Last year, Cindy Zuniga, an associate in the Commercial Litigation Practice , and Judith Kim, an associate in the Nonprofit Organizations Practice, were chosen to participate in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) Pathfinders program, which is designed to provide high-potential diverse attorneys with practical career development tools. In this Q & A, Cindy and Judith discuss their experience with the program, how it helped them survive and thrive in lockdown, and the challenges and unexpected benefits of virtual networking.
Q: The pandemic hit just before you were supposed to begin the program. How did the lockdown impact your experience?
Judith: From what I understand of the traditional program, there are two in-person conferences—one in the spring and another toward the end of the year—where you get to meet all of the pathfinders and have breakout sessions with your designated cohort of around six people. Then, periodically throughout the year, you meet with your cohort to work on leadership modules and to discuss your career goals and other aspects of career development. Of course, because of the lockdown we had none of that! We were supposed to kick off the program with a two-day conference in Atlanta last April. But once we went into lockdown in March, the LCLD had to redo the entire program and make everything virtual, which made for an interesting experience.
Cindy: Yes, being the first class that wasn't able to do all these in-person events and connect in that way was definitely a challenge, but despite the unique situation that we were in with everything being virtual, I'm most grateful for the cohort and the support.
Q: What was it like attending your first conference online?
Judith: The virtual conference took place over two days in late April, where we had presenters from LCLD leadership, who were either partners at law firms or senior counsel at various companies. Then there was a second conference early this year. We also had professional development workshops, where we had speakers talk about diversity and inclusion, how to thrive in the workplace, and how to address some of the mental health issues that sometimes arise in this profession. There was a speed networking component, which was pretty stressful, given that it was a strictly timed two-minute countdown ending sometimes in an abrupt cutoff. Then there were the breakout sessions with our cohort groups, where we were given certain prompts to talk through. So, it was quite intensive.
Q: The meet-ups with your cohorts throughout the year also had to be virtual. Did you still find them beneficial?
Cindy: Definitely. In my group, we were all associates in the late junior / early midlevel range at large New York City law firms. What I loved was that we were all dealing with very different lockdown circumstances—some were moms, some were dads, some were living with roommates—but what we had in common was a desire to connect with other people who were grappling with the same pandemic-related challenges. It was a very weird time in that for some of us in the group, work had lagged a lot and for others it was their busiest time ever, so there were a lot of discussions about how to handle that.
Q: Did you work on any specific tasks during those meet-ups?
Judith: The program is designed to develop leadership skills, and there was an assigned module to follow. But truthfully, it was hard to talk about things like leadership in a year when the world was falling apart! So, we often ended up talking about everything that was going on and how it was impacting our practices. It was very helpful to hear from people in similar settings and learn how other law firms were adjusting. I really felt very fortunate to have this kind of support network available and to learn that we were all in this struggle together.
CINDY: During the virtual conference, we worked on assignments related to leadership and diversity, and so it was great to deepen those discussions during our subsequent meet-ups with our cohorts. But, as Judith mentioned, the module work was probably not as focused as it would have been in a normal year. The discussions were more about how everyone was doing, how the work has changed, what the next steps might be. None of us were certain what was to come, so being able to connect and share our concerns and support each other was invaluable.
Q. Another aspect of the program is getting exposure to clients and more senior attorneys. Was that still possible under the circumstances?
Cindy: Typically, the way that I understand it, the LCLD organizes regional in-person meet-ups where law firm associates can interact with in-house counsel. The idea behind these gatherings is to build a smaller community within the very saturated legal market that exists in places like New York City. The numbers for diverse attorneys are still quite low, and just to be able to have this sort of subset networking group is a great opportunity. Although we were limited in what we could do this year, I was still able to connect with some in-house attorneys at New York-based companies during the virtual conference, two of whom were women that I was familiar with through another networking circle that I'm part of in the city, so it was great to reinforce those connections. Although most of the lawyers we interacted with are not in senior roles, we all rise together, and the thought is that a couple of years from now, these people could be the decision makers when it comes to outsourcing work. So, I'm very grateful to have had these interactions.
Q: How about connections with other attorneys within the firm?
Judith: I really appreciated the ability to connect with people like Cindy, whom I'd never interacted with before, as we work in different offices and in different practice areas. It's also been great to connect with more senior associates at Venable like Witt Chang, who graduated from various LCLD programs. It's been really helpful to hear their perspectives on leveraging the program to advance within the firm and just more generally their thoughts on how to rise up the ladder. And I appreciated the chance to establish a connection with Nora Garrote, Venable's partner in charge of Diversity and Inclusion, who encouraged me to participate in the program. Participating in LCLD is a natural way to form connections and to build a micro-community. So, as well as building an external network, the shared LCLD experience has also helped strengthen our community of diverse attorneys within Venable.
Q: So overall then, did the program meet your expectations?
Judith: The year certainly turned out to be much different from what I had expected, and ultimately worked out really well, particularly through getting to know fellow pathfinders and new colleagues at the firm. In such a challenging year, having a group of people to share experiences with and to talk with in a way that we just don't do in the traditional workplace was immensely beneficial. Overall, the program was like a group counseling session. I came out of it getting to know some people whom I would definitely pick up the phone for, and with whom I look forward to working with in the future.
Cindy: I went in thinking that it was going to be a very formal, structured program with connections that were made only because of preplanned activities. What it actually turned out to be was an opportunity to make more intimate connections, which in the long run is more valuable. It's surprisingly hard to do that when there is usually so much noise around. I think that all of us who participated are going to have a special bond from having been able to check in with each other while we were going through something so major in our lifetimes.
Venable has been recognized by LCLD as a Top Performer and Compass Award winner for the past three consecutive years. To learn more about our LCLD partnership and our diversity efforts, check out our brochure.