Sophia Lee is a litigation partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) at Blank Rome LLP. As an attorney, she handles commercial, environmental, product liability, and toxic tort matters for energy and chemical companies. As CDIO at Blank Rome, she provides guidance and education to the firm, as well as to firm clients, on matters related to diversity and inclusion. Sophia is an active member of the Forum of the Executive Women; a board member and past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania; a board member and past co-president of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group; and a past diversity chair for the Philadelphia Bar Association.
Marianne Talbot (MT): What are the top three tips that you would give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker today?
Sophia Lee (SL): This is a great question. Everyone has different strengths, and we should all play to our strengths, but these are my top three:
- Get close to your clients and prospects by understanding their values and concerns and aligning your guidance with their specific needs.
- Develop a sustainable business plan and be disciplined in follow-through. Work with trusted colleagues, mentors, and executive coaches to help develop and leverage your unique strengths to help build your book of business and, more importantly, a career you love.
- Understand that diversity and inclusion are important values to your clients and should remain top of mind when pitching and executing work, organizing events, and hiring anyone your firm may work with, including not only attorneys, but professional staff and outside vendors.
MT: Should diversity and inclusion be a part of every rainmaker’s toolbox and why?
SL: The answer is a resounding yes. Diversity and inclusion should be part of every rainmaker’s toolbox for a multitude of reasons.
We know from the research that diversity promotes innovation and profitability. We know that more diverse teams find better solutions and that more diverse companies financially outperform their less diverse competitors. We also know that when organizations embrace inclusion, they are more likely to attract and retain talent. And, significantly, our clients are demanding that their outside counsel law firms not only promote diversity and inclusion initiatives, but also demonstrably support these values by requiring annual reports on diversity demographics of the firm’s timekeepers and those timekeepers assigned to their matters, and on the law firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, engagements, and certifications.
Given these dynamics, there can be no question as to the importance of diversity and inclusion to business—for both internally focused and externally driven reasons—and in furtherance of our ideals about social justice.
The best lawyers are attuned to their clients’ objectives, understand and appreciate their values, and anticipate their needs. Diversity and inclusion are playing increasingly important roles with clients because our clients’ employees, customers, and shareholders are also demanding that these values be promoted. By way of example, as we look to our clients’ business needs and, in particular, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives, we see that diversity and inclusion are important considerations in terms of human capital management and board governance and composition.
MT: What marketing advice do you give diverse attorneys that may be unique to their challenges and experiences?
SL: Based on my observations and my own lived experience, and without generalizing about all diverse attorneys, we bring different experiences, perspectives, and skillsets to the team or organization that, when embraced, help to promote innovation and new ways of approaching a problem and finding its solution.
Diverse attorneys should look for opportunities to work in and with organizations that are willing to consider new and different ideas as the pathway to innovation and profitability. Diverse attorneys should develop business plans that are sustainable, and that also capture opportunities to build and develop networks to learn from, to find support in, and to serve as referral sources.
For myself, I did not have any lawyers (or any other white-collar professionals) in my family to look to for guidance and advice about navigating the legal or any other profession, but I did find kinship, mentors and sponsors in affinity bar associations and other organizations. There, I found others who could relate to my experience, having faced similar challenges, and who could provide me with guidance and support about how to overcome difficult situations.
I have found it helpful to work with trusted friends and business development coaches to help keep me accountable for following through on business development and marketing opportunities.
And, I would suggest taking advantage of teaching, writing, and speaking opportunities. It’s a great way to develop thought leadership in your areas of expertise and to also develop your brand.
MT: In these days of working from home during the coronavirus, what is keeping you focused? How are you managing to juggle as a working mother while a partner and chief diversity officer at Blank Rome?
SL: Like so many working parents during the coronavirus pandemic, we have a lot going on at home all at the same time, and without the rest of the village that is usually available to us in person. It is definitely challenging. I also have so much to be grateful for—most importantly, we are all healthy and safe. I also have the privilege of being able to work from home, and my young children are also privileged to be able to learn remotely with the help of their dedicated teachers and schools.
What keeps me motivated, largely, is recognizing that we all have to maintain focus on our diversity and inclusion efforts with economic uncertainty upon us. We remember the impact of the Great Recession on diversity and inclusion efforts, and the years it took for us to return to the levels of progress we achieved just before the Great Recession. We are watching the outsized impact of the pandemic on parents, on working mothers in particular, with a disproportionate amount of childcare, homeschooling, and other domestic duties falling to women. What is particularly troubling is the stigmatizing impact of COVID-19 on the Asian Pacific American community and the disparities in health outcomes for our diverse communities. All of these dynamics in the time of COVID-19 keep me focused on the greater good and the need to redouble our diversity and inclusion efforts.
One of the positive outcomes that have resulted from our continuing focus on diversity and inclusion in the time of COVID-19 is that Blank Rome launched a new affinity group for our working parents. There was no better time to formally launch the BR Parents Forum than at the start of the pandemic-related shut-downs, as our parenting colleagues began their new realities of working remotely from home while also caring for and homeschooling their children. We are providing resources and support to our working parents of children of all ages and abilities.
MT: In what ways do you think women lawyers do business differently?
SL: Again, I don’t want to suggest that all women lawyers work the same way. But I do think there are shared experiences among women in the legal profession and in the business community that bring us closer together and that can create unique opportunities for collaboration.
I see this play each year at Blank Rome’s Women’s Leadership Summit, where our women partners and our women clients gather for a two-day summit that involves knowledge sharing and problem-solving either through a hackathon or a design thinking workshop. During this summit, we learn that our clients’ concerns and challenges are similar to our own, whether in the area of diversity and inclusion, pro bono, or building collaborative relationships. Through this shared experience, we create broader understanding and trust, which, in turn, develops into strong legal and business relationships and connections.
MT: If you could only engage in one type of marketing activity (e.g., speaking, writing, networking, meetings, participation in bar associations, or other trade associations) for the next 12 months, what one activity would you choose?
What would that activity look like?
SL: I would like to write more about diversity, equity and inclusion issues in the legal profession and in the communities in which we live and work, and about the ESG concerns our clients are interested in
Why would you choose only that one?
SL: There is something satisfying about putting together and organizing ideas on paper that will contribute to the thought leadership on important concerns to our communities and clients that are published to wide distribution.
If you could only choose one more activity, what would it be and why?
SL: If I could choose one more activity, it would be speaking and teaching (I think I just tried to turn two activities into one). For the same reason that writing is a way to publish thought leadership to a wide distribution, speaking, and teaching to a hopefully wide audience helps to deliver the message to many at once.
MT: Given where you are now and what you have learned, what would you have done differently early on?
SL: I am always curious about how people journey to their successes and I enjoy learning from their trials and tribulations. Given where I am now and what I have learned along the way, what I would have done differently is to be more willing to share my own story. Sharing our stories is how we get closer to others to deepen and strengthen our relationships—and an engaging way to further our goals of advancing diversity and embracing inclusion.
About the Author
Marianne Talbot is a former practicing trial attorney, executive coach, business development expert, D&I strategist, and author who works at Blank Rome LLP. She recently published her first book: Balance by Design (TM): A Career Guide & Planner for Women Lawyers With a Life.