Creating A Place In BigLaw For Veterans To Thrive

Law360 (November 9, 2020, 4:17 PM EST) -- Military veterans often face unique challenges as attorneys in a law firm setting, from transitioning their skills to a new environment to potentially grappling with disabilities as a result of their service.

Holland & Knight LLP associate Daniel Sylvester knows firsthand how veterans' experiences may depart from those of other law school graduates as they enter the world of Big Law. As an Army veteran, Sylvester leads his firm's veterans affinity group, which recently won a diversity and inclusion award from Chambers for its work.

"From my perspective, we [as veterans] have a lot to offer an organization with our experience and the skills that we bring," he said. "But there are certain needs that veterans have, so you want to make sure they are taken care of like any other affinity group out there."

According to a recent report by the National Association for Law Placement, military veterans made up 2.6% of all 2018 law school graduates. Fewer of them headed to private practice than their nonveteran peers, the report found, with many opting to take jobs in government following graduation.

Those who did choose private practice were nearly as likely as the rest of the class to head to BigLaw after graduation, with 33.6% finding jobs at law firms with 251 or more lawyers post-graduation, compared to 35% of the class as a whole.

Still, it can be a challenge for lawyers who had a previous career in the military to find where they belong in a large law firm and how they can use their existing skills as effectively as possible, Sylvester said.

"If you have someone with a 20-year career in the military ... where do they fit into the law firm structure? That's something law firms are trying to work through and figure out," he said.

In 2019, veterans accounted for 1.81% of all law firm partners, and 1.67% of partners at large law firms. Veterans were more likely to hold counsel positions at large firms than at smaller firms.

The Holland & Knight group has launched a veteran business partner initiative to help veterans succeed in honing their business development skills and, ultimately, improving their chances of making partner.

The program is aimed at making connections by reaching out to existing or potential clients through a "veteran to veteran" connection.

In business development training, there is often the refrain to "find a commonality" with a potential client, and sometimes that commonality can be a shared history of service in the military, which can lead to a strong sense of familiarity, Sylvester said.

"The connection a veteran can make to another veteran is often a lot quicker and a lot deeper," he said. "We're looking at how to use that to strengthen existing relationships and create new ones."

The veterans group is also a resource and a supportive infrastructure for veterans who either have a physical disability or post-traumatic stress disorder from their military service, Sylvester added.

"A veterans group in a firm or company is able to provide those veterans support not only through internal company policy initiatives, but also can serve as a peer support group due to their common military or wartime experiences," he said. "This allows veterans to provide each other support in a way nonveterans cannot as only a veteran can understand what another veteran has experienced in combat."

Another major initiative for the group was putting together a task force to create a revised policy inside the law firm regarding things like pay and benefits for attorneys who are called to serve in the National Guard while they are employed by the firm.

The firm already met all legal requirements for an employer, but wondered how it could better support attorneys who are deployed or who need to complete required training for the National Guard annually.

One way it was able to do that is by providing flexibility in when attorneys complete their required law firm training so it is easier to coordinate with their military training. Additionally, for the two weeks of training required by the National Guard each year, the firm previously had offered to make up the difference between an employee's usual paycheck and their government paycheck, but under the new policy it offers them full pay for those two weeks.

According to Sylvester, Holland & Knight's veterans group serves dual purposes: to advocate for the needs of veterans internally and to serve the needs of veterans outside the law firm through pro bono and volunteer work.

The two activities go hand-in-hand, he explained, as veterans inside the group network with one another, advocate for veteran-friendly internal policies, and also hone their legal skills by helping other veterans outside the firm who are less fortunate and need pro bono legal help.

The group includes numerous attorneys who are not veterans but who have a close family member who is a veteran or who care deeply about veterans' issues.

In 2019, 205 Holland & Knight timekeepers put in nearly 6,000 pro bono hours helping veterans, active duty military personnel and their spouses in 112 matters, and they're on track to match that in 2020.

Those representations include Veterans Administration benefits cases, military sexual trauma cases, and a wide range of civil legal issues — from family law cases to landlord-tenant disputes — facing veterans and active duty military personnel through an American Bar Association program and through Florida's GI Law program.

Sylvester said it's important for the affinity group to support veterans' needs internally when it comes to their unique challenges, but it is also important to look outward and use their position as lawyers to help the wider veteran community.

"Us in the firm, we don't need assistance so much as what we can offer back to the veteran community because of where we're at and what we're able to provide," he said.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan and Marygrace Murphy.

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