Diversity Case Study: Axiom

by | July 20, 2010

Lawyers have historically had very few career development options; essentially, either join a firm or go in-house. Axiom—in its founder’s words, the “first viable alternative to the traditional law firm”—is challenging this status quo. Axiom is one of a handful of “new model” firms attracting lawyers who are typically graduates of elite schools or renowned firms. Axiom’s mission is to provide seasoned lawyers directly to corporate clients, banishing the middleman—law firms themselves. Ten years after its founding, the outfit employs 350+ lawyers and boasts offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, Boston and Hong Kong.

One area where Axiom truly shines is in its ability to attract a diverse workforce. Axiom’s attorney diversity stats (55% women; 38% minorities) would be the envy most BigLaw firms. And here’s the rub: Axiom has no formal diversity initiatives in place. How do they pull this off?  Vault spoke with those who know best—current diverse Axiom attorneys.

1) Describe how you came to Axiom from your previous firm or employer. Did you leave your prior position due to dissatisfaction with that situation, or because you actively sought an environment like that which Axiom offers?

Ed Goines: “I was looking for more independence and ability to ‘chart my own course.’”

Elayna Pham: “I was looking for a more entrepreneurial experience where I would have an opportunity to work more closely with my clients and really connect with them without the frenetic juggling of hundreds of other clients in the name of making more money. Now I drive my goals, [and] the accounting department does not.”

Jeniffer Roberts: “I had a baby in May 2008, and during my maternity leave [I] decided that I would stay at home for an indefinite period of time. I knew I did not want to be an absentee mom, so my husband and I decided that I would take some time off and focus on motherhood. In December 2008, I was approached by a friend who was aware that Axiom was starting a DC office. Having been an associate at a BigLaw firm, and having worked in-house as well, I had previously come to the conclusion that there was no way I would be able to achieve an optimal ‘work/life balance’ working as an attorney – I thought that phrase was a total joke, to be honest. But after joining Axiom, and the fantastic experience I have had, I have finally achieved a work/life balance that works for me and my family.”

2) Axiom has the distinction of employing a broadly diverse group of attorneys without special initiatives to attract minority hires. In your estimation, what qualities are exhibited by Axiom to invite such a range of talent from different backgrounds and ethnicities?  How does this differ from a typical BigLaw firm?

Ed Goines: “Axiom offers attorneys an opportunity to work on highly complex and interesting legal projects for blue chip companies but in an alternative practice model. This model permits the attorney to experience both a sophisticated legal practice and a life outside of the “firm.” I believe most minority attorneys view BigLaw firm practice as limiting in its ability to pull the best out of minority attorneys.”

Elayna Pham: “What attracted Axiom to me was how real the company was. They love well-rounded lawyers. They organically celebrate diversity, so they don't need to tout it as a recruitment point. ”

Benita Litt: “Axiom promotes individuality and encourages its attorneys to approach the practice of law in a way that suits both their professional and lifestyle goals. This is appealing to those who want to create their own professional path.”

Jeniffer Roberts: “Axiom attracts attorneys who love what they do and also, and perhaps more importantly, love all aspects of life—not just the work, but having fun and enjoying a fulfilling life outside of work. And when (like Axiom) you have developed a model that speaks to key happiness/self-fulfillment/self-direction indicators for most individuals across the board (regardless of race/ethnicity/sexual orientation), then you no longer need to focus on having ‘diversity committees’ or other outreach programs to attract diverse candidates.”

Annamaria Magpayo Chen: “In my experience, especially for women attorneys who have young families, Axiom provides a very unique opportunity to continue to do interesting work for interesting clients, while still maintaining flexibility and control over your schedule.”

3) Our analysis shows that there are more African-American professionals appointed to corporate general counsel positions than as managing partners of firms. Do you find that this indicates a disparity in minority advancement opportunities between these two practice settings?

Ed Goines: “Yes, it’s been my experience that African-American lawyers in BigLaw have a much more isolated practice experience. For this reason, among others, Black lawyers tend to socialize outside of the work setting with leadership of the firm less often than their non-Black counterparts. Less time spent with leadership tends to mean less trust leadership will have in that candidate. In contrast, a Black lawyer’s practice experience in corporations tends to be less isolated in that the lawyer will frequently be present in law department and business meetings where leadership is present, and there are innumerable social and post-work corporate functions where the lawyer will interact with leaders from the company.”

Elayna Pham: “I don't think there is any single reason for the disparity, but it does exist. It could be that, organically, big law firms have a subtle but powerful undercurrent driving advancement of certain folks over others, an undercurrent that they themselves may not understand but which perpetuates the disparity. Yet it could also be that minorities do not foresee a rich and fulfilling future under such a structure because they don't feel [that they are] a true part of it; so then they tend not to stay as long and leave for corporate counsel positions and business opportunities. I love Axiom because it feels very egalitarian.”

Jeniffer Roberts: “I will say that, from a Latina perspective, from my experience at BigLaw firms as well as working in-house, I think there are disparate opportunities for advancement for Latinas in general at both BigLaw firms and in corporate in-house positions. Without having a large number of Latino attorneys to serve as a support system to mentor young Latino attorneys and to help them with business development and increasing visibility, status and management experience at firms, I think Latino/a attorneys are often overlooked for more senior positions. I think the same applies in the corporate setting as well.”

4) Given the strong fiscal and organizational growth that Axiom has achieved through its alternative practice structure, do you expect that its business model may become more widely adopted?

Ed Goines: “I do. I believe there will always be a place for traditional BigLaw structure, but I believe even BigLaw will move certain practice areas increasingly toward the Axiom business model.”

Elayna Pham: “There already are other alternative practice structures out there in the marketplace, some even adopted by big law firms of late so that they can compete with the changing legal services climate in the U.S. and globally. However, I believe Axiom is so unique it would be difficult to replicate.”

Benita Litt: “Yes. Axiom provides attorneys with an alternative to the traditional law firm career path. It is ideal for attorneys who want to practice at the top of their field without following the partnership track.”

Jeniffer Roberts: “I think the Axiom model will become more widely adopted as time goes on. I think BigLaw firms may also start to evaluate the way they do business in an attempt to compete with the pricing and other advantages offered by Axiom.”

Annamaria Magpayo Chen: “Definitely, and in the Silicon Valley there are other alternative firms already pursuing similar models, and some traditional law firms are exploring alternative billing arrangements with clients in response to the model as well.”

5) With the significant representation of minority, female and GLBT professionals among Axiom's personnel, how would you describe the culture and interaction in your office?

Ed Goines: “I would describe the culture and interaction as '21st century.' We are not going back.”

Elayna Pham: “The interaction is upbeat, helpful, energetic and full of possibilities. I am given bountiful opportunities by Axiom to take part in minority and female events. Thanks to my Axiom family, I have a real life and I feel I am being given the environment to practice law at the highest level possible.”

Jeniffer Roberts: “The Axiom culture is fantastic. From my perspective, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation do not play a role in socialization. Every social gathering the office has been a ton of fun.”


Axiom Attorney Biographical Information:

While with Axiom, Benita Litt has counseled Netflix, Hulu, and Take-Two Interactive Software. Prior to Axiom, she worked for Translation LLC., Island Def Jam Music Group, Greenberg Glusker, LLP, and Pillsbury Winthrop, LLP. Benita graduated from the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

Elayna Pham’s Axiom experience includes working with Mercer (US) Inc. and Oliver Wyman Inc., and Prudential Financial. Prior to Axiom, she worked for Jenner & Block LLP and Holland & Knight. Elayna graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Prior to joining Axiom, Jeniffer Roberts worked for MedImmune, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Powell Goldstein, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, The George Washington University Law School, and The Greater Washington Ibero American Chamber of Commerce. Jennifer graduated from the George Washington University Law School.

Edward GoinesAxiom experience includes working with Levi Strauss, Electronic Arts and E. & J. Gallo Winery. Prior to Axiom, he worked as, among other things, general counsel for the San Francisco Forty Niners, Ltd. Edward received his law degree from the Boalt Hall.

Anna Chen's Axiom experience includes working with Facebook, Intuit, E. & J. Gallo Winery, and OSIsoft. Prior to Axiom, she worked for Cast Iron Systems Inc., Walmart.com, Raza Foundries, Inc., and Cooley Godward LLP. Anna graduated from Harvard Law School.

Filed Under: Job Search


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