Sally Olson

Moving Forward for Change: A Discussion on Diversity with Sally Olson


We sat down with Sally Olson, Chief Diversity Officer in Sidley’s Chicago office, to learn more about what brought her to Sidley and the impressive growth and results of the firm’s global diversity and inclusion initiatives.

What led you to Sidley after practicing law for more than two decades?

What you might broadly call diversity and inclusion, including cross-cultural communication, civil rights, women’s issues and LGBTQ struggles, have been an important part of my life since I was a child, well before I chose law as a profession.

At my prior firm, I launched a first-generation diversity initiative. After a time, I realized that I wanted to fully focus on my diversity work in the next phase of my career. Litigation was all well and fine, but it wasn’t that compelling to me anymore. So I decided to switch. I came to Sidley because firm leadership told me they were looking for someone who could help them build the firm’s diversity and help to create a more inclusive culture.

What is distinctive about the diversity and inclusion culture at Sidley?

Sidley is particularly willing to examine itself, identify areas of improvement and try new things. We regularly analyze internal data to understand who we are and how we are doing with regard to diversity and inclusion, and adjust our programs in response. None of this would be possible if we didn’t have an extraordinary amount of commitment from our lawyers. They carry the weight and are the ones who are in the trenches recruiting and mentoring people and bolstering programs. These efforts take an enormous of time, and I want them to get credit for their efforts.

What are some of the successful programs you have in place?

We have instituted a very robust and effective outreach program to diverse law students through their affinity groups on campus. This initiative has dramatically increased the recruitment of diverse, particularly African-American, summer associates.

Despite good recruitment, it can be hard to keep associates. Through a number of efforts, we have successfully managed to lower male and female attrition rates to the same level for four years running. This is due, in part, to the time and energy that we have spent on helping people implement Sidley’s family-oriented policies, as well as working to ensure that women are well integrated into their practice groups and work teams. For example, the firm’s Working Parent Career Coaching Program has been very successful since it launched two years ago.

For the last 18 months, we have also reached parity in attrition rates of racially or ethnically diverse and non-diverse associates. We are working to extend that track record. 

How active is the firm in the communities where our lawyers live and work?

Sidley actively supports many civil rights and legal organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and Lambda Legal, among others. In addition to sponsoring these organizations on a national level, our lawyers serve as board members, take pro bono cases, host events and work closely with them to promote our mutual goals.

We also do more than sponsor and support other organizations. For example, the firm just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Sidley Prelaw Scholars Program, which has helped 350 racially or ethnically and economically challenged college students prepare for and attend law school. We are active in numerous local pipeline programs with diverse and economically challenged elementary, junior high and high school students. Through pro bono work, we contribute to economic development, social advancement and equity of many communities. Since 2015, Sidley lawyers have represented indigent, largely African-American, inmates on Alabama’s death row through the firm’s Capital Litigation Project. And Sidley lawyers are leaders and volunteers in an impressive range of community and philanthropic organizations serving diverse communities.

Has the firm been acknowledged by industry publications for our diversity and inclusion initiatives?

We have received a certain number of awards, and we are honored by all of them. Recently, Sidley won “Most Inclusive Law Firm for Minority Women Lawyers” at the 2017 Chambers Women in Law Awards. I’m very proud of this achievement because we were recognized for our innovative diversity initiatives at a time when, across the legal profession, minority women associates had the highest attrition rate of all categories of lawyers.

Furthermore, we are proud of being named to Working Mother magazine’s 2017 list of the 50 Best Law Firms for Women, as we have been in other years as well. Maintaining a consistent score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, as we have every year since it began, is also extremely important to the firm.

Share a bit about our efforts outside of the United States.

We have an active women’s initiative in Geneva, Brussels and London, where we have helped to launch a number of women lawyers’ networks. Specifically, the firm underwrote the foundation of the Women’s Competition Network, which has become a very large and well-respected international forum for senior women competition professionals. The Women in Privacy networking group was created by women lawyers from our London and Washington, D.C. offices. Two associates in Brussels launched the Women in Life Sciences Network in 2015. These networks support the professional development of women in particular practices across private law firms, government and in-house legal departments in Europe.

Our London office also actively supports pipeline programs for minority law and university students, recruits diverse groups of summer trainees, and is active in the local community.

Working groups addressing issues relevant to regional and local diversity and inclusion have been formed across our Asia Pacific offices. These groups conduct educational programming, support external events involving women, LGBTQ rights and other forms of diversity, and provide networking opportunities for lawyers considered diverse in various offices.

How has our women’s program evolved since the firm added its first female partner in 1954?

Many of the original women’s initiatives at Sidley were born out of concerns raised in the late 1990s by women lawyers who were trying to raise families while maintaining their careers. Reduced work schedules didn’t exist, and parental leave was either very short or ambiguously defined. These areas of concern led the firm to adopt a number of progressive, first-in-class policies. In more recent years, we have augmented these policies and benefits with Working Parent Career Coaching; Milk Stork — complimentary delivery of breast milk for traveling lawyers; mentoring circles; internal parental resource centers; new moms’ lunches; and other family-friendly supportive programs. Some programs are universal, some are national, and some are tailored to specific offices’ needs.

What do you envision for the future of Sidley’s diversity programs?

Well, that’s a big question! There are many ongoing initiatives that I’m sure will continue into the future, including our pipeline work, our work to recruit and retain a diverse body of lawyers, and programs to support our women and diverse partners in the generation of business and the growth of their practices.

I think there are a number of additional areas to which we need to pay attention in the near future. First, as we build or renovate our offices, we are making them physically accessible for everyone, so that people who have physical disabilities are able to visit here as clients and guests and to thrive here as lawyers. We have launched a quarterly videoconference for lawyers with disabilities across our U.S. offices and are integrating the advice of those lawyers into our IT, talent management, recruiting and other functions. This is an area of focus in the near term.

Second, we have been looking more closely at differences in generational outlook and behavior, and how those differences impact work and diversity. Some firms take on this topic as a diversity issue, while some don’t. We continue to take generational considerations into account in considering firm functions and operational practices.

Finally, sustaining a diverse and inclusive institution is everyone’s work and participating in the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives is a matter of good citizenship. We are working to broaden our initiatives to encourage everyone’s active involvement and to grapple with what a truly inclusive institutional culture looks like at this point in time, given our diversity.