Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Fox Rothschild’s Yesenia Gallegos

November 4, 2014 – In The News
Law360

"Reprinted with permission from the November 4 issue of Law360. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved."

Yesenia M. Gallegos is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP's Los Angeles office. She represents employers in wage-and-hour class actions, discrimination and harassment claims, and trade secret and noncompete litigation matters. She also provides employers with risk management training and advice and counseling on employment matters.

Gallegos serves as co-chairwoman of Fox Rothschild’s diversity initiative and is also a member of the firm’s women’s initiative, through which she routinely mentors junior lawyers within the firm. She also works with the firm’s recruitment and professional development department for the purpose of actively recruiting and retaining diverse attorneys and assists firm management in bringing visibility and training pertaining to the elimination of bias in the legal profession.

Additionally, Gallegos has been an active member of the Hispanic National Bar Association for years. She currently serves as the HBNA's regional president for Southern California, for which she won the organization's Regional President of the Year Award.

Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?
A: You work hard and find a sponsor within your law firm or legal department. In this highly competitive legal environment, participating in your legal organization’s training programs, executing your work efficiently and effectively, and having a mentor that assists you in navigating your professional growth is simply not enough. I would encourage lawyers of color to seek out sponsors within their organization, in addition or in lieu of a mere mentor. Unlike mentors, sponsors are much more invested in their protégés. Sponsors offer constructive guidance, assist in identifying their protégé’s value to the organization, link their protégés to their professional network and resources, have a voice at the decision-making table and will go out on a limb for their protégé by advocating for pay increases, elevation to partnership or a promotion. Sponsorship has a measurable impact on career progression.

Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?
A: One of the biggest challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level is the self-inflicted psychological belief that we do not belong or that we need to work harder than our senior colleagues in order to gain acceptance. While bias in the legal profession still exists, I am of the opinion that lawyers of color (particularly women of color) are still the biggest impediment to their own careers. To be successful in a law firm or legal department, we need to discard the psychological baggage that builds as we rise through the ranks and recognize that law firms and legal departments reward attorneys based on merit, based on the attorney’s productivity and overall value that he or she brings to the organization. We cannot chip away at our own value by failing to speak up, failing to seek out leadership and promotional opportunities and failing to take periodic inventory of our contributions — all for the sake of being humble.

Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: I’ve been fortunate enough not to encounter any obvious forms of discrimination in my career. That said, a couple of months ago, I shared an elevator with a Caucasian man in a nicely tailored suit. I was returning to my office after a court hearing and was pulling a rolling briefcase. He looked at me and the briefcase and asked if I was a court reporter. How did I handle it? I laughed and told him that if I was a court reporter, I was probably being overpaid. He quickly apologized and recognized that his assumption might be offensive. It turned out that he was a client of another law firm in my building. I handed him my card and told him to call me if he ever felt like being represented by an overpriced court reporter.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?
A: When seeking out sponsors (and even mentors), lawyers of color should not make the mistake of limiting themselves (or closing the door altogether to a sponsorship opportunity) by deliberately seeking out sponsors that are of the same affinity. What lawyers of color will find in their quest for a sponsor is that while their law firms and legal departments may have diverse lawyers, the number of lawyers of color who hold executive-level positions, sit on the board of directors or sit on law firm executive committees becomes virtually non-existent. The most impactful mentors and sponsors that I have had in my professional development have been men, and not one of them was Hispanic. If I had waited to seek out mentors and sponsors who shared my affinity (female Hispanic), I would be waiting around for decades and would never have gained the career traction that my male sponsors created for me.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?
A: Put your money where your mouth is. Every major law firm in the country has taken the position that diversity is an integral value of the firm, but only a few have truly invested their resources to execute on that value and even less can produce measurable results. At Fox Rothschild LLP, for example, the firm doesn’t merely have a diversity committee, it has active subcommittees that focus their efforts on recruiting, developing and retaining lawyers. The firm has accomplished this by creating an institutional diversity group that meets quarterly, creating unique summer associate programs for diverse law students, providing supplemental mentoring to diverse lawyers, hosting a diversity retreat, paying for lawyers of color to participate in diverse bar associations or sponsoring conferences held by various affinity groups and bar associations so that lawyers of color can build relationships and their books of business. This will inevitably increase their chances of joining the partner ranks and creating a pipeline of future leaders comprised of lawyers of color. These opportunities provide lawyers of color with real leadership opportunities that result in recognition within the firm and the legal community. Diversity initiatives such as these require a law firm to invest in its lawyers of color, but in doing so, the law firm is investing in itself and in its succession planning. Moreover, corporations like Microsoft and Coca Cola expect law firms to mirror their efforts to improve diversity numbers in the legal profession and are ready and willing to reward those law firms with their business.

"Reprinted with permission from the November 4 issue of Law360. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved."