Toni Jaeger-Fine

Toni Jaeger-Fine im Porträt

„Law is the profession most lacking in diversity in the United States.“

Toni Jaeger-Fine, Assistant Dean of Fordham Law School, Consultant and Author about diversity in the legal profession, the changes which have already been made and the ones which have yet to come.

Dear Toni, you are the Assistant Dean of Fordham Law in New York City. What were the different steps in your career leading up to this position?​

Following law school, I practiced law for several years, which was critical to my foundation as a legal professional and gave me a grounding on which to teach law. I began teaching as an adjunct professor while I was still practicing and loved it. That experience compelled me to give up law practice and take a position at New York University School of Law (NYU). At NYU I gave the lecture called “Lawyering“ – a skills course taught to first year J.D. students. From there, I became involved in NYU’s global law school program, which is when I began working with international students. Since then, international legal education has been my principal focus.

You are now working in legal education. Why did you leave your position as an attorney and choose this field?

In some ways, I think ending up in education was my destiny. My parents were both teachers and it found its way into my DNA. Education really was a major element of dinner table conversation, and it has always been an important part of my life. It was a great way to combine my training and interest in the law with my passion for education and working closely with people.

You have also taught in Germany for many years. Are there any specific areas where the two systems of legal education can learn from one another?

There are so many ways in which our legal systems differ and can learn from each other!

 

One of the things I love most about working with students and professionals from other countries is how much I get to learn from them. Learning about other legal systems provides a contrast that makes me question so much about my own legal system. Comparisons like that naturally drive curiosity about things that one has learned and has assumed to be the right or only way to approach something. Comparative exposure also improves cultural competency and makes one more of an inclusive thinker across the board, which is such an important element of working collaboratively and truly embracing differences.

You wrote a book “Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona” which was very well received. What motivated you to write this book?

I had been teaching law for many years, and I would see students and lawyers at all levels of experience make many of the same missteps. Despite having impressive substantive knowledge and technical skills, many professionals lack the behaviors and attitudes that really drive success. I decided to unpack those skills and behaviors, communicate their importance, and give guidance on how to develop a set of strong and sustainable behaviors and attitudes. The result was my concept of a “professional persona”, which is addressed in the book.

 
 
"Becoming a Lawyer” is a career guide, addressing how to discover and define your “professional persona”. For those who have not read it yet: Do you have some key advice you can share here?

If there is one takeaway from the book, I think it is the amount of control each of us has over our own success and happiness. For many of us, there is a lack of intentionality and agency when it comes to our professional identity. Too many of us cede control to clients, supervisors, and others more generally. If we are truly deliberate about our behaviors and attitudes, we can really build the careers – and lives – we want.

 

What are the key qualities you look for in a young person seeking to be a legal professional?

I am very attracted to people who have a high level of intentionality – about their careers, their work, and their wellbeing. Being proactive is incredibly important in all these spheres.. 

You talked about how clients have different expectations concerning the business cultures of law firms. What do you think changed?​ 

The market for legal services is a buyer’s market. This is very different from decades ago where legal services were far less diversified, the profession was less transparent, and in-house legal departments were less professionalized. Today, in-house counsels are highly capable and sophisticated, information is shared widely, and there is a great deal of cost pressure on clients. In addition, law service providers have evolved dramatically, enabling greater choice and competition.

Are firms addressing these needs?

Law firms are working hard to meet the demands of this new environment of intense competition. Many consider pricing discounts and other creative ways to address the pricing needs of their clients. Firms are automating to satisfy client needs for bespoke platforms on which they can communicate with members of their legal teams and get real time information on pending work. Clients want true partnerships with outside counsel, and law firms are innovating to provide that kind of service.

 

Firms also are taking seriously client focus on ESG initiatives, especially those seeking greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. This is all wrapped up in the intense competition for talent and the need to provide a working environment and structure that is appealing to a younger and more diverse generation of lawyers. Clients also want to work with firms that treat their people well. This is instrumental, as law firm turnover is extremely disruptive for clients (as well as the firms themselves), and it is also seen as part of the culture of a firm that clients want to work with.

Looking at young professionals, what do they expect from a law firm or an employer in comparison to older generations?

Young professionals today are driven by purpose. They are focused heavily on environmental, social, and governance issues. They are adamant about the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. They of course are interested in remuneration, especially when they carry debt as is the case with most young lawyers in the United States and many other places. But they are driven more by lifestyle needs and common good. I am deeply inspired by this generation.

For a long time, women, and members of the LGBTG+ community have been largely underrepresented in the legal profession. Today this is still very much the case in leading positions. What has changed in that regard and what changes do we still have to make?

This is true and it is a concern that also affects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, at least in the United States. We see much more diversity in law schools than we do in the profession. The numbers of people from historically underrepresented / excluded groups decreases as we look at mid-level legal professionals and those in leadership positions. In fact, law is the profession most lacking in diversity in the United States, which is particularly disturbing given the role that law has in our society at large.

 

What has changed is that law firms are feeling pressure on both ends to improve this situation – clients as well as young talent are pushing firms to do better in meaningful ways when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is a movement that has gained great traction in recent years, but firms are still struggling to make changes that are truly meaningful and sustainable.

From your experience, how does the representation of different discriminated groups play together? Are workspaces with many women in leading positions for example more likely to also have a good representation of minorities?​ 

I have not seen research to support this. But it does seem that communities that embrace inclusive thinking and true openness to the different perspectives that come with diversity in one area will be more open to learning from the experiences of other historically excluded groups. I think that there probably is good reason to think that organizations / groups that have women in leadership positions would also promote more diversity and inclusion across the board by embracing people of color and those who identify as LGBTG+.

As you mentioned above you had to travel a lot for your job. How did you and your wife manage the challenge of you being abroad regularly?

We both love to travel and share new experiences, and we do our best to travel together when possible. When we cannot, we love sharing with the other what we have seen and done. There is a song by Jason Mraz called “Lucky” which really resonates with us. We feel very grateful for our respective experiences and always look forward to reuniting at home.

 

But we have learned that too much time apart does not suit our relationship. During COVID we realized how nice it was to stay put more. We miss travel and hope to resume traveling soon. I will probably do less than I did – in part because of the needs of our relationship, in part because Zoom and other video conferencing has taken on new credibility, and in part because as I get older, I increasingly value quiet, domestic moments. Travel, however, will always be an important part of my life as it enriches me in so many ways.

Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through? Why?

I am incredibly inspired by so many women in the legal profession. One that comes to mind is Palmina Fava, Partner at Vinson&Elkins in New York City. She is a force as a lawyer, as a mother, and as a friend and colleague.

Thank you very much for this interview!

New York / Berlin, 11 June 2022. Toni Jaeger-Fine answered the questions in writing. The questions were drafted by Anna Isfort.

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