We sat down with Sidley’s new Chief Diversity Officer, Leslie Richards-Yellen, who shared her objectives for Sidley’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and her preliminary thoughts on what law firms should be doing to help diverse lawyers and business professionals achieve career satisfaction.
Welcome to Sidley! What led you to join the firm?
Sidley has always been a premier brand in DEI. I was able to watch Sidley’s DEI mission grow when I was living in Chicago. For example, I’m a very avid fan of initiatives like the Sidley Prelaw Scholars Program. From a staffing perspective, Sidley was way ahead of the curve in terms of the number of people who supported DEI and the sophistication of services offered. It’s been an honor to follow that history and accept this wonderful opportunity.
Did you know anyone at Sidley prior to joining the firm this year?
It’s really funny, because a headhunter called me when Sidley was first creating the role of Chief Diversity Officer in 2011. I was working as head of diversity for another firm in Chicago at the time, and I loved my position. So, when the headhunter asked me, did I have anyone else to recommend, I recommended Sally Olson [Sidley’s first Chief Diversity Officer], because Sally was an icon in Chicago circles.
You practiced law for many years before becoming a Chief Diversity Officer. How did you decide to make the shift?
It was pretty organic. I had a lot of corporate DEI experience. I spent 12 years as the first counsel for the fixed income group of a large financial services company. In the early 2000s, the company’s CEO created their first diversity leadership and training committee and asked me to serve as a member.
When my family moved to Chicago in 2005, I took a new position as a partner and the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) for a mid-market Chicago firm.
When we left Chicago in 2016, I was asked to be the full-time director of diversity in the U.S. and Latin America for a global firm. Although I really enjoyed being a lawyer, I felt called to spend the remainder of my career as a full-time change agent. It’s been deeply satisfying to turn my skillset from creating and analyzing investment securities into investing in people and culture.
What progress have law firms achieved over the years as far as DEI?
DEI efforts have evolved well beyond announcing good intentions into creating greater accountability. DEI is a lens through which clients are able to evaluate firms’ commitment and success in lawyer development, retention, and progression, as well as whether firms have cultivated effective and strong cultures that promote DEI. Firms that are better at investing in women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities differentiate themselves in the market and provide more value to clients.
Looking ahead, what initiatives are you focused on for Sidley?
I’ve been immersing myself in all the wonderful things that are happening at Sidley. I started on May 31 so that I could attend the retreat for Asians and Asian Americans in New York City, which was fabulous. I’m gathering feedback on and analyzing the impact of past DEI efforts, benchmarking our DEI efforts to our peers and the market, and charting the future course of DEI at Sidley.
I want to enhance the investment, development, retention, and promotion of women, minorities/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with disabilities; build on the firm’s DEI infrastructure and process to maintain our connection to our people and leadership in DEI; enhance accountability for DEI efforts; and innovate with our clients and the communities we serve to advance and empower our DEI efforts.
Who have been your mentors throughout your career, and how has their guidance shaped your career path?
I’ve been very blessed with many mentors. I’m lucky that I was able to be authentically myself and somehow attract a number of mentors who wanted to assist me. My mentors oriented me so that I could see the bigger picture, provided good work and opportunities, protected me when they could, and provided good actionable feedback.
For example, when I was a new associate, I worked as part of a team tasked with creating the process that enabled the District of Columbia to access the bond market after it emerged from home rule. There was no precedent, and we created everything from scratch. A senior associate took me under her wing and did everything she could to teach me, guide me, and lead by example. I wouldn’t have had a career without her.
I am forever grateful to the portfolio managers and analysts who graciously showed me the ropes when I worked in financial services. In my first job as CDIO, the firm’s chairman played an important role in my career. He invested in me because he really wanted the firm to be more diverse. And, of course, Sally Olson has been a mentor. She would set up lunches with diversity leaders in Chicago. During these lunches, we built warm and supportive relationships.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
In some ways, it’s being a very involved grandmother. The location of Sidley’s offices and my life are very mingled together. I think it’s great that I can help the firm and be more present with my family. Being a grandmother is my encore performance. I also like reading, travel, eating pasta, and sampling wine. And I collect salt and pepper shakers.
What words of advice would you share with diverse lawyers who are entering the legal profession?
I think it’s important to be gentle on yourself. You will succeed. As much as possible, plan and take ownership of your career trajectory. Find mentorship (even if it’s temporary) everywhere you can, and invest in your mentor as much as they invest in you. Lastly, when you receive feedback, utilize it to the extent you feel capable.