Nicolaine (Nicole) Lazarre is Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the National Urban League. From 2006 to 2009, she was an associate in Sidley’s New York office. In April, Nicole will be the recipient of the Jane M. Bolin Trailblazer Award which is awarded each year by the Association of Black Women Attorneys. Michael Peck, now a retired partner, spoke with Nicole to discuss diversity in the legal profession, the work of the National Urban League and how to network without attending a cocktail party.
Michael: Could you tell us what makes the National Urban League a unique organization?
Nicole: The National Urban League is a civil rights organization that advocates on behalf of African Americans. For the last 107 years, our focus has been dedicated to economic empowerment and elevating underserved communities. We like to joke that we are a Do Tank, not a Think Tank. We are one of the few civil rights organizations that provide social services. We provide direct services in 88 communities and 36 states, serving as a national intermediary for local affiliates that provide assistance in housing, healthcare, education and employment. What we are really good at is “wrap around” services. For instance, our Project Ready program helps students make academic progress, but it is also makes sure that the students are looking at post-secondary success and transitioning from middle school to high school. Our jobs re-entry program for incarcerated youth works on GED attainment, mental health issues and job preparedness. We’re not just putting clients out there in entry level jobs; we’re really looking at how to help people succeed for the long-term.
Michael: Is there anything from your background in global finance securitization that prepared you for your current role?
Nicole: My training definitely helped. Some projects I’ve worked on have been directly on point with my prior background, such as reviewing terms for our commercial real estate development in Harlem and other commercial leases. The organization is subject to regulatory oversight, governing its federal grant activities. My background in securities regulations provides helpful experience in analyzing regulations and translating them into concrete compliance objectives. Indirectly, my experience has given me strong issue spotting, project management and problem solving skills. These are examples of why, when asked, I recommend working at a big firm. But I’ve also realized how important emotional intelligence skills are to navigating a corporate hierarchy.
Michael: Could you reflect on the mission of the National Urban League and how you think private law firms are furthering that mission or how they could do more?
Nicole: At the National Urban League, we look to elevate individuals to their highest possibilities by addressing barriers such as social justice, income inequality and transactional equity. With respect to Civil Rights and Social Justice, I would say that law firms have been very active leaders in providing pro bono services to underserved constituencies and to nonprofits. We’ve worked with some great firms on major cases addressing issues such as voting rights and housing discrimination.
On the transactional equity side, diversity and how that impacts opportunities for attorneys of color is a major issue. I think law firms need to find ways to apply corporate diversity best practices to the partnership model. Law firms have certainly done an excellent job in terms of structuring formal diversity programs; in creating pipeline programs helping law students of color; and in reaching outside the traditional Ivy League construct to identify candidates. Still, there’s been a decline since 2009 in the number of women and minorities in the legal profession, so attrition and advancement are still a problem. Law firms need to address this issue not only from the standpoint of Corporate Social Responsibility but also for their own long term success. If you look at America’s major corporations, top level decision-makers, including General Counsels and CCOs, are demanding greater diversity from their suppliers. There are greater numbers of minorities and women serving in these roles. This will definitely impact the bottom line in the long term for law firms that fail to diversify their legal teams. Law firms need to have a hard look at the data, find the stress points and hold themselves accountable.
Michael: On a more personal level, did you have a mentor? How are you mentoring your team at the National Urban League?
Nicole: I definitely could not have gotten to where I am without having a significant number of mentors. You were a great mentor. You’ve really helped me in terms of being an advisor and differentiating between decisions where you can provide input and guidance, and those decisions that are business issues. In terms of my team, I like to watch people grow in their careers and learn new skills incrementally. I focus on providing objectives at the beginning of the year, which include acquiring specific substantive knowledge and tacking new cross departmental functions. I also provide opportunities for taking the lead on projects or presentations. As a developmental tool, I now steer away from providing answers. Instead I respond with questions. And if someone tells me they have an interest in something different, they don’t get shown the door. I use my connections to help them find the next opportunity. I have even paid for an employee to take interview coaching when I saw that he was getting stuck with his goals of transitioning to the finance industry. I think my approach only makes sense. If you want to attract good people, you need to build a positive reputation. People need to feel that working for you will support their long-term career objectives.
Michael: We throw around words like network, but I’m not really sure people know what that means. You envision standing around at a cocktail party. But how do you network?
Nicole: It’s definitely not the cocktail party. Walking into someone’s office is a great way to do it. Within a firm, if there are other areas of practice that you’re curious about, ask questions and learn about it. Another way is joining young professionals groups where you’re meeting like-minded colleagues or peers and learning from each other. As a mentor, I’m always looking to set up lunches or meetings, or phone calls to connect people that would benefit from each other. Volunteering for the bar or with startups and doing pro bono work are also great ways to network because they provide the opportunity to have more responsibilities and exposure than one might otherwise have as a junior associate. Those types of activities may also lead to future clients!
Michael: What do you do when you’re not practicing law at the National Urban League?
Nicole: Aside from spending time with friends and family, I do yoga (I love to combine travel with yoga retreats) and I like to write and to take classes. I’m also on the board of an organization that’s focused on civil rights and telecommunication. I’ve done a number of initiatives with them related to social impact investment because access to capital is one of the big barriers to having a diverse media.
Published March 2017 - UPDATE: Also currently Adjunct Associate Professor, Columbia University School of Professional Studies
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