Episode 1: Lee Schreter, Chairperson of Littler Mendelson’s Board of Directors, on Diversity and Inclusion, and the Protege Program
Listen to this episode, subscribe to the podcast or read the transcription.
In this episode #1, I interviewed Lee Schreter, the Chairperson of Littler Mendelson, on diversity and inclusion, Littler’s Protege Program, the firm’s strategic initiatives, a key aspiring law firm leader trait, her go-to metric as a big law firm manager along with what she reads, drinks, her heroes and what’s on her bucket list.
Links referred to in this episode
Subscribe to the Podcast
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m your host Chris Batz with The Lion Group.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Lee Schreter of Littler Mendelson. Lee Schreter is the chairperson of Littler Mendelson’s Board of Directors and co-chair of the Wage and Hour Practice Group. Littler is the largest employment law firm in the world, touting more than a thousand attorneys in more than 70 offices in 35 States in 14 countries.
Lee, in 2015 you were named Outstanding Woman Lawyer with the National Law Journal and in 2014 you were named Female Powerbroker with Law360. You received your J.D., from Georgia State and prior to that you received your Master’s of Science in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from Georgia State as well.
Finally, you have mentioned that as far as you can tell, you are the only openly gay chair of an Am Law 100 firm.
Welcome Lee to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m delighted to have you as our first guest.
Lee: Chris I’m really happy to join you and thank you for the opportunity.
On Diversity and Inclusion
Chris: It’s my pleasure and Lee, since this is a discussion and I wanted to talk about some key subjects as it relates to you and your firm and your journey as a lawyer and as a leader in the firm, let’s just kick off with, kind of one of the key issues that I find, just an incredible opportunity to talk with you about, which is diversity and inclusion.
You yourself are openly gay; you’re an employment lawyer; this can’t get any more relevant than what you deal with on a personal and professional level every day.
Lee: Well thanks Chris. I’ve lived diversity and inclusion. I think, that’s a fair way to put it and it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart because I hope that what I can do, as somebody who’s openly gay, is let people who are entering the legal profession understand that their sexual orientation and gender identity is no obstacle to a successful career in the legal profession.
I didn’t have anyone really as a role model when I first started in the legal profession that I could go to and ask simple questions that associates can ask other individuals. Certainly there were other women partners, but there were not any other lesbian partners or openly gay men at my firm. So it was not easy for me to see that there was a path for me into leadership or even into being a rainmaker, which I certainly had aspirations of. There really were no obvious examples to me within my law firm that would lead me to believe that that was a possibility for me.
So what I can do is follow the example I think, of someone like Harvey Milk, who really urged people to come out and stand up, because that way we’re an example to other individuals and we’re also examples to other members in our community, and that’s certainly a high and constant aspiration for me.
Chris: When did that take place for you and how did that change you or the dynamic of how you practice law?
Lee: When I first became a lawyer I was not openly gay, I was closeted at the time and in fact I have something of a funny story about it. I had not even started my job at my law firm as a first year associate and this was not at a time when I was Littler Mendelson, I was at a different law firm and I had gone over to an area near my home here in Atlanta where there was a gay bookstore and I was walking out of the gay bookstore and ran smack into the hiring partner for my law firm.
I came home that night and I was crying and I told my wife, who was not my wife at the time, that I was going to get fired before I ever started work and I worried.
So I went to work, spent the first week there and I’d come home and tell her, “Well it didn’t happen today,” and this went on for several weeks and finally after a month my wife said to me, “Really, you’ve got to stop worrying about this, because apparently it’s not an issue, so you need to focus on moving forward.”
I talked to that partner years later and this is the irony of being gay; sometimes you assume the worst when you really should not, and he told me years later he had no idea that was a gay bookstore. So I spent that month in constant agitation and worrying over something that was a non-issue.
Chris: It’s amazing how something like that can plague you after a while, but when you had a chance to talk to that partner, did you feel acceptance through that?
Lee: You know I did, because here was the double irony of it. He and his wife actually were one of a handful of people, at my firm at that time, who really encouraged me to come out, encouraged me to bring my partner to firm events and really I have to say, gave me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have at the time, that I was not jeopardizing my career by coming out and for, certainly the time that I was entering the legal profession, which was many years ago, I had a very real concern, as did other gay lawyers that I knew, most of whom were not out at their firms, that coming out could be the end of a promising legal career.
Chris: And was that true?
Lee: For me it was not, I certainly am aware of, even to this day and it’s dramatically different I think in the legal profession than it was almost 30 years ago. But there still are stories that I hear through other lawyers about individuals at firms who experience prejudice, discrimination, ignorance and have jeopardized individuals, legal careers, perhaps because the match between the firm and the individual was just not right.
I think that’s a message also for your listeners. Select carefully the firm that you go to work for if you’re gay and it’s absolutely imperative I think, to do your due diligence on every firm that you’re considering going to work for, to see whether or not there are openly gay individuals within the firm, what the firm does in terms of participating in the community, do they for example recruit at Lavender Law, what are their firm’s published policies and simply talking to other people because firms, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, develop reputations and I think that’s valuable information when you’re making decisions.
What I would urge someone who is entering the legal profession to think about is, how do you want to live your life and living your life in the closet takes, in my opinion, a terrible toll on individuals because you really can’t bring… this is something of an overused expression, but I think it’s actually true. When you are living in a closet you can’t bring your whole self to work, you have to hide a part of yourself, that takes a lot of energy and effort. It also means that you’re kind of a divided person and you’re not bringing your best self and frankly. When I think back on my early days as a lawyer and what it was like being closeted versus what it was like being out, they are so very different and so much better, in my opinion, for me personally, being out, that they’re just not even in the same universe, they’re very difficult to compare frankly.
Chris: And if you have a word of advice for law firm leaders, who don’t know how to be more inclusive in this area, what would be your words on that?
Lee: We are in a race for talent and if you are not sure, sometimes it’s simple things Chris like language, now what is the language of inclusion for the gay community?
I can remember people saying, “Well how do I refer to your partner, is it a significant other, or a partner, how do I have that conversation?” There’s a tremendous amount of resources out there for companies and law firms who are working towards being more inclusive, particularly towards the LGBT community. There’s Out & Equal, there’s Out Leadership, there’s the National Gay and Lesbian Bar Association. There are just all of these resources, all of whom have websites, all of whom have folks who would be delighted to do outreach within law firms.
So there is no reason today for a law firm that is interested in being more inclusive overall and more specifically, with respect to the LGBT community, to not take steps because you lack information, because it’s certainly available. I can think of at least five people sitting here in my office today, who would really welcome the chance to talk to a law firm leader about how they might be more inclusive and how they could diversify their group of lawyers.
The Protégé Program
Chris: Excellent, yeah thank you Lee for speaking on that subject; that’s so important.
I have a question about a program that you mentioned before we got started today that really fascinated me and you quoted The Protégé Program. You say that it matches promising associates with accomplished partners in your firm and you said it’s different than mentoring. Tell me more about that.
Lee: So as a law firm leader myself, I’m so proud of our firm, with respect to this program because it’s really, I’ve seen very meaningful changes within our firm as a result of this program.
So when I think of mentorship, I think of individuals being matched to each other where there’s not necessarily a mutual interest. Sometimes there’s chance involved, not necessarily shared interests or things like that. Our Protégé Program is a little different.
So we have a group of some of our most accomplished lawyers, who have expressly indicated their interest in participating in the program. They’ve done so for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their commitment to the future of our firm and the future of our firm lies in our talent and these individuals have recognized that fostering, encouraging, sometimes motivating more junior lawyers towards advancement is something that’s very important to the future of our firm.
So what we’ve done is taken each year, a group of some of our best associates, based on performance measures and other things and matched them to one of these advocates, which is the term for this accomplished group of lawyers and that advocate is responsible for helping to bring along that associate.
So for example, I am an advocate myself and what I do when I’m assigned a new protégé is, I sit down with that individual, often not only with the individual but also their spouse and significant other, and spend at least a half a day, sometimes as much as a day with that individual to say, “Tell me what you like to do. Tell me what your ambitions are. Tell me what your worries are. Tell me where you want your future to go and my job, as your advocate, is both to help you be realistic”, sometimes people are not, “but also to make sure that I match what your ambitions are to opportunity, helping you get connected to the right opportunities within our firm, so that you develop as a lawyer in keeping with your goals and ambitions.”
So one of the things that I do with the protégés I work with and my colleagues who are also advocates do this as well, is to say, “Tell me what area of employment law you are most interested in pursuing,” because what I’ve certainly observed over the years Chris is, while on a short term basis you can do things and we all do things that we don’t particularly like to do, that can’t be, for a successful career, you really can’t spend the majority of your time doing something you hate doing.
Lee: So part of what we try and do is find out what the person’s interests are, do they want to be a litigator, do they want to be an advice lawyer, do they want to specialize in a particular kind of litigation, like what I do which is complex wage and hour litigation?
Once we’ve identified those things, then I think it’s a matter of making sure, and this is the advantage of having senior level individuals who are involved, is we generally know the other lawyers within our firm and can pick up the phone and call that person and say, “So and so is very interested in developing an expertise in this area, can you help them?” Which is far different than the associate picking up the phone, calling a practice group leader and saying, “I’m interested.”
Now I certainly encourage individuals to do that but sometimes it’s greasing the skids and helping people learn what opportunities are available within our firm and how they can take advantage of them.
Chris: That’s excellent. Now it sounds like the commitment level or the involvement is really up to the advocate in your firm, how do you know that their success, is it different for every advocate in the relationship with the person being groomed, the protégé?
Lee: You know, we have certain… we have periodic meetings, we have reports that are done by the advocates and also frankly by the protégés. The ultimate measure of success Chris is, does this individual, number one: remain with our firm, two: did they continue to perform at the levels that we expect and we’ve seen them perform at and then number three: did they become a shareholder with our firm? What we have seen, I don’t have this number in front of me, this program has been in place now for several years and the elevation percentages for our protégés are quite good.
So what we have seen through the program is that it is working, because we’re retaining these talented associates, they are moving into leadership positions. We have one protégé who’s actually moved on to the Board of Directors for our Mexico operations. So she is a classic example of how someone who has started as a protégé, has moved into a leadership position and was elevated to shareholder.
Chris: And you also mentioned to me that you call on your clients in this too?
Lee: We do and you know, our clients, I’m not surprised because generally what we’ve found is that people like taking an interest in other individuals and their success and we have seen our clients really step up and say, “I’d like to help with this project,” and the advantage of course for a protégé of developing a relationship with an outside counsel and having a third party outside our firm to encourage them, to push them, but that’s also part of my role as an advocate, is to push people. The term I’ve sometimes used with the people I’m working with is, “I’m not your mentor, I may be your tormentor, I’m here to push you hard, to achieve the goals you’ve told me you want to achieve.”
Chris: That’s excellent and you said you guys won awards for this too?
Lee: We have, obviously as a firm we’re really proud of this. The Minority Corporate Counsel Association recognized our program this year nationally and we received an award from the MCCA for the program and we’re very proud of it.
Chris: That’s exciting. Well I really appreciate you sharing about that and I imagine there’s information on your website about the program too?
Lee: There is.
The Conquest of Littler
Chris: Okay, excellent. So anyone who’s listening, if they’re intrigued more about this, they can probably check it on your website.
Let’s move on to the next couple of questions. One I wanted to ask you about, which is, it’s not hard to see the growth of Littler and what I like to call a conquest of Littler, you guys have done tremendous, you know, over a thousand lawyers, you’re in numerous countries, notably I’ve noticed in the Americas. You guys have moved to Canada, is that correct?
Lee: We have.
Chris: And you’ve also moved south of the border, I notice several locations in Central South America. With what you’re allowed to talk about, I mean, any feedback on Europe, Asia, Africa? It sounds like a game of risk to me as I’m looking at this.
Lee: Well, certainly Europe is littered with the bodies of law firms that have tried to go into Europe unsuccessfully. We have now partnered with a firm in Germany and we are certainly considering moving elsewhere in Europe, where it makes business sense for us to do so.
We moved internationally Chris frankly, because that’s where our clients are and what we want to be able to do is provide our clients with seamless legal advice, that not only assists them here in the United States, but can also advise them more on employee relations issues that arise internationally and for large international companies, there’s been really no single choice for them to go to, for a firm to be able to deliver, literally labor and employment advice internationally, as a single source solution.
So that has certainly been our ambition. We are moving in that direction and I think there’s a great deal of opportunity for our firm in doing so.
Chris: Thank you for sharing on that. Another subject that just seems to be pretty prevalent in the legal news media, it’s kind of tapered off with the rebound of our economy, but it’s this doomsayer about Big Law, about large law, the legal industry and the contraction that has been experienced with the very slow growth, so what strategic initiatives is Littler exploring or investing in and what other law firm leaders should be thinking about in regards to this?
Lee: Well, as I mentioned to you Chris before we got on the call, I am not a doomsayer about the legal industry. I think there will be an ongoing need for advice and consultation. What our clients certainly tell us is, they value law firms, they value them most when they are profits. So when lawyers can predict for their clients where the legal trends are going and provide them with advice that allows them to navigate around pitfalls and dangers and risk, those are among the services that our clients and companies in general, I think value most.
So you know, the Italian term for someone like this is consigliere, which got a bad name in some of the movies, but a consigliere is somebody who’s a valued counselor and there will, in my opinion, always be the need for that. But the thing that I think is rocking our industry, as it has successively for almost every other profession, is what is the role of technology and lawyers have been slow to embrace technological advances and you do so at your peril as a law firm in my opinion.
I think you have to look constantly at how you can use technology to augment the delivery of legal advice and the growth of the internet obviously puts a lot more information. So content is certainly king, clients are looking more and more for content that helps them make faster and faster business decisions.
So at Littler, we have looked at how we can gather, preserve and deliver knowledge to our clients and we have a variety of technological solutions that we have put in place within our firm to do that.
Chris: So this is more added value for your clients, this is content that’s education based or current information for them?
Lee: It’s both Chris.
Lee: So for example, we have, for many years as a firm, maintained a library of what we call 50 State Surveys and that’s a knowledge base that we update every year. So when a client becomes a client of Littler Mendelson and they have national operations all over the United States, one of the things you have to be worried about as a national employer are differences between federal and state law.
Lee: Sometimes those differences, unless you actually research those issues, you can quickly get yourself into trouble under state law.
The best example I can give you is one in my own practice area, are wage and hour issues under state law. So for example, in California there’s daily overtime and there’s double-time. Under federal law there’s the minimum wage and overtime but that’s done in entirely different rates.
So if you’re an employer and you are employing non-exempt employees throughout the United States, you need to know in pretty quick order what’s the minimum wage in all of those States, what are the overtime requirements, what are the record keeping requirements and we maintain a database of these requirements that’s made available to our clients for a flat fee.
So whereas, you might have that same company go to a different law firm, that law firm’s going to have to do the research in each of those States, that can take days and weeks to get that information back to a client. So what it allows us to do from a competitive standpoint is to be able to, when we get the question from the client, we can have this survey on their desk ten minutes later.
Aspiring Law Firm Leader Traits
Chris: That’s huge, I can see the value in that.
I know there’s a lot of subjects we could talk about with Big Law going forward but I want to talk about something else. As far as your role, I wanted you to explain, what is the single most important characteristic a future managing partner or chairman should have or learn?
Chris: Tell me about that.
Lee: And what I mean by courage is, I think a law firm leader has to be prepared to take risks, they have to be educated risks and then you have to have the courage to do that.
Now behind that courage obviously Chris, there are lots of other things that I think a law firm leader needs. I think you have to be able to lead and I think that is tied to your ability to relate to other people and to inspire them to do their very best work and to inspire individuals to work together, because I think the future of law firms lies in a law firm’s ability to incentivize and inspire their lawyers to collaborate with each other.
Content, Drink of Choice, Bucketlist, Heroes, etc.
Chris: Yeah, critical. Well thank you for that. Let’s shift gears a little bit to more about who Lee Schreter is, I’ve got some personal questions I just want to address.
So as far as I know every lawyer consumes content, it’s kind of par with the course. I wanted to ask you, I mean are you a big book reader, do you read newspapers, do you listen to podcasts, do you have favorite authors, what are you reading right now? I wanted to ask questions like that?
Lee: Sure, so I consume a lot of content. I’m a big reader, I have a tablet I carry with me wherever I go. So I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journey every morning on my tablet and let’s see, I am reading a book by Ross King right now about Leonardo da Vinci and his painting of The Last Supper.
I also read lighter stuff, I have a Kindle that’s on my tablet. So I read all kinds of things. I like non-fiction, I like historical novels and I like business periodicals, so I also get the Harvard Business Journal. Those of the kinds of things I’m reading right now.
Chris: Excellent and when you want to unwind, do you have a favorite drink of choice or type of food?
Lee: Probably a Johnnie Walker Black Scotch on the rocks.
Chris: There you go, excellent. You know, I like to ask sometimes, everyone generally has a bucket list, do you have any items left on there that you still want to do?
Lee: I have a very long bucket list, a lot of it’s travel. Some of it are events that I’d like to see in my lifetime. They run a horse race, for example in Siena, Italy, I would very much like to see some day. So things like that.
I have never been to China. I would like to get to China at some point in my life and I’d like to travel some more in Southeast Asia. I’ve been in Thailand but I’d like to get to Cambodia and to Malay and places like that.
Chris: Any heroes specific for you growing up or even currently as a law firm leader?
Lee: I think one of my consistent heroes has been John Lewis, Representative John Lewis. He was certainly quite a hero during The Civil Rights Movement, but he has remained relevant and I think of him often when I think about courage and leadership.
I also find that the people that I work with are some of my heroes. So as I watch people overcome obstacles and things that stand in their way, you can have day to day heroes and I have the great good fortune to be surrounded by a lot of people like that.
Client Satisfaction Surveys
Chris: That’s fantastic. Two last questions. Do you have any key metrics that you use to manage the firm, something that you might look at on a daily basis or something that’s very important for you?
Lee: We have a variety of metrics that are indicators that are used in managing the firm. Obviously, billable hours are certainly one of them. We have client satisfaction surveys that we utilize within our firm, that’s a very key metric because ensuring that our clients are satisfied and they’re receiving a level of service that they have an absolute right to expect from us I think is among the most crucial indicators, because if you can’t attract and retain clients, your longevity as a law firm is in jeopardy.
Chris: I’d be curious to know how many law firms actually do those kinds of surveys, they sound like a fantastic tool.
Lee: I think it is, I think asking your clients how you’re doing, it’s a little bit like, if you’ve ever watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s like stepping off that cliff and you hope that you’re going to get the feedback but you need to have the feedback either way. You hope it will be good but if it’s not, that’s almost even more critical because it tells you where your firm is not performing the way you think it is.
Chris: Yeah, really critical to get that feedback.
One last question, I’m stealing this from Kai Ryssdal that runs Marketplace.
Lee: Oh sure.
Chris: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Kai and Marketplace. In five words or less, what is your job Lee?
Lee: To coach, counsel and inspire other lawyers.
Chris: I see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Close we’ll take it.
Lee: I was close.
Chris: We’ll take it. Lee it’s been such a pleasure, I really appreciate your time, I know you’re busy. I really appreciate your vulnerability and your leadership and inclusion and diversity, something that, yeah it’s exciting to see you and your firm champion, not just for lawyers worldwide, but also to model and to share and relate to corporate counsel who also listen to this podcast.
Thank you everyone who listened to this episode of the Law Firm Leadership podcast. If you like this podcast leave a review on iTunes. Please share our podcast with others via email or social media.