We spoke with María D. Meléndez, Sidley’s chief diversity officer, about how she is expanding Sidley’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
You have been a lawyer with Sidley for more than 25 years. Do you remember what first led you to the firm?
MM: Well, I must admit, it wasn’t entirely something I decided actively at the time. I was a summer associate and a first-year lawyer at a different firm. At the end of my first year, in 1993, the partners that I’d worked with the most, and with whom I really enjoyed working, decided to move to what was then Brown & Wood and is now Sidley [after Brown & Wood merged with Sidley & Austin in May 2001]. They invited me to join them and I said yes. I like to say it’s the best non-decision I’ve ever made in my life. [laughs]
You have done many things in your tenure at Sidley — from your frequent speaking engagements on equity to your years as New York chair of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee — that made this role a perfect fit. Yet you have also been a very successful lawyer here. How did this career shift evolve?
MM: It was essentially serendipitous. When our former chief diversity officer Sarah “Sally” Olson announced that she would be retiring in May 2020, I was preparing for my youngest son to graduate from high school and start college, so I knew I was on my way to being an empty nester. I had also had a big birthday the year before, and it was one of those forks in the road in my life where I’m thinking, “OK, what now?”
What I kept coming back to is something I’m very passionate about — advancing diversity and inclusion at Sidley and in the legal profession. The practice of law for a partner at a big law firm is incredibly challenging. There are a lot of expectations, a lot of factors that are difficult to navigate, particularly for women and lawyers of diverse backgrounds. I thought, and I still do firmly believe, that I can help people successfully navigate those challenges and thrive at the firm.
You were New York chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee from 2002 to 2016. Were there specific events or initiatives you spearheaded during that time that you found particularly gratifying?
MM: More broadly, early on, I recall playing an active role in helping to build out the actual infrastructure for the firm’s office-wide diversity and inclusion initiatives — those were as yet in their formative stages at the time. In New York, specifically, there are several events and initiatives that I’m most proud of that I want to expand. One of the early ones was a program in collaboration with Morgan Stanley and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. That was a big signature event we did in New York and also in Sidley’s office in Chicago. Carving out a night to partner with a major firm client like Morgan Stanley to highlight such monumental legal decisions that impact equity and inclusion in our history is very important to me.
I am also proud of the events where we join forces with other clients. In particular, one we held with JPMorgan at their New York headquarters to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That night, we had about 150 attendees — it was very well attended. It really launched the growth and expansion of our relationship with JPMorgan on the diversity and inclusion front, which continues today.
These types of events are meaningful to me because they bring the firm together with major clients who are mutually committed to diversity and inclusion. They also offer the opportunity for our lawyers to interact with and build relationships with their counterparts in other companies. We’ve had business relationships come from those events as a result. It’s among the many reasons why I’m excited to help facilitate similar programs and events across all of Sidley’s offices.
In terms of the communities and individuals we’ve worked with, have you noticed a palpable impact that the firm is making?
MM: Over the last 20 years, we have made tremendous strides in terms of recruiting, retaining, and promoting more women into leadership and partnership ranks at the firm. I know that’s generally true in the profession as a whole. When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity, we’ve made some progress, but there is much more to be done, particularly with respect to our women of color.
Women of color are at a unique intersection. Their experiences in the profession are different, and we need to better understand and address the challenges they face. So we have to pay closer attention to that demographic and do everything we can to make sure people have the opportunities and resources they need to be successful.
I do feel very confident that we are making major inroads, in part because of our talented diversity and inclusion team. We have three directors in the U.S. — Jennifer Ganesh on the West Coast, Chiymelle Proby Nunn in the Central Region, and Deborah Martin Owens on the East Coast. In London, Jerry Gallagher, Director of HR – International, is covering the EU offices. We also have a diversity communications specialist, a diversity manager, and two coordinators. I wouldn’t feel as confident about what I think we can accomplish but for the fact that the people who are part of this department are exceptional. People talk about emotional intelligence. They have exactly that. It’s also about the passion they have for the firm and the passion they have for diversity and inclusion and making things better for everybody.
In looking at what you have pioneered at the firm, what does the future look like in terms of our diversity and inclusion initiatives?
MM: I think the biggest piece of what that would look like is more inclusion, in every sense of the word. I think of all of the time and effort companies and law firms have devoted to advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession in the last couple of decades. Most of it has not been focused on inclusion. We can do better.
Part of the solution, I think, is that we need to really activate and engage our white heterosexual men. I have these conversations with my colleagues, and they’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t participate in this program because I didn’t think that I had anything to contribute.” I say, “Wow, you have everything to contribute. Your leadership, experience, skills, and insights. We need you in the room with us, to hear directly what is on the minds of our women and diverse lawyers and for them to hear from you what is on your mind.” Having more of that kind of open dialogue and conversation between and among our colleagues is imperative.
Many of them do all of those things. If you were to ask most diverse lawyers who has helped them along their career, nine times out of 10, they’re going to say a white male. We just need more of them to do it and in a more visible way. In the end, my job is to get rid of my job — to do what needs to be done so that at some point, hopefully within my lifetime, diversity and inclusion becomes part of our DNA and there will be no need for a diversity and inclusion department.