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Orrick ‘triples down’ on racial justice fellowships for associates

5 minute read

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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(Reuters) - When Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe launched its racial, social and economic justice fellowship program last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it sounded almost too good to be true to some associates.

The firm would pay six lawyers their full Big Law salaries for spending a year embedded at nonprofits, working full-time to make the world a better place?

“There was a bit of disbelief, like ‘Is this for real?’” Siobhan Handley, the firm’s chief talent officer told me.

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Not only was it for real, Orrick chairman Mitch Zuklie in an exclusive interview said the firm has decided to continue the program for at least three more years. The next class of fellows (there will be five in 2022) will deploy in January.

I doubt anyone would have faulted Orrick if the fellowships had been a one-off response to Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the reckoning over racial injustice that followed. After all, it’s a substantial financial commitment to pay five or six mid-level to senior associates between $275,000 and $350,000 each to work for someone else.

Instead, Zuklie and Handley said the firm has pledged to "triple-down" on its commitment.

“For us, one clear lesson in the past 18 months is that the private sector has to step up in a new way,” Zuklie said. “We felt a heightened moral imperative to really be thoughtful about the issue, because we’ve taken an oath as lawyers and we have an ethical obligation to promote justice.”

Many Big Law firms as the Black Lives Matter protests mounted vowed to improve their own diversity and inclusion efforts, upped pro bono work and made substantial donations to non-profits like the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

Orrick did that too, but firm leaders wanted something more and came up with the idea for the fellowship program.

About 60 Orrick associates applied to be fellows, Handley said. The finalists interviewed with the nonprofits, and the firm and the organizations jointly selected the winners.

Seventh-year associate Andrea Mazingo, who focuses on financial services-related litigation and government investigations, has spent the past year working at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which provides housing, case management and pro bono legal services for women after they are released from prison.

Her roles have included representing previously incarcerated mothers in family and probate court to help them regain custody of their children as well as policy and advocacy work.

“It’s extremely emotionally charged work,” she told me. But it’s also deeply rewarding. “It feels like the opportunity of a lifetime,” Mazingo said, and a reminder of how much difference a lawyer can make. “It’s renewing my passion" for being a lawyer, she said.

A New Way of Life founder Susan Burton told me that having Mazingo on staff this year “has meant so, so much.”

“Andi has brought to A New Way of Life a level of experience and skill set and legal knowledge that has allowed us to build out an entire department focused on the rights of women to have their children and parental rights restored,” she said.

Walter Alarkon is another Orrick fellow. The seventh-year energy and infrastructure associate has been working at Common Future, which describes itself as a “network of leaders (re)building an economy that includes everyone.”

Alarkon told me he’s been able to apply his skills as a transactional lawyer to assist the Oakland, California-based nonprofit with creating a legal structure for a lending program targeting under-served communities in Minneapolis, Cincinnati and indigenous peoples in the southwestern U.S.

As the son of Filipino immigrants, he said he felt a strong need “to do something about systemic racial inequality.” By providing start-up loans of $5,000 to $30,000 to entrepreneurs based on what Common Future terms “character-based lending,” Alarkon sees the chance to create opportunities that may previously have been denied.

The other inaugural fellows are white collar associate Ciarra Carr, who is working at Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center; appellate associate Max Carter-Oberstone at the Policing Project at New York University School of Law; litigation associate Rochelle Swartz at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and employment law associate Roza Patterson at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

The fellowship program is proving to be a recruitment boon for Orrick, Handley said. “There isn’t any other law firm doing this,” she said. (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom has a fellowship foundation, but its fellows are employees of the host organization and are paid $58,000 a year for two years, according to the Skadden foundation website.)

During recent law school on-campus interviews, Handley said, Orrick’s program was a major topic of interest among applicants, and was cited by several incoming summer associates as one reason they were attracted to the firm.

There’s also been “an incredibly positive response among clients,” Handley said, adding that she hopes other firms will be inspired to start their own fellowship programs.

“We’d like to start a movement here,” she said. “We want to bring change to the industry.”

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com

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