had some hesitation as to how to approach the corporate world, the politics, how to build a network, how to leverage a network – all of that was unknown to me.”

Willie Hernandez, Deputy General Counsel, HPE.

Having succeeded in his career, he wanted to give something back to those who were starting out in a similar position to him. As a keen debater in high school, Hernandez knew how the skills developed through debating – the honing of critical thinking, research, persuasive communication and evidence-based argument – were perfect for the transition into law. He was introduced to the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) – which works with at-risk youths from low-income and first-generation backgrounds – and went on to become its board chair. Over half of SVUDL’s student debaters intend on pursuing a career in the law, and as a result, Hernandez and his colleagues at HPE “decided that this was the right organisation for the legal community to partner with.”

The next steps involved working with companies and law firms to build the Legal Career Mentors Program; mentors on the programme make a six-year commitment to work with SVUDL students from their junior year at high school right through to their first year of law school. To gain interest from potential legal partners, Hernandez and his team held an event to show the SVUDL students in action arguing like lawyers during a moot court case in front of real judges. Around 200 lawyers from 30 firms and companies showed up. It was a success: “I had firms calling me the next day saying, ‘How do we get involved?’ We’ve done that a couple of times now and now the word is out we have developed a brand and raised awareness. Now the legal community is rallying because there aren’t many of these opportunities to connect with students that early, but also to connect with students who you can see have an appetite for pursuing legal careers.”

What’s tech got to do with it?

Both Svilik’s and Hernandez’s programmes possess the various qualities that make them worthy winners for us at Chambers Diversity & Inclusion: the innovation of thought and approach to create effective collaboration within, as Svilik notes, “a competitive space”; influential and workable models that attract collaborators and enable practical scaling up; and admirable results: both programmes have witnessed growth and look set to widen their scope in the years ahead. But is there something about these programmes’ origination in a tech context that has influenced their formulation and success?

“The tech sector as a whole places a high value on being disruptive and innovative,” says Svilik, adding: “There’s the open-mindedness in tech companies that you perhaps don’t get as much of in other industries. The companies are often international in scope with multi-cultural teams; we are encouraged to be creative problem-solvers, and we know that a diversity of opinions yields a more optimal outcome. Inherently, recruiting and retaining diverse members of the team will play into those better outcomes.” This creates a ripe setting to launch new programmes when paired with the in-house environment, which Svilik feels provides “increased flexibility to pursue ideas and opportunities in this [diversity and inclusion] area.”

However, Svilik does flag that the tech sector is a “mixed bag” when it comes to diversity. “The tech sector has traditionally been male dominated – that is the history of it, and at eBay we are working to change that narrative.” This, alongside other issues like age-discrimination suits being filed against some of the sector’s big names, show that for all its innovation, it is not immune from issues that are evident across industries.

Svilik also questions the assumption that technology itself can inherently make diversity better across industries: “I would be cautious about relying on AI and tech too much. It depends on how you train the system and what data you feed it. AI and machine learning have the potential to amplify biases if the right universal factors are not used.”

What can the legal profession learn from the ideas and programmes emerging from the Cali tech scene?

1). Collaboration works and can make a significant difference. Scaling up pipeline and mentoring models amplifies the benefit experienced by diverse individuals who are either looking to enter the profession or are currently operating within it. And the scope for collaborating with competitors is much broader than many may assume: “The law firms have really been on board – a tremendous number of firms are interested, and many companies have asked to participate next year,” says Svilik. “The energy and momentum to make this difference is really heartening.”

In particular, she highlights “great learning moments and conversations that I’ve had with people at law firms where I’ve thought, ‘Wow, that conversation did some good in the world today.’ There have been conversations where we’ve felt that we’ve really been able to reach someone whose goals are aligned, but maybe didn’t recognise how certain practices were reinforcing the institutional barriers to diversifying the profession. The companies in the Collaborative have good relationships with the law firms partnering with us. With compassion, we’ve been able to shed light on this – perhaps they didn’t understand how certain decisions or viewpoints can play out. For example, what does it mean to pass over a clearly bright and hard-working student because they may lack sufficient ‘polish?’ We have the chance – together – to symbiotically influence how high-profile law firms are recruiting.”

Svilik relates this point back to the guidance for in-house counsel that emerged from Michelle Fang’s open letter, which was published in January 2019 and pressed for increased diversity within law firms: “In-house legal departments are uniquely positioned to influence both the pipeline and the top of the funnel in terms of who we want representing us at law firms. At eBay, we are partnering with law firms to gather metrics and really impress on them that this is important to us. This is a multi-year conversation, but we are being strict about what the truth is: we are there to have the conversation, but if the metrics don’t meet our standards then we will take our business elsewhere.”

But how can in-house lawyers and departments get their private practice counterparts on side to support their ideas for new programmes? For Hernandez, “it took showcasing” his SVUDL students to prospective law firm and company partners. The first event he organised saw SVUDL debaters arguing “some of the most difficult constitutional questions” in front of members from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The local legal community watched on. “The students were so effective that it was easy after that to go to the law firms and law departments and say, ‘Now get involved.’ Once you see them arguing like lawyers you can connect with them as a lawyer.”

Giving law firms and senior legal leaders in-house a chance to see candidates in action was also an important convincing tool for Svilik. “The students we found were exceptional. The partners at law firms who have shared interview time with us have let us know that they are really impressed with the candidates. That’s one reason the programme worked so well.” As Hernandez attests, it’s about “helping people look at talent differently: they are able to see through the demographics and look at our students’ skill, potential and desire – and see them for that. That, to me, is very meaningful.”

2). The profession must look beyond the ‘top’ law schools and re-evaluate recruitment practices.

“In addition to reaching students, we wanted to reach the law firms as well and expand their horizons beyond only considering students from the top fifteen law schools,” Svilik explains, highlighting the different approach taken by eBay and the Collaborative: “When we evaluated which schools to recruit from, we didn’t just consider academic ranking and location, but we also deliberately considered the diversity index of the law school. We believe that the top students in most law schools are of the same calibre; but for many, socio-economic issues can play a pivotal role in which law school they end up attending – scholarships, in-state tuition rates, family pressures, role models, to name a few. So, maybe they have different socio-economic backgrounds, maybe they have different reasons for not going to the top fifteen schools, but many have the same talent.”

“We go through a rigorous screening process and are confident in the students we select,” states Svilik. “Through the Collaborative, our legal teams partner with high profile law firms that share our values, and we wanted to bring them this talent from schools that they may not typically target. The goal is to encourage a reassessment of the firms’ traditional recruiting practices.”

What’s more, as Hernandez reveals, legal recruiters have a much wider pool of talented and enthusiastic budding lawyers to recruit from than they think. Speaking of the SVUDL students that he’s worked with over the years, Hernandez tells us: “When we start exposing them to the different ways that lawyers practise, what we find is that they want to pursue the whole range of legal careers. To me that just goes to show that they have the skill and the desire – they just don’t have the access, but when you give them that access, it opens up the doors for them.”

3). Sustained mentoring is fundamental and doable for lawyers.

The other reason that Svilik feels the original eBay internship worked well – and that the students participating in the Law in Tech Diversity Collaborative will do well – is because the “attorneys involved were very invested in their students: they built genuine and sincere mentorships and we all keep in touch. Mentoring is one of the most rewarding aspects of participating in any internship programme – being a useful resource, a teacher, a reality-check, and a shoulder to lean on. The first 1L intern I mentored has now graduated (from Howard Law School), and I was honoured when she asked me to be her professional reference for her bar application. She leveraged her internship experience at eBay and our partner law firm of Baker McKenzie to land a job her 2L summer with another high-profile law firm – Skadden Arps. And now, she is giving back to the community as a Public Interest Law Initiative Fellow with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights before starting as a corporate associate at Skadden this fall.”

Hernandez is very clear about the benefits of ongoing mentorships for his SVUDL students. “Mentoring is critical for these students. They clearly have the skills and the potential to succeed but they lack access and the understanding of how to navigate from their position to a professional world: mentors fill that void and can help them work around the obstacles – whether they are real obstacles or perceived obstacles.”

Hernandez’s mentoring programme requests that mentors make a six-year commitment to assisting SVUDL students, averaging out at an hour a month. He’s had no shortage of interest from lawyers who want to get involved, so the willingness to invest time is certainly there in the legal community. However, many more lawyers do need to get involved. What message does Hernandez have for lawyers who are considering becoming a mentor but are concerned about the time commitment? “I think they should just sign up. The thing with mentoring is that it doesn’t take much. Keeping regular contact with a mentee under these circumstances can involve 30 minutes a month, on the phone, connecting, but done over a period of time you build up a relationship with your mentee and also trust, so that when that obstacle pops up in a year or two from now you are a go-to resource for them. You’re able to help them navigate around it. That’s the real value – that’s the return on investment that you get from entering a mentoring relationship. It’s not heavy lifting. It involves getting to know the person, their circumstances and their ambitions. You’re then trying to help them identify the gaps that they need to fill in order to navigate their way to where they want to go.”

What’s next?

Looking ahead, Svilik and Hernandez will be working to grow their respective programmes with the goal of encouraging more law firms and law departments to take part and reach more diverse students. Strengthening the pipeline is key for both, but they are also keen to highlight retention issues within the legal sector that need to be addressed. Alongside exerting in-house influence to increase diversity within private practice, Svilik notes the need for more senior role models: “As a young professional, if you find role models who look like you, that will encourage you to stick it out and reach higher, be more optimistic and embrace your ambition.” A lack of diverse role models in senior positions therefore affects the sense of progression that young, diverse lawyers need, in part, to drive their careers forward.

For Hernandez, it’s time we stopped talking about inclusive environments in the abstract and began discussing “what they truly look like. I think we need to work on creating those inclusive cultures at firms and at companies so that diversity is not just about numbers. If we don’t focus on the inclusive culture, diversity will not be sustainable.”

Whether the Cali tech companies will lead the way on these issues remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that some of the individuals working within them have done much of late to steer not just the conversation forward, but also practical frameworks for increasing diversity and inclusion in the profession.