Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

How to Increase Diversity in the Legal Profession


What can we do to increase diversity in the law and trust and estate profession? A panel of impressive attorneys offers practical recommendations that law firms and lawyers can take to diversify staff and the profession.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson of Birchstone Moore moderates a panel of diverse attorneys: Vanesa Browne of Bessemer Trust; ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry of Pasternak & Fidis; and Kalimah White of TD Wealth Management. They reflect on their paths to becoming T&E lawyers, explain how to become involved with local affinity bars and law students, what the difference is between sponsoring someone and mentoring them, and how to start a pipeline program if one does not exist in your firm.


ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  How can we increase diversity in our profession, in our firms, and in our workplace? Today, three impressive lawyers, who are also friends from whom I have learned so much, offer practical recommendations for how to diversify the trust and estate profession.

Vanesa Browne of Bessemer Trust, ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry of Pasternak & Fidis, and Kalimah White of TD Wealth Management describe their experiences, offer steps for creating a pipeline program, suggest ideas for how to improve recruitment and retention, describe the difference between serving as a mentor and serving as a sponsor, and more. This lively discussion is moderated by ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson of Birchstone Moore and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Today we are going to briefly touch on why diversity in the estate planning profession is so important and we will hear from three trailblazing women on how and why they chose estate planning as a career and what we can do to encourage students and professionals of color to join the estate planning industry.

The American Bar Association reports that in 2020, white men, and to a lesser extent, white women remain over-represented in the legal profession compared to their presence in the overall U.S. population. While the percentage of female lawyers has increased slowly over the past decades to a whopping 37 percent, there have been little to no gains among people of color. While over 13 percent of Americans are Black, only 5 percent of all lawyers are Black. Similarly, Latinx make up 18.5 percent of the U.S. population but only 5 percent of lawyers. Asians represent 6 percent of the U.S. population and 2 percent of lawyers. These statistics are even more dramatic in the estate planning profession. Our very own American College of Trust and Estate Counsel was incorporated in 1949 but did not admit its first Black Fellow until Terry Franklin joined in 2001.

Today there are 2,500 ACTEC Fellows and only four of them are black. Lack of representation in our profession is one factor behind the ever-growing racial wealth gap. Rochelle Riley and Stephanie Perry expand on this topic in their ACTEC video on Economic Inequality in America. In every indicator of economic success, from net worth to homeownership to credit score, the Latinx population slightly outperformed the African American population, but both are dramatically worse off than whites. When it comes to our bailiwick inheritance, white families are three times more likely than families of color to benefit from lifetime gifts and bequests at death. Some researchers say that this discrepancy and inherited wealth account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other factor.

Inheritance is, after all, the end result of centuries of racist policies in our country. When you think of racial justice careers in the law, you may immediately think of litigators or civil rights attorneys, but estate planners are uniquely positioned to tackle economic inequality. The simple act of preparing a will for a family of color or encouraging investment and life insurance can create tangible economic gains that will help close the wealth gap. The more Black and Brown estate planning attorneys we have, the more likely our families of color are to seek legal representation and create a plan for intergenerational wealth transfer.

So how do we go about convincing law students of color to seek out and remain in careers in estate planning? ACTEC is leading in this area through its program of student outreach to Historically Black Universities. In February of 2021, our panel spoke to about 70 law students at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia. With me today for a repeat performance is Stephanie Perry, who is a managing partner at a boutique estate planning firm in Maryland and one of the first Black members of ACTEC. We also have Kalimah White who was vice president and senior trust advisor in TD Bank’s private client group in Wilmington, Delaware. And Vanessa Brown, a vice president and trust officer at Bessemer Trust, one of the nation’s premier private trust companies.

Could each of you take a minute to tell us what led you to a career in trusts and estates? Kalimah, we’ll start with you.

Choosing a Career in Trust and Estate Law

Kalimah White: Thanks, Sarah. I appreciate it.  I’d like to say that the trusts and estates world found me. I started out my career as a litigator. I went to law school.  I thought I was going to be a litigator for my life – no fighting in courtrooms. And then, I just realized it wasn’t the type of law I wanted to do because it really didn’t touch my soul the way that now, trusts and estates does. So, I was really blessed to be able to move into the – in my Law Firm that I was practicing in – move into the trust and estates department and start my trust and estates practice there. And for the last 25 years, I’ve been enjoying this wonderful practice.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Stephanie, how about you?

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: So, I was introduced to trusts and estates law as a law student. When I started law school, I wasn’t familiar with trusts and estates law. I just hadn’t been exposed to the area. It was my second year of law school when I took an estates and trusts course and that was my introduction during my second summer. And all throughout my third year, I clerked for a probate court judge and that was my introduction to the administration side of the practice. So, I just happened to take a trusts and estates course and ended up falling in love with the subject matter; and many years later, this is all I’ve ever done.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Vanessa, your path started out in litigation. How did you get here?

Vanesa Browne: Even before I was a litigator or a law student, I was a terrified political science major – not sure what I was going to do. I wanted to go to law school, but I did not know any attorneys. The ones on TV all seem to be so different than me. They seemed to enjoy being loud and pounding their fists on the table, and that just wasn’t my personality. I had the opportunity to take a gap year where I worked under an attorney at a nonprofit organization, and she helped show me that there is space for all different types of people in the legal profession. From there, I got an opportunity to clerk in law school at a law firm in their fiduciary litigation department, and I learned more about trusts and estates. And I learned that there is room for all different types of people within the trusts and estates profession. You can be an estate planner. You can be a fiduciary litigator and an estate administrator, or like myself a trust administrator. So, I am very grateful to be part of a profession that is so inclusive.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: And we are so glad that each of you is in this profession. So, let’s talk about how we can get more people like you in this profession. What are some suggestions for how we can recruit attorneys and students of color to join the estate planning profession? Vanessa, why don’t you start us off?

Suggestions for Recruiting  Students, Associates and Attorneys of Color

Vanesa Browne: Sure. We talk a lot about pipeline programs, and you’ll hear some of my other panelists talk about some great pipeline programs that are already set up. But sometimes, we live in areas where pipeline programs aren’t readily available to us.

When I started practicing law as a fiduciary litigator, I was living in Birmingham, Alabama; and I was not aware of a pipeline program at the time in that area. So, I got together with a partner and some other associates and we put together our own pipeline program. It was a little ambitious, but I’m here to tell you that it is completely doable. We made connections with the local law schools and organized a group of lawyers within our firm to spend a Saturday morning reviewing resumes in person and conducting mock interviews. So, the workshop itself ended up having two benefits. One, it benefited the students by giving them exposure to the law firm environment, what it’s like to be in the building, what it’s like to interact with people who work at a law firm and hear criticism and the expectations of what it means to work at a law firm. And then the second part was it was also beneficial to the attorneys. It gave the attorneys exposure to law students that don’t necessarily look like them and help them build that relationship with them.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Great. And I know Kalimah has – actually, I’m going to go to Stephanie next. And Stephanie, you have some ideas for us about ways we can interact with students.

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Right. One of the really simple things that you can think about doing when you’re recruiting in this space is to visit with local affinity bars of lawyers and law students. In most every jurisdiction, there are affinity bars of practicing lawyers. African American bars. Asian bars. Hispanic, Latinx bars and the list goes on. These organizations, obviously, are open to everyone and if we want ideas about how to make our spaces more diverse and inclusive, I think we should go directly to the source and visit with these bars, find out what’s important to the members and how we can create environments within our friends and our organization that feel inclusive and promote diversity. Also, cultivate relationships with affinity bars at local law schools where you are focusing your recruiting efforts. Plan programs – specifically for these minority bar student associations – to introduce those students to your firm and show them your commitment to diversity efforts so that they learn about where they would like to land after law school. Your firm or your organization is at the top of their list.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Stephanie, you make an important point about the fact that this is not just outreach to students, which you touched on last. But your first point was reaching out to professionals that are already practicing lawyers who may want to become estate planning attorneys and that’s an important one. Kalimah, you have some good advice for all of us on expanding our personal networks.

Advice for Professionals for Expanding Personal Networks

Kalimah White: Yes. I really do think that it’s important for us to expand our personal networks in the sense of having our personal lives be diverse and full of diverse people. I think it makes us better humans. I think it makes us more comfortable with the people that we are recommending for positions. I mean, in my adult professional career, I really never had a job opportunity that was not through some recommendation from someone who knew me personally.  And I try to do that, as well, when I’m mentoring other young professionals.  And so, if we know more people who are diverse, then we are going to, of course, naturally be in a position to be able to recommend them because we know what their work ethic is. Right? We know exactly how they’re going to act and behave in certain settings. And so, I do think it’s very important for us if we expand our personal networks and know more people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Then it definitely will help us recruit some diverse people within our industry.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: And you’re right that we do have to be really intentional about this and one of the ways that I’ve tried to put this into practice is to hire a diverse intern each semester who helps me with my email. That’s my biggest problem as an attorney is keeping track of my email, and their job is to review my email throughout the day and, at the end of the day, tell me the top five things that I need to respond to that night. And it’s a way that doesn’t require a whole lot of background and training on their part but gives them a broad exposure to our profession.

And I’ve often struggled with where do I find these students of color? I’ve gone to babysitter listservs and reached out to my friends who are of color and tried to see – who can I broaden my network with and reach out to hire for these positions. And so that’s one takeaway for you. I want us to talk about retention as well. You know, if we’ve been successful in recruiting attorneys.

How do we make sure that they become successful in their career? And each of you has attained an incredible measure of success. So, what are your thoughts and suggestions for us on this topic? Stephanie, we’ll start with you.

Recruiting Diverse Law Professionals

ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Sure. In looking back at my career, you know, what stands out about my path and what’s relevant for purposes of this discussion about retention is the fact that I’ve had incredible mentors and sponsors throughout my career who didn’t look like me, who took a genuine interest in my success and advocated for me in rooms where I wasn’t present. And that feeling of being supported and knowing that my success was considered a success for the entire firm, that instilled a sense of loyalty in me. And that’s what I think we want to achieve in our retention efforts. We want our attorneys to know that we are invested in their success and in turn, we have them stay with us long-term. That’s what we really want to achieve when we are talking about retention.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Vanessa, talk to us about – Stephanie touched on mentors that helped her throughout her career. Talk to us about sponsorship and mentorship.

Sponsoring and Mentoring Recommendations

Vanesa Browne: Sure. So, when I hear the word mentor, I think of the person who is going to be with you on the day-to-day, helping you learn how to become a better attorney. So, learning how to do better research. Learning how to draft a better brief. Learning how to draft a better contract. They’re the ones there that are training you to be a good attorney. Then you have your sponsors, which can be different people; and the sponsors are people you might not see on a daily basis, but they have a general understanding of who you are and the quality of work that you produce. They’re typically in a more senior position and they are able to leverage that on your behalf. So, I have benefited greatly from sponsors when I was a fiduciary litigator to now as a fiduciary officer; and what I am continuously struck by is that sponsorship can be very simple but very efficient.

So, two immediate examples come to mind. One, a managing partner might receive an email from an attorney saying that they just finished working with this junior associate and are so impressed by their work. That is important, especially when it comes time to do a year-end review or when the associate is up for partnership. Another example is having a colleague call your supervisor and inform your supervisor of some extracurricular accomplishment that you received or an award you received that they might not be aware of, and it allows your supervisor to know a little bit more about what you’re doing without you actually telling it to them, and also know that that person who called them is invested in your success.

The thing with sponsorship is it has to be intentional. So, in order to do these things, you have to set aside some time to do it. It doesn’t take long, but you do have to set aside that time. And it can be as simple as identifying people who are in your network, or in your firm, in your company, and are diverse. Reaching out to them. Asking how can I benefit you? What are your goals? How can I help you achieve them? And then, setting a plan to send those e-mails, make those phone calls, nominate somebody for a committee and follow through with it so that you show up for that person in those rooms that that person isn’t yet privy to.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: That is great advice, and I can attest to the truth in it. In my personal journey in learning more about racial equity and my role in it, what I’ve come to understand is that creating equity in the workplace made me see that I need to devote more time and energy to the training of our younger attorneys of color. But I can’t just assume that because the person has made it into the door of the law firm that now that there is a level playing field. And so it does take a commitment and work, but it is worthwhile work.

 Kalimah, I want to close with you. And what are your views on authenticity and some of the things that we need to do as employers to make sure that there is space for each of our employees to be their authentic selves?

Allowing Employees to be Their Authentic Self

Kalimah White: I think that is so very important, Sarah, because I think that when you can be your authentic self, then you feel comfortable. And when you feel comfortable, just like in any other situation, whether it is professional or personal, you want to stay. Right? So, if we want to retain attorneys of color and a diverse population, then we have to let people be themselves. And on top of it, when you’re being yourself, make sure that your self is shining. Make sure that you are working hard, that you are someone that someone wants to keep around. And so, it’s sort of a give-and-take type of relationship. But you work hard, you be shiny, and then people will definitely come. But I do think it’s very important for people to understand that having people feel comfortable and being themselves and being authentic is most important to retention.

ACTEC Fellow Sarah Moore Johnson: Well, this has been a really inspiring talk. I hope that those of you who are watching have gotten some ideas for how you might improve your own recruiting and retention. And I just want to thank each of our panelists. We’re so grateful for each of you being here today and sharing these kernels of wisdom with us. Thank you, very much.

ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin:  Wasn’t that outstanding? The panel lays out for us how to get started diversifying our firms in the trust and estate field. Personally, I find mentoring and sponsoring young lawyers from diverse backgrounds exceptionally rewarding.  Mentoring allows you to leverage your experience, elevating both the mentor and the mentee to levels neither could achieve alone.  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Pick just one of their suggestions and focus on that today.

Please visit ACTEC, for resources on increasing diversity in the legal profession. And make sure you subscribe to ACTEC’s YouTube channel to be informed of new videos as they become available.

Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future

ACTEC’s diversity, equity, and inclusivity video series analyzes issues surrounding racism, sexism, and discrimination in all its forms to combat inequality.