This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Spring 2023 (Vol. 92, No. 1), pp. 49–54.

Portrait Photo of Nika GrayIn this issue’s “Seven Questions” column, we bring you an interview with Nikia Gray,  the new Executive Director for the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Gray joined NALP in October 2022, succeeding James Leipold, who served in the role for 18 years.

Prior to joining NALP, Gray was Managing Partner of the Washington DC office of Quarles & Brady and its Director of Legal Recruiting. Gray is a member of the Arizona, Virginia, and Washington DC bars, as well as the Native American Bar Association.

The interview was conducted on February 16, 2023, by Peg Corneille, former director of the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners and chair of NCBE’s Communications and Outreach Committee; Shellie Park-Hoapili, District Court Judge for Hawai‘i, former Chief Staff Attorney for the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, and member of NCBE’s Communications and Outreach Committee; and Claire Guback, NCBE Editorial Director and editor of the Bar Examiner.

We asked Gray about her personal and professional background; challenges BigLaw firms currently face; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts at the law school and law firm levels; and her priorities in her new role at NALP. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interviews exploring seven questions to elicit people’s unique perspectives on bar admissions.

1. How has your background, both as a professional and as a Native American, shaped who you are and impacted the career path you chose?

My mother’s family is Osage, and I spent a lot of my childhood with my maternal grandmother—sleeping in her teepee, going to powwows, and listening to drum circles. She had a strong influence on my childhood and continues to have a profound impact on my life.

My grandmother was a respected medicine woman in her community, and she taught me a lot about its traditions. I gained from her a profound appreciation for the interconnectedness of the world, how we’re all living in relation to each other, and how what each of us does in the world affects all of us. This concept of interconnectedness is deeply woven into how many Native American cultures, mine included, think about leadership.

The way it was explained to me is that leadership is like a circle. When you are strong and healthy, you give to others in need; when you’re in need, others give to you. In that way the responsibility for leadership moves throughout the circle, throughout the community, and because everyone is a leader at some point, everyone in the community deserves respect.

That concept of interconnectedness and how it relates to leadership meant the rigid hierarchical structure found in law firms never sat well with me. I was obviously successful at the law firm where I worked, and I learned to be politically savvy to navigate it, but it was never an environment I was comfortable in.

I had developed a unique position in the firm. I was both a respected partner and business professional, and I held leadership positions on both sides of that very big attorney-­staff divide characteristic of law firms. This position gave me not only a deep understanding of the law firm operations side, but also a clear understanding of how much a strong deference to rigid hierarchical structure undermines employee performance and promotes the normalization of exclusionary behaviors. This then manifests in other ways in the organization, leading to disengagement and low retention rates.

I found myself wanting to lead in line with the notion of interconnectedness and doing so in more of a servant capacity; as a result, the teams I led were stronger and more resilient. These experiences ultimately led me to become passionate about DEI matters and the science behind cultural change in organizations.

I became very vocal about taking a more holistic view of the law firm, including our legal professional positions, when we were developing DEI strategies. This was a pretty radical concept at the time, and it still is to some extent; firms typically think of DEI issues as solely concerning their attorney population. Ultimately my passion for DEI matters led me to step away from the firm when the opportunity with NALP became available.

NALP originated at a time when racism and sexism were rampant in the legal industry. It was founded on the principle that a diverse and equitable legal community best serves our clients and our community. While the issues of the day have certainly changed over the 50 years since NALP was founded, this principle still underscores everything we do. It’s been an honor for me to join NALP.

2. As a recent managing partner of a BigLaw firm, what changes have you seen in BigLaw, and in what direction do you see it heading as firms navigate the current employment environment and the challenges in a postpandemic legal world?

The past three years have spurred some incredible changes in the legal industry—which in itself is a statement, because the legal industry is usually characterized as highly resistant to change. The single biggest change I’ve seen, and what’s going to be our challenge, is the hybrid and remote workplace, and how the legal industry will operate going forward.

In March 2020, law firms essentially went remote overnight. Prior to that, partners may have had the opportunity to work remotely, some firms might have allowed some associates to do so, and virtually no firms allowed their professional staff to work remotely. The idea that you could operate a law firm, practice law, and do depositions and court hearings remotely was a new phenomenon that I never thought we would see—this huge shift would certainly have taken much more time without the pandemic.

Three years later, we’re now seeing that remote work has had a lot of benefits: in terms of convenience, flexibility, lower overhead, a reduced carbon footprint, and lower costs for employees to go to work—the latter particularly is beneficial, as recent inflation makes more expensive for employees to commute to the office. But remote work, and the resulting lack of building and maintaining relationships within the organization, cost us in terms of culture, mentoring and training of young professionals, and employee retention. I think firms are struggling to answer the question: What does the workplace of the future look like? That’s going to take time to figure out.

At NALP we’ve had some of our member experts investigating this question and preparing resources to help navigate this time of transition. We’re not calling these best practices, because we believe this phenomenon is too new to know what’s going to be a best practice; rather, we are calling them innovative ideas. I encourage anyone grappling with the current challenges to refer to these resources, which are available on the NALP website.

3. There continues to be disproportionate employment numbers for people of color, especially women, in BigLaw. To what do you attribute this? In your experience, what is BigLaw doing to attract and keep people of color?

What’s causing the disproportionate employment rates is not a simple question, and it doesn’t have a simple answer. But I believe how BigLaw is trying to address DEI issues is not working, which is very apparent from the data. 

NALP’s data show that firms can attract diverse talent rather easily—they in fact do so in high numbers—but they cannot retain those individuals or develop them into partners. So there is a glaring gap when we look at the data on partners of color—not to mention women of color, which shows an even greater gap. NALP has been collecting data on partners of color for just over 30 years, and that percentage has increased by less than 10 percentage points over that time. We’re now just shy of 12%. So that’s an average increase of less than 0.3 percentage points per year. To put this into perspective, if we continue on our current trajectory, we won’t be at parity for partners of color in another three decades.

This clearly shows that our current efforts in BigLaw to try to create a more inclusive and equitable environment, where diverse associates can develop into diverse partners, isn’t working. I believe it’s time to engage in a radical reexamination of how firms approach DEI—which is the topic of my article in the April issue of NALP Bulletin+, our monthly digital magazine. I believe that this starts by recognizing the two truths I alluded to earlier: that the hierarchical structure of law firms normalizes exclusionary behaviors across the firm, and that the DEI framework in BigLaw tends to focus solely on the attorney population. I think once law firm leaders start to recognize these truths and begin to think more holistically, we’re going to see more effective strategies.

4. What more can law schools do to help their students with placement opportunities? Are you aware of any innovative programs that other schools should be considering?

The first thing law schools can do to help their students with placement opportunities is to support their career professionals being members of NALP—and for those professionals to then be actively involved in our organization by joining sections of professional interest to them. NALP is a think tank for legal professionals; it’s where experts in recruiting and career services come together to share ideas and advice about whatever the challenges of the day might be. It’s where career services professionals are going to find the best resources and make connections that will help them with those placements. 

Second, the fact that so many law schools are pulling out of the US News rankings has opened the opportunity for career services counselors to engage in a much more robust and frank discussion with law students about what inspired them to go to law school in the first place and then have counselors craft career placement strategies around that. There are many criticisms of the US News rankings, but one of the biggest is that they put artificial value on law firm positions over all other position types, which pressures career services counselors to push students in that direction to maintain or improve school rankings.

Law firms can be wonderful places to work, in my opinion, and people can have very fulfilling careers there, as I did, but not every student goes to law school for that type of work, and everybody deserves a career they’re inspired by. Second to supporting membership and involvement in NALP, I think law school and career service professionals can lean into the current opportunity to help students explore the plethora of available opportunities in the legal industry. Ultimately, when a law school graduate has a job they’re inspired by, they’re going to be much more satisfied with their career choice and much more successful.

On a side note, law firms should not be concerned that embracing this opportunity to counsel students on a broader array of job opportunities will hinder their ability to recruit people of color. First, many students will still want to pursue positions in private practice. Beyond this though, there seems to be a misperception among some members of law firms that there aren’t enough diverse students to fill their need for diverse talent. The truth is that the talent they seek is simply in different places than where they are looking—at different schools and different networking events. Law firms can still meet their diversity objectives even with this shift in opportunity for career services counselors to widen the career perspectives for their students; they simply need to approach it differently by going to where this diverse talent can be found.

Data show that law schools overall have become more diverse with time, but that improvement isn’t evenly distributed across all law schools. The schools with the highest concentration of diverse students tend to be those on the West Coast, along the southern border, and Northeast, yet a look at where BigLaw is hiring reveals they tend to focus on a certain select schools, which are not necessarily the same schools that diverse students attend. There are multiple reasons for this, but certainly one is the artificial criteria law firms have as to what makes an associate successful, such as school ranking and GPA. If firms instead focused on a broader range of characteristics that makes partners successful, they may find these to be different from the current criteria they use to interview law students.

5. We understand that during your time as Director of Recruiting at Quarles & Brady, you substantially increased the firm’s diverse attorney population. Do you have ideas or strategies that law schools or those in bar admissions can use to reduce barriers to diversity in the legal field?

I wish there was one secret strategy I could share with you that’s going to guarantee success in attracting and retaining diverse talent, but I can share with you a couple of principles that I’ve learned over time.

First, at a fundamental level, if a law school or other type of organization is really committed to improving DEI, then at a minimum that organization needs to professionalize its DEI efforts. DEI roles are relatively new at law schools and law firms, and in other types of legal organizations, and they tend to be underresourced and informal. I believe that’s a real mistake and a missed opportunity.

Further, DEI roles, if established, cannot be empty or conciliatory positions. It’s very transparent if an organization is approaching DEI efforts in this way, which undermines progress. DEI professionals need to be valued for their work, and that means compensating them fairly and recognizing the value of their work as an organizational necessity, both in good and bad times. I’m concerned with reports coming out of the tech industry where DEI jobs are at the top of the chopping block as tech organizations go through layoffs, and I’m hoping that doesn’t permeate other industries as we see more layoffs in the current economic climate.

Second, the legal industry’s focus on DEI as solely an attorney population concern is deeply flawed and will cause the majority of such initiatives to fail. The legal industry is not only made up of attorneys. Many types of legal professionals contribute to success in the industry and make it what it is. Excluding them from DEI frameworks thwarts progress. It’s simple logic: you can’t create an inclusive culture by excluding a portion of your population. The same theory goes for creating an equitable culture, a culture where people belong.

The most effective DEI initiatives I’ve seen—whether at a school, an association, or any other type of organization—look at the organization and approach DEI initiatives holistically. That doesn’t mean initiatives geared toward certain populations are a no-go, but everybody must be considered in what it means to be inclusive, what it means to be equitable, and what it means to belong to an organization. I think if more leaders approached the question from that perspective, we’d see a dramatic decrease in barriers for diverse individuals, including for law students and attorneys.

6. What role, if any, do you think law school enrollment and job placement for graduates has had in influencing diversity?

I think law school enrollment and job placements have had a significant impact in the diversity of the junior legal ranks, and at law firms in particular. NALP’s data show that the percentage of summer associates and associates of color has increased steadily for several years in a row, and we’re now at historic highs—although the progress has been uneven across individual demographics, and we’ve seen several groups regress during this time. Black summer associates and Black associates in particular have made remarkable gains. Black summer associates this past year increased by 0.7 percentage points to just under 12%, and Black associates gained a half a percentage point to being just under 6% of the associate class, both pretty high gains for one demographic to have in a year.

That progress is not accidental. It is a testament to the focused efforts of our educational institutions, our admissions personnel, and our recruiting professionals to make sure diverse individuals are going to law school, getting their JDs, and entering the profession, many of them at law firms. We should take time to appreciate that achievement. It is significant, and it demonstrates that when we all come together to make a concerted push for change, it can happen, which is very heartening.

But where law school enrollment and job placements are not making a significant impact is at law firms’ higher echelons—the partnership ranks I talked about earlier—and that’s a deeper problem that I think is going to require law firm leaders to radically reexamine their approach to thinking about inclusion and equity.

7. What will be your focus as NALP’s executive director? What are the primary initiatives or goals you hope to accomplish? What do you envision to be the greatest challenge?

NALP’s mission is to advance legal careers, and NALP has always believed that law students and lawyers should have equal opportunity for all jobs in the legal market, that they’re best served when they’re supported by professional development and career service professionals, and that a diverse and equitable legal industry best serves our clients and communities. We’re going to continue to focus on those founding principles while we expand our outreach and work in new areas.

The legal industry can’t maintain the status quo and expect to make better progress. That goes for NALP too. With our extensive research data and insights into the legal community, I think NALP is uniquely suited to help legal employers and educational institutions deliver on their DEI commitments. In the upcoming months we’ll be using our wealth of knowledge and research to help support our members in new ways, and to help leaders tackle DEI issues from new directions.

NALP’s primary objective has always been supporting our members, but we haven’t always spoken to the industry at large—to leaders of institutions, law schools, and law firms, those who are in power. Though we hope our members one day become leaders, that will only happen in those organizations with a structure that allows for that to happen. At law schools and law firms, practicing attorneys, professors at law schools, or partners hold those higher-level positions.  Going forward we will be making sure that we are effectively reaching out and sharing our wealth of knowledge with these individuals.

In terms of challenges, most certainly the economy and inflation are top of mind. NALP, like NCBE, hosts several significant industry conferences and is really feeling the sting of increasing food, hotel, and travel costs. My priority since I’ve stepped into this role is to ensure that NALP remains in a strong position to support its members, regardless of the economy or any other challenges.

To close the interview, we asked Gray about NALP’s annual conference and release of its annual data.

Can you tell us a little about NALP’s Annual Education Conference in April and what the conference will focus on, and about the annual research data NALP is releasing?

NALP’s Annual Education Conference this year is in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 25–28. The theme is navigating new paths, which reflects the dramatic changes we’ve all experienced over the last few years. The conference will feature more than 80 concurrent sessions about everything from AI-enabled assessments to neuroinclusive hiring, the reimagination of law firm models, counseling, and underrepresented law students and attorneys. Of course, we’ll also have a very strong focus on fostering the NALP community, which enhances all the critical work we do. In short, it’s going to provide legal professionals with the information they need to navigate all the new challenges we face.

In terms of NALP’s research, we recently released our Perspectives on 2022 Law Student Recruiting report. And we’re in the process of analyzing the data for our 2022 lateral hiring survey and compiling our 2023 associate salary report, both of which will be released this spring.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP, is an association of legal career professionals who advise law students, lawyers, law offices, and law schools. NALP is founded on the belief that all law students and lawyers should benefit from a fair and ethical hiring process, that law students and lawyers are more successful when supported by professional development and legal career professionals, and that a diverse and inclusive legal profession best serves clients and communities. NALP publishes legal employment data and information; and promotes education and standards for recruiting, professional and career development, and diversity and inclusion.

Below are links to the resources and data Executive Director Nikia Gray mentioned during our interview.

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