BY ADINA LEVINE
Three representatives from Dewey Ballantine met with the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) chairpersons on March 10th to discuss concrete actions that Dewey Ballantine plans to take to increase its diversity. This came after The Record published an article about a Dewey Ballantine partner sending a racially offensive e-mail.
“I was glad that Dewey representatives were quick to respond to our article in The Record and our letter,” asserted Angela Chan, co-Chair of APALSA. “I look forward to working with Dewey more on turning these embarrassing and offensive incidents into an opportunity to seriously address the systemic problems in the firm’s culture and hopefully having Dewey emerge as a leader in issues of diversity instead of as an example of what not to do.”
The Dewey Ballantine representatives included two partners from the New York office, James A. Fitzpatrick and David J. Grais, and Manager of Legal Recruitment Nicole Gunn. On campus for 1L recruitment, the partners also discussed the racially offensive incidents with the 1Ls at the recruitment event.
“We explained to them that we believe the e-mail is not representative of our culture and discussed the Firm’s response,” asserted Fitzpatrick, again explaining how the co-chairs at the London office had immediately condemned the e-mail that said “Please don’t let these puppies go to a Chinese restaurant!” as well as issued a memo explaining that such comments would not be tolerated at the firm.
The crux of the meeting, however, did not focus on the firm’s response to this particular e-mail, but on general protocol that the firm can enforce to insure that such an incident does not happen again.
“The focus of our discussion was on how we might use this incident as an opportunity to accelerate the development of planned and new initiatives to ensure that our culture nurtures diversity in all forms,” explained Fitzpatrick, “and, indeed, that we become a leader in the legal community on issues of diversity.”
Dewey’s initiative will begin with an internal investigation as well as programs to rid the office environment of any racist sentiments.
“I asked Dewey to consider implementing a no tolerance policy for racist harassment and slurs in the workplace,” commented Chan. “They said they would look into their current policy on racial harassment. David Grais acknowledged that Dewey should focus on cleaning its own house first.”
The “action plan” that Dewey has proposed will begin with an examination of the internal office environment.
“First and foremost, we are comprehensively reviewing our internal procedures and controls to ensure that the environment in all our offices, both in the United States and abroad, is respectful and supportive to lawyers and staff of all backgrounds,” asserted Fitzpatrick, quoting verbatim the March 16 letter that Dewey sent to APALSA in response to the meeting. “This has long been our goal, but the recent e-mail demonstrates that we have more work to do to achieve it.”
Dewey’s other actions include such changes as providing annual grants to approximately five law schools (including Harvard) to fund diversity-related projects such as internships, hopefully in place by this summer, as well as more routine changes such as an examination of the mentoring program, increases in pro bono work, and commitments to hire more diverse lawyers. Dewey has also committed to continuing to give financial support to minority groups that they have in the past, such as APALSA at Columbia, as well as “organizations that will be new to us,” according to Fitzpatrick.
“There is great potential if Dewey maps out and takes concrete steps to first address problems with its own internal structure and then works to build lasting relationships with minority bar associations and student organizations in order to sustain these advances,” asserted Chan. “The key to achieving this is constant vigilance in improving the structure of Dewey, proactive policies and optimism that things can and should change, and regular communication with minority attorneys and minority community and student organizations.”
One of APALSA’s key concerns was that Dewey maintain communication with minority groups in order to foster the sense of diversity at the firm.
“I told Dewey that they ‘dropped the ball’ after the first incident involving the ‘So Solly’ skit because they did not hold a diversity reception or sponsor any other type of event to reach out to minority law students,” commented Chan.
Renny Hwang, co-chair of APALSA, informed Dewey of certain classmates of his who had decided not to work for Dewey after the controversy last year that hailed the closing of its Hong Kong office with a racially offensive parody that sang “so solly” (to the tune of “Hello Dolly”).
“The fact remained that these incidents happened, which is indicative of a discriminatory and perhaps demeaning environment towards Asian Americans at the firm, and perhaps in the legal community in general,” Chan remarked. “Renny said that for better or worse, Dewey has been put into the position where the impetus is on the firm to address the situation and become a standard-bearer for the issue.”
“We intend to have a continuing dialogue with APALSA on these issues,” said Fitzpatrick.
“Our sincere hope is that our discussion with Dewey and the firm’s efforts will lead to a greater awareness, understanding and respect for diversity, and particularly Asian Americans, at the firm, and in the legal community in general,” said Chan, quoting Hwang’s remarks. “We urge the firm to turn the unfortunate incidents into a positive reality, and to take advantage of this opportunity to establish itself as a leader in diversity in the legal community.”