PARTNER IN A MAJOR LAW FIRM
Deborah D. Fleck
Sheryl J. Willert has felt securely supported in her firm. "People have encouraged me to utilize my skills and bring them to the table in the same way that white males were traditionally mentored and encouraged. I have always been included. I can tell you there have been moments when that has been difficult." Ms. Willert recalls one firm client early in her career who let it be known that he did not want a woman and did not want an African American as counsel. The partner advised the client that such negative selection was not an option, indicating that the firm chose the best lawyers for the client and if the client did not like the selection, the business could be taken elsewhere.
"Being in this kind of nurturing environment has made it alot easier for me than it has been for others who have had to be the only woman, the only person of color," Ms. Willert states. Recognizing the benefit she has received, Sheryl Willert devotes her time to mentoring the younger women in her firm. "We are very fortunate in that we have been able to attract alot of women, particularly women fo color. Young women in that group feel really comfortable here because they can look around and see alot of women and also alot of women in ownership. They see that there is an opportunity for them to reach that point."
Sheryl J. Willert received her Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction from Duke University in 1975 and her Juris Doctor degree from Vanderbilt University in 1978. In law school, Ms. Willert recalls that she stood out because of her gender and race. While being noticed was both flattering and disconcerting, she chose to use to her advantage the fact that she fell into several categories quite neatly. She found that upon leaving law school, generally there was a demand for persons of color. Exceptions existed, however, such as at one firm for which she interviewed where she was advised that they "had hired their one minority for the year." She accepted Christopher T. Bayley's (King County Prosecutor 1970-1978) offer at what then was the second largest and most diverse "law firm" in the Seattle area - the King County Prosecutor's Office. "Being in that environment allowed me to be myself; I didn't have to stand out because of my ethnicity and gender."
In her trial work, Ms. Willert never perceived any difference in treatment herself, but she did observe biased treatment by judicial officers toward those who appeared as defendants in court. In conversations with Norm Maleng, who succeeded Chris Bayley as King County Prosecutor, Ms. Willert says, "I appreciated my conversations with Norm in that he was committed to equal treatment. He demonstrated that commitment by allowing me to vent and also to look for creative solutions." States King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, "You could see from day one that Sheryl Willert was a remarkably talented person. She has gone into the private sector and has been one of the most talented and respected leaders in our community. Sheryl is a trailblazer for women and for people of color."
Ms. Willert has participated in over 80 lectures and seminars in areas of her practice and as served on the Boards of legal and community organizations. Her specialty is every facet of employment law.
After four years as a deputy prosecuting attorney, Ms. Willert decided she did not want to be a career prosecutor. "In looking around, I observed a phenomenon that continues today - that change is very slow. We have reached diversity with all due deliberate speed, " she states wryly. However, in looking back at her employment choices, Ms. Willert states: "The legal system has been very good to me.
It is a system that has not presented a great deal of negative pressure on me because I am an African American." And of the younger attorneys of color, Ms. Willert observes that "they are fortunate because people have gone before them - people who have blazed the trail, who have made it clear that persons of color and women are here to stay." Nevertheless, she recognizes that components of the system, including law firms, remain where trailblazing is still necessary, where hiring a person of color would be either a first or an anomaly. Ms. Willert recalls an ABA program from the 1980's created to address the lack of opportunity for law graduates of color in the private sector. This program, Minority Partners I Majority Firms, included both firms which participated because it was the right thing to do and those which participated because it was a specific requirement of major clients. In those circumstances, often the person of color felt "used." However, Ms. Willert's experience at Williams, Kastner and Gibbs has been different. She has participated in team marketing in her view because people respected her skills.
Willert recalls an ABA program from the 1980's created to address the lack of opportunity for law graduates of color in the private sector. This program, Minority Partners I Majority Firms, included both firms which participated because it was the right thing to do and those which participated because it was a specific requirement of major clients. In those circumstances, often the person of color felt "used." However, Ms. Willert's experience at Williams, Kastner and Gibbs has been different. She has participated in team marketing in her view because people respected her skills.
Sheryl J. Willert observes that there remains a tremendous amount of work for certain minority groups. She believes that both Asians and African Americans have been able to penetrate the local market. She views Hispanics and Native Americans as having difficulty in penetrating in numbers that would be reflective of Washington or the Seattle area. She also notes that private firms suffer from the phenomenon that persons of color defect to the public sector. She believes some of the problems in retention may be rooted in the Socratic method. Law schools do not teach that practicing law is a business; rather they teach that practicing law is a profession "It is both," Ms. Willert notes. Handling a business, including billing clients, is a difficult transition for persons of color, and to a lesser extent, for women, she believes. She has also observed a number of one-and-two person firms with people of color cropping up, just like everyone else, as well as a migration away from practicing law in the traditional public or private sector.
Sheryl J. Willert attributes her self-confidence to her parents. "I was told that I should live my life to make a difference. No one was better than I, and also, I was no better than anyone else. Everyone has a contribution to make. I was told to get out there and make it. My parents demanded hard work-mediocrity was not an option. My parents encouraged all of their seven children to be the best they could be and do whatever they wanted to do. My late father, who was the first African American principal of a public school with a Ph.D. in our area, told me, 'Whatever you do, always be in a position where you can take care of and support yourself.' My mother, who recently retired from her career as a grade school librarian, told me that she knew very early on that I was going to use my mouth in my work because I was talking in sentences at eight months of age. My parents had very high expectations of their children."
Those expectations have been borne out in Sheryl Willert, an attorney who has made that contribution her parents expected, both by being a lawyer of national prominence and also by her leadership in the area of diversity in the workplace.
Deborah D. Fleck is a judge of the King County Superior Court, and also serves as a member of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission.