Amid all the COVID-19 news, the Flo Recruit team wanted to put some positive, enlightening content into the universe. Courtney Dredden Carter’s career path is inspirational to any of us interested in law, recruiting, diversity and inclusion — and more importantly, any of us who want to merge an ambitious career with a personal passion.
Have you ever met someone and within a minute of talking with them you know you would take in every word they said? That is what happened at a happy hour event Flo Recruit hosted last year in D.C. last year, when I had the honor of meeting Courtney. She is a phenomenal conversationalist and exudes happiness. The second she mentioned unconscious bias, I was hooked. Side note: anyone who knows me knows I am absolutely terrible with names, so I immediately liked that we shared the same name, but that was just 0.05% of why I enjoyed talking with Courtney.
Courtney is the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Jenner & Block. Her legal career started with a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. She worked as an Adjunct Professor and Program Advisor at the Washington Center (TWC) Externship Program, the largest independent, non-profit provider of experiential educational programs in the U.S. Courtney traveled to various classrooms and taught high school students anything from American history to constitutional law and oral advocacy. She went on to construct diversity initiatives for NALP (National Association for Law Placement) and ended up at the Diversity Lab, which she talks about below. Courtney joined Jenner & Block in 2016 as a D&I Manager and now she is the Director, with some very interesting initiatives in mind.
Courtney has such an excellent story. Our interview follows the progression that led to her position at Jenner & Block, and it’s pretty incredible. Enjoy the ride! 🚗
A: First off, I didn’t actually set out to do this. I graduated from law school and honestly didn’t even know these kinds of jobs existed. I’ve always been interested in issues of equity — specifically, educational equity. You can’t really study equitable allocation of funds within public schools without digging into broad social justice issues at large. Being a woman of color, equity within society is something that I am extremely passionate about. Before law school and even during law school, I never thought about how I could combine some of my personal interests with my professional career.
When I decided to take a step back from practicing law, I went and got an LLM (Master of Laws). While I was completing that degree, I participated in a legal diversity pipeline program at TWC, where every Friday, for a year, I would go into a high school and teach history classes all day. I taught the kids about constitutional law and oral advocacy. It was amazing and I absolutely loved it. So after that, I worked at NALP, and ran the legal diversity pipeline programs where I worked with people at law firms to train their lawyers and staff how to teach kids about the law. Once they were trained, they would go into the high school we were partnering with, we would divide them into teams, and they would teach the kids about torts, con law, trademark, copyright. In that role with NALP, I worked with a lot of people who became my current colleagues, including my former boss and now my current boss at Jenner & Block!
After these experiences, I knew I wanted to focus on diversity and inclusion issues within a law firm setting; however, these positions are so rare, and it became a waiting game until one opened up. So, I began working with a woman named Caren Ulrich Stacy, who now runs what is called Diversity Lab.
Caren is one of the most innovative people I’ve ever met in my life. Working with her and the other handful of people was life changing and I loved every second of it. I wasn’t looking to leave, but Jenner & Block came calling! I was really happy working with Karen, but I knew some people at Jenner & Block, and that was attractive to me. This month I will celebrate my actual real anniversary at the firm because I started on Leap Day in 2016 -- so this is my first real anniversary even though it has been 4 years [🤩 Congrats on your work anniversary, Courtney!].
A: There is always opportunity to do better. I think schools are doing a fairly decent job at bringing in more diverse students. I’d say for the AmLaw 100 to 200 firms, it is still a challenge for those organizations to recruit past the top schools, which is not to say that there aren’t firms that do it. For larger firms, there are schools they visit that aren’t top 15 because the schools are regionally important. For example, our Chicago office interviews every year at the University of Illinois, which has been great for us.
Stereotypes do still exist and some firms recruit where their top lawyers went to school, so it is based on a sense of pride, rather than strategy. It is a challenging issue, and it’s not just a U.S. thing. I just got back from London and I think it’s even more of an issue in the U.K., where if you didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, your chances of getting into a top law firm are very minimal. I find this super interesting, but in some U.K. firms, they have started using a blind first interview in which the interviewer does not see the resume. They evaluate purely based on how they do in the interviews, so that’s how some organizations are combating these stereotypes in the U.K.
At Jenner & Block, we focus on behavioral interviews, so we do a voluntary training on behavioral interviewing every year. We prime people to think about creating some equity between you and the job candidate, rather than focusing on things you have in common and introducing that bias into your evaluation of that candidate. We really focus and train our professionals to think beyond that. We ask our people to pick 3 or 4 behavioral interview questions and ask every candidate those questions in the same order and think about how they answered those questions. It’s a step in the right direction of not only educational equity, but equity in the overall recruiting process.
A: Generally, what I have experienced at Jenner & Block is that people buy into the goal of making the firm a better place not only to work, but to excel at your career. I don’t have any issues with people who do not see its importance right away. The focus needs to be how to get there. And, I welcome input and feedback from everyone at the firm because that’s how we create better initiatives, better programming, and ultimately that’s how we grow. It can’t just be myself and my team in a silo coming up with ideas without input.
We have a DE&I committee that serves as a testing ground and touchpoints for a lot of things. I meet regularly with firm leadership including our Managing Partners to test things to get buy in and support for these initiatives. I have found that there is always an opening for people to listen and consider ideas. I don’t have a challenge really with people getting to buy in and maybe that’s a perk of being at an excellent firm!
A: There are a lot of career paths and options for diverse students that did not exist a couple of years ago, which means that diverse law students have a lot of options. So, a student coming out of law school does not have to practice law at a traditional firm. They can go into the tech industry or wherever. Everyone is fighting for a handful of these students. There are not that many BigLaw firms, so that’s a challenge in and of itself. The students coming out of law school expect a lot from their future employer. They don’t want to go to organizations where there are not people that look like or navigate life like them. I think that's great. That is going to push organizations to do better and become a more attractive employer to diverse law students.
A: We are different from a lot of BigLaw firms. First off, while we punch above our weight, we are on the smaller end of BigLaw firms in terms of total lawyers. Additionally, I think we have a distinct culture. Every firm has a culture, but I think that ours is one that can be attractive to particular types of students. What I mean by that is that we’re a firm in which in any of our offices you’ll find a number of people who say things like “Yeah, I never thought I’d be in BigLaw.” But here they are at Jenner & Block.
I think that’s the case for a few reasons:
1. We have a true commitment to public service. Year after year, we are named the number one pro bono law firm in the country. That is really attractive to a lot of law students. Almost every one of our lawyers does 20 hours of pro bono each year — many do quite a lot more. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s really an incredible statistic. It’s a part of who we are as a firm. That is something that is often really attractive to diverse students, given that many of them have an affinity towards public service, which makes Jenner & Block an attractive option for them.
2. We also are a firm that has a history of LGBTQ supportive litigation and organizations. We were one of the first BigLaw firms to have a LGBTQ forum and publish a newsletter saying that these are our LGBTQ lawyers. We had a former partner that argued and won Lawrence v. Texas, the case that paved the way for marriage equality for all. When I joined the firm, I was like “Holy crap, I read about him when I took constitutional law.” We have a deep, rich history of advocacy supporting the LGTBQ community and that legacy has lived on and has continued to thrive. Our numbers for LGBTQ lawyers are double that of any other law firm at the partner level and almost triple other law firms at the associate level. It’s something that myself and our firm are really proud of.
We have lots of stuff we need to work on, and we’re actively striving to make an even more diverse workplace, but I do think that it is a combination of these two things that makes us a particularly attractive option to diverse law students.
A: My team and I work very closely with the recruiting team. I sit on the hiring committee in DC. We’re involved at the decision making levels when we’re making strategic choices that affect recruiting and diversity. We are so fortunate because we have the best colleagues and we all truly care about this topic. When we do training sessions on behavioral interviewing and unconscious bias, my colleagues on the recruiting team come and sit in and are really engaged in those sessions. You can tell they just want to learn and do better.
I just got off the phone with our senior recruiting manager in New York. We were just talking yesterday about how she sends out tips about behavioral interviewing any time she schedules lateral hiring meetings. She doesn’t have to do that, but she gets it, and she cares. She wants to make sure we have an inclusive class. There is so much crossover and collaboration at Jenner & Block. One of the things that Jenner & Block does really well is hire amazing people and give them the freedom and opportunity to collaborate and optimize. I personally feel really lucky to have the colleagues that I do.
I often describe our firm’s commitment to public service and pro bono. Over the next 5 years, I want someone to describe our commitment to diversity and inclusion and be able to say we’re the best law firm for a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment. That’s my goal and also the goal of our leadership! 🎆✨
A: Over the course of the last 4 months, my colleague and I rolled out an unconscious bias training. The diversity committee recently asked us to change our approach to training, which I have come to appreciate. They asked us to weave the lessons of unconscious bias into each training, so that it is presented in a different way. For example, we created a training that is about feedback, specifically how to give and receive feedback. We spent a lot of time talking about the different factors of unconscious bias and how that is intertwined into how we give and receive feedback. It is such a fascinating topic! We rolled this training out to every one of our U.S. offices and have received really positive reviews.
On the topic of training being mandatory, there is evidence that when you make the training mandatory, people come in and they are annoyed, which makes the topics discussed not stick as well. My personal philosophy is that we shouldn’t make training mandatory, rather, we should create a workspace that cultivates learning and the desire to be engaged. Our hope is that this type of culture will naturally increase turnout. To date, we get about half of our lawyers consistently attending our trainings. I think that is a great start!
A: We actually sponsor a number of affinity groups at the law schools where we recruit. Those sponsorships provide us with opportunities to participate in events on campus. Our lawyers speak on panels at just about every school we recruit. We make strategic decisions about which groups we sponsor. We do this because otherwise the students don’t know who we are. Our best asset is our lawyers. We want to get them in front of students because they are amazing. We truly believe they are what differentiates us. We take pride in knowing that our people are what will make students interested in us and want to start their careers with us.
Speaking on panels can be a significant portion of our budget. In fact, with all of the recent NALP guidelines changes, recruiting has absolutely blown up. So, the reality is that we are going to have to do even more panels and speaking events. We only sponsor things that get our lawyers in front of students, which has really been a huge part of our return on investment for these types of events.
As you can see, Courtney’s journey to Jenner & Block has been one filled with intention and purpose. Even though she started out not knowing what she wanted to do or how to combine a passion with a purpose, it seems that she unconsciously (see what I did there) made decisions to join different organizations and initiatives that set her up to excel at Jenner & Block.
Unconscious bias is an important discussion and one that has really taken off in the field of organizational psychology research. Erik Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, estimates that 80-90% of our mind works unconsciously, meaning that we operate on a primal tendency that is extremely difficult to go up against, but not impossible. Here’s an interesting article by Forbes about unconscious bias.
For those more scientific nerds, like myself, here are links to research articles about the foundation of unconscious bias in the workplace and how to combat it.
Please check out Jenner & Block’s website to keep up to date about their D&I Initiatives and all the wonderful things Courtney and her team are accomplishing!