August 27, 2020 Articles

Summer Spotlight on Diversity and Inclusion: Heather Lonian

The chair of Stone Pigman’s diversity committee has spoken to several prominent media outlets in the New Orleans area about promoting antiracism and inclusivity in the workplace.

By Fritz Metzinger
"We’re standing on the shoulders of people who fought to break the glass ceiling."

"We’re standing on the shoulders of people who fought to break the glass ceiling."

Heather Lonian is a member at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, L.L.C., in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has been at Stone Pigman since 2005. She specializes in insurance and class action defense, as well as general commercial litigation, and is the chair of Stone Pigman’s diversity committee. In recent months, Lonian has spoken to several prominent media outlets in the New Orleans area about promoting antiracism and inclusivity in the workplace.

For how long have you been chair of the diversity committee at Stone Pigman?

 Since 2017.

How did the firm’s diversity committee originate?

It wasn’t in response to a particular incident or anything like that. It started as a discussion between some of our current and former partners. There was general support for diversity and inclusion goals. But there was no intentionality about it. We didn’t have specific policies. We didn’t have a specific focus in our hiring and promotion to make sure that these goals were being advanced.

What measures has the diversity committee taken since you’ve been chair?

We’ve certainly worked hand in hand with the recruiting committee to make sure that we are expanding our recruiting pool to take advantage of the diversity in Louisiana. In the past, it was done in much more of an ad hoc manner, and now we’re going out of our way to make sure that the firm’s policies are not only antidiscriminatory but that they are pro-diversity, pro-inclusion, and antiracist.

Can you elaborate further on what antiracism means, especially in the context of a legal workplace?

What people need to understand is that the barriers that diverse people face in the workplace are not simply an issue of individual, overt bias anymore. The laws are such, in most legal markets, we’ve gotten beyond the overt racism and workplace discrimination that people in earlier generations faced. Thankfully, those barriers are gone.

There is still some individual racial bias, and I don’t pretend otherwise. And not just racial bias—religious bias, anti-LGBTQ bias, and so forth. But people at least have a cognizance that there is a code of conduct that doesn’t allow that to be openly expressed in the workplace anymore.

Where people have a blind spot is to the historic structures that have made these workplaces hostile to diverse people without nondiverse attorneys necessarily being aware of it. The big law firm structure was basically created at a time where there were no women or people of color practicing in large numbers.

An antiracist mindset looks at the way in which—for example, in New Orleans, where you have a history of segregation—the way the school systems are set up to cause certain people to advance and certain people not to advance. And it means thinking about ways to break down these historic, antiquated structures that are keeping people from advancing even in the absence of overt, intentional racial bias. Are we not just recruiting at diverse law schools [but] going into the elementary schools, to the high schools, to make sure people from diverse backgrounds are getting into the pipelines to become lawyers? Because until we fix these structural, inherent problems that go beyond personal bias, we’re not going to get to see the change that we all want to see.

Another thing antiracist firms focus on is building a strong culture of mentorship. The absence of a mentoring culture can inhibit the advancement of diverse attorneys because they’re entering a spot where they’re maybe the first of their generation—or in an LGBTQ situation, they may be the first generation of attorneys who are openly out—and, as a result, they don’t share the existing pipelines to advancement that the majority of attorneys may have enjoyed in the past. Even if diverse attorneys are not being intentionally excluded, in the absence of a mentoring culture they may not be intentionally included. We need to break down those existing gravitational forces and make sure that not only is someone not intentionally excluded but that everybody is included as well. 

Especially for younger attorneys, what are some concrete examples of things that they can do to help other younger attorneys (especially traditionally marginalized people) to feel more welcome? And how can attorneys looking for mentorship effectively pursue it?

When I first started, one thing that was most helpful for me was that I would always go and talk to a senior or midlevel associate. Get feedback from as many people as you can. There’s no shame in asking for feedback.

Certainly, if you’re a midlevel or senior associate, when you have time make sure you’re giving that feedback, and make sure it’s constructive feedback. Don’t just give comments, but explain why you’re giving them and what you want that younger associate to learn. I think sometimes young lawyers aren’t given that feedback. Frankly, partners may not have time to give as much feedback as they would like. So, I think associates are a great source of feedback.

Another piece of advice I would give young lawyers is that, as a person of color at a majority firm, some of the most influential mentors I’ve had were people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. I had a mentor whose politics were different than mine, and our backgrounds had almost nothing in common. But early in my career, I was assigned to a big case with him, and the fact that we spent all this time working together on this case allowed us to build a relationship. And when I was up for partner, he was one of my biggest advocates. And so I think people shouldn’t necessarily be afraid to look beyond their affinity group to find mentors. And, frankly speaking, you may discover some of the people in your affinity group may not be your allies.

I’ve been blessed to have attorneys of color mentor me, and white attorneys who were my mentors as well. You should always try to find something in common with your coworkers, even if it isn’t always obvious at first. You find something to talk about when you spend a ton of hours together traveling or working on a project. Those things that you can talk about on your downtime are the things that help build bonds and will help you to build those mentoring relationships.

And you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your mentors for strategic advice within the firm. Because when you first arrive at a firm, there are all sorts of dynamics going on that you’re completely unaware of. That’s true of any sort of work environment where people have been together for a while and have certain social dynamics. And you should be aware of those because they can affect your own advancement within the organization. 

Broadly speaking—certainly not universally, but broadly speaking—younger generations might be more amenable to changes in workplace culture and inclusivity initiatives. But how do younger lawyers avoid taking inclusivity and these types of changes for granted and focusing on the right kinds of progress?

The advantages we have now result from the fact that people in prior generations—in my case, attorneys of color, female attorneys—fought for them. They went out of their way to make sure that our generation would have things easier. You owe that to people coming after you to make sure that their situation is not only as good as you had it but is hopefully better.

When I graduated law school in 2005, gay marriage was still a hyper-politicized issue. I remember talking with my friends, and they were discussing whether or not to come out at their law firms. And these were large law firms in big cities. At that time, people wondered, “Can I come out to my client? Can I bring my partner to firm events?” That’s not ancient history.

In New Orleans, we’re in the second generation of desegregation at major downtown law firms. We’re standing on the shoulders of people who fought to break the glass ceiling. And we are still fighting.

And we still have work to do. When we look around at our boardrooms, our conference rooms, it’s still a homogeneous group for the most part. We still have work to do. That’s another responsibility for all of us—to continue to work to make this the work environment that we want it to be. If you’re in a room with no diverse people, you have to be the one that says, “Wait a minute, there aren’t enough diverse people in here,” or asks, “Why isn’t this perspective being better represented?” Every firm at every level has to have that conversation.

Fritz Metzinger is an associate concentrating his practice on general business litigation at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, L.L.C. in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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