Diversifying the Twin Cities law offices

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November 18, 2011
By: Josh Wolanin
Josh Wolanin
// Mentors guide Twin Cities minority law students//

In the lobby of 50 S. 6 St. a group of silent, well-dressed men and women stood waiting for an elevator ride to the 15th floor and the offices of law firm Dorsey & Whitney in suite 1500.

They were on their way to the Oct. 27 kick-off event hosted by Twin Cities Diversity in Practice, where law students from area schools would meet with their mentors for the next six months. Where the elevator let out, a handful of students enjoyed beverages and small plates of hors d’oeuvres next to a greeting table lined with nametags — mentors names on the left, mentees to the right.

Outside the room, Jennifer Coates stood patiently. A first year mentor of the program, she was previously a mentee under Dan Schulman, chief counsel in antitrust litigation at Gray Plant Mooty.

Coates has been with Diversity in Practice for three years. She said the association of Twin Cities law firms and corporate legal departments offered unique cultural capital for attorneys of color from the four law schools in the Twin Cities: Hamline University, William Mitchell College of Law, and the universities of St. Thomas and Minnesota.

Said Coates: “The question is not ‘How do you help an attorney step through the door?’ It’s ‘How do you make an attorney successful once through the door?’”

That’s the overarching question for the organization. Only 13 percent of attorneys in Minnesota are minorities. That’s slightly better than the national average of 11.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coates said most mentor programs are run through law firms, but Diversity in Practice targets a demographic rather than the attorneys in a given firm.

“The clear advantage is you get a look at multiple firms and can meet more people within different settings,” she said.

Diversity in Practice executive director Valerie Jensen eventually corralled people into the conference room, inviting them to eat and drink at their leisure, while she prepared for the opening speech.

“We really want to build a community outside academic life,” Jensen said. “We want to build the organic, informal relationships that will help practicing attorneys through law school.”

She went on to say that what set Diversity in Practice apart from other national programs was its focus on mentorship, which has helped to encourage struggling law students.

Touch Thouk, a third-year law student at St. Thomas, was struggling after her first year of law school.

“During my first year in law school I had overloaded my schedule and began to really lose confidence in myself,” Thouk said. “Then I went to an event between my first and second year where they reviewed my resume, and I was told I was ahead and doing really well. I was relieved.”

The person reviewing her resume was Jackie Gunstad, attorney recruiting coordinator for Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly, and Gunstad would become her mentor in the program. With Gunstad’s help, Thouk got a second wind and herself eventually became a mentor at both St. Thomas and Diversity in Practice, along with staying in law school.

Thouk said she wanted to become an attorney in estate planning and is now in her second year as a mentor. She’s also still a Diversity in Practice mentee. When asked about her mentors, she stated she switches them every year.

“Multiple mentors gives me further perspective and experience along with more advice,” she said.

Even though Thouk changes mentors, she still has not forgotten about Gunstad.

“I sent Jackie a thank you letter a month back,” she said, smiling. “We reconnected and met for coffee. It was funny; we both ended up saying we made each other’s day.”

Back in suite 1500, the event eventually wound down after the 75 law students spoke with their mentors about practice areas they may be interested in. The nametags no longer occupied the greeting table and the hors d’oeuvres were all but forgotten. Jensen was talking to different small groups, and Coates was back in the greeting area.

The ride down the elevator was filled with excited chatter, as opposed to the silence before the event. Mentees spoke of new ideas and opportunities, and eventually dispersed into the night.