Diversity in defense: The path to management-side employment law as a diverse attorney


By Nicole Dailo, Christopher H. Jison, and Richard Liu

The dearth of diversity in the legal profession is well known, but the problem is especially acute on the management (defense) side of labor and employment law. There are myriad reasons behind the diversity issue, the vast majority of which we are likely unqualified to address or attempt to solve. This article will discuss the value in becoming a management-side labor and employment (L&E) attorney, the career path to management-side L&E practice, and some words of wisdom we wish had been shared with us along the way. 

It is our hope that law students and attorneys curious about the practice area gain a better understanding of a management-side L&E attorney’s career path and the positive impact you can have, particularly as a diverse attorney.

The benefits of L&E practice

For a diverse law student or attorney trying to positively impact his or her community, there is often a misconception that L&E attorneys must represent employees to effectively fight systemic racism, promote diversity, and empower marginalized communities. This overlooks the prophylactic efforts that management-side attorneys undertake every day to prevent the harm from occurring in the first place. Each of us has been asked how we are able to reconcile our own backgrounds with the work we do, and the answer is simple: We gravitated to the area where we could do the most good.

As a management-side attorney, you can effect real change. In working for a law firm and serving as outside counsel to employers, you defend your clients against meritless claims and advise them on remedial damages to be paid for meritorious claims. You counsel your clients on how to comply with the complex web of state and federal employment laws, and more importantly, you have the chance to counsel clients on how to avoid violations. In an in-house role, you advise on and sometimes draft policies that can affect thousands of employees—finding creative ways to make your company’s employment practices fairer, more inclusive, and more compassionate. You push your company to genuinely commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and you collaborate with business leaders to transform that commitment into action. Put another way, being on the management side gives you the opportunity to have a seat at the table, directly advocate for the interests of the underrepresented, and create real systemic change.

Additionally, in our humble opinion, it is one of the most fascinating areas of law because it deals so intimately with immutable traits and core values that implicate sex, color, gender identity, national origin, religion, age, or disability. Employment law turns on an individual’s story and whether a workplace succeeds or falls short in its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Nearly every problem presented reads as if it were written by a law school professor, because people never run out of creative ways to interact with each other.

Ultimately, whether you are on the employee or employer side of the equation, you can have a real and positive impact. When you represent employees, the recourse is often remedial action, with a collateral effect being broader change. Representing employers, on the other hand, generally allows you to develop sound policies and employment practices at the outset to avoid the harm altogether; it allows for true systemic change.

How we got to where we are today

Much like other practice areas, the path to management-side employment law is fairly traditional, because it is typically mid-size and large law firms that advise and defend employers. The path often entails law review or a law journal, a judicial externship, the on-campus interview process (OCI), and a judicial clerkship. The typical trajectory also entails joining a law firm as an associate before ascending to partnership or moving to an in-house counsel role. 

Each of the three of us took a more circuitous route to our current roles. Nicole externed with a federal judge, took a fellowship after law school, clerked for a federal judge, moved to Minnesota to join a mid-size firm with a prominent L&E practice, and then moved to an in-house employment counsel role with a lifestyle and fitness company. Chris externed with a state district court judge, clerked with a state district court judge immediately after law school, joined a boutique L&E firm, and subsequently moved to an employment legal consultant role for a large bank. Richard externed with a federal judge, moved to Minnesota to join a large firm, spent some time at two other large firms, and finally founded his own firm, where he is currently managing counsel. While there may be more common routes to a management-side L&E practice, they are not the only way to get there.

In discussing our respective career trajectories among ourselves, we spotted a couple of common denominators: mentoring and networking. In reality, no one practices alone—not even solo practitioners. Every lawyer relies on much broader support systems composed of friends, colleagues, or even opposing counsel. The key to leveraging these relationships is ensuring they are based on a genuine desire to learn about another person and help him or her.

In talking to law students, we often describe networking as meeting friends on the playground. It is not some quid pro quo agreement, but rather an organic relationship. Building these organic relationships makes it feel far less transactional to ask for help in looking for a new position or connecting with a key person at a new potential employer. Nicole’s and Chris’s networks, for example, directly resulted in judicial clerkship offers because the judges were familiar with them through common contacts. In Richard’s case, his new firm would not have been nearly as successful without his network providing word-of-mouth marketing and acting as a sounding board for his ideas. The people in our networks also provided new opportunities to further expand our skill set and expertise, because partners will usually give work to people they know and trust. Our colleagues also provided critical feedback that allowed us to grow.

Networking, however, was not without its challenges. Its noble aspirations aside, the legal profession is still traditional in the sense that the practice of law remains very tribal. Minnesota has a very close-knit legal community, but that also makes it difficult for transplants like us to break into the inner circle. For each of us, that meant being more deliberate in how we expanded our networks, and purposefully seeking out people who shared common interests or who were willing to include us in their daily activities and their lives outside of work. (The “inclusion” aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion is probably the most challenging issue when it comes to networking in Minnesota.) The goal was not to collect as many business cards as possible; it was to meet people and have one-on-one conversations over a beverage or meal with the goal of creating a professional relationship that very much resembled friendship.

The legal community in Minnesota is relatively small, and the employment law community is even smaller. That provides an ideal opportunity to make meaningful connections, help those colleagues, and occasionally ask for help yourself. Whether you take the traditional OCI-to-law-firm route or a more scenic route like each of us, your network will get you where you need to be.

What we wish someone had shared with us

There are countless nuggets of wisdom that have been shared with us throughout our careers, and we thought it appropriate to include a few here because they can provide a competitive advantage and help you stand out in the law firm recruiting world.

First, as you have likely already inferred, networking is indispensable. What we wish someone had told us early on is that many attorneys truly want to talk to and mentor more junior attorneys or law students. There is no shortage of attorneys who want to network and genuinely get to know you. The challenge lies simply in finding them.

Second, the rallying cry of work-life balance has become a cliché, but it bears repeating that you do not need to make “lawyer” your entire identity. The legal profession is a noble one, and as an attorney, you absolutely have the power to truly benefit society. It is important, however, to avoid destroying yourself in the process. It is often the other aspects of your life—family, friends, hobbies—that bring fulfillment and balance. Being an attorney can just be a job, and that is okay.

Finally, to bring this article full circle, it is important to do what you love. The attorneys reading this article know that they certainly did not get into the practice of law for the money or the work-life balance. Being passionate about your practice area ensures that you find fulfillment even when the work challenges you. In our opinion, management-side employment law provides ample opportunity to find your passion because it deals primarily with people, their relationships, and their livelihoods. There is no shortage of complex problems to be solved, dramatic fact patterns, and chances to create systemic change. 

In summary, know that the management side of L&E law needs diverse attorneys just as much as the employee side, if not more. The work is fascinating and fulfilling and offers diverse attorneys the opportunity to advocate for and create better circumstances for the communities that raised them. Though each of us took different paths to get to this juncture in our careers, we hope our experiences convince you that you can do the same, regardless of where you are in your own legal career. With mentors and colleagues to champion you, a healthy balance between work and other aspects of your life, and a commitment to doing what you love, you can’t go wrong—and if you’re fortunate, you can make systemic change and do some good in the process. 

Nicole Dailo is corporate employment counsel at Life Time, Inc., where she manages employment litigation and advises business leaders on labor and employment issues. Nicole previously worked in private practice and clerked for a federal bankruptcy judge. She earned her JD from the USC Gould School of Law in 2014. 

RICHARD LIU serves clients as a management-side defense lawyer in employment and commercial litigation.  His practice focuses on claims involving breach of contract, wrongful termination, workplace harassment and retaliation, employment discrimination, wage and hour claims, and trade secret misappropriation.  Richard is the managing counsel for Innovative Legal Services (www.consultils.com).  

CHRISTOPHER H. JISON is a legal EEO consultant with Wells Fargo, where he defends the company against federal and state charges of discrimination. Prior to that, he was a management-side labor and employment associate with the Minneapolis office of Wessels Sherman and a judicial law clerk to the Hon. Tracy Perzel.