[caption id="attachment_228544" align="alignleft" width="225"] Doneene Damon | PHOTO COURTESY OF RLF[/caption]
WILMINGTON — Doneene Damon, the first chief diversity director at Richards, Layton & Finger, knows that the state’s top firm is strong in recruitment. But looking to the future of the firm, her main goals include expanding a pipeline further and doubling down on retention efforts.“We’ve been very deliberate with recruitment and successful in increasing the number of diverse law students coming to our firm. But one area we had not been quite so successful is retention,” Damon told the Delaware Business Times. “The overall mission of the firm is to provide excellent customer service – and the only way you can do that is if everyone is bringing their best selves. So how do we help people become their best selves?”Damon will be tasked with leading Delaware’s largest law firm’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Founded in 1899, Richards, Layton & Finger(RLF) has more than 160 lawyers and primarily focuses on bankruptcy, corporate litigation, commercial litigation, estate & intellectual property.“Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion has been at Richards, Layton & Finger from the start,” RLFs president Lisa Schmidtsaid in an official statement. “As chief diversity director, Doneene will continue to focus on broadening and deepening our DE&I strategy.”As the first woman of color to lead a major Wilmington law firm, Damon served as the firm’s president between 2019 and 2022, with Schmidt cycling into the top job in July. But during Damon’s tenure, she and other leaders worked with the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD), to zero in on where RLF stood on DE&I efforts and where it could improve.“When I was president, I sat in on these LCDC meetings, hearing from other organizations on what worked and what didn’t. In respect to myself in this role, this was an evolution. I kept thinking I’ve been at the firm for 30 years, and I was the first minority partner. I kept thinking to myself, there’s no other person best in the [Chief Diversity Director] role because I have lived experience of being a diverse lawyer and being a managing partner.”“And I thought, we needed somebody from the inside to step up and serve in that role to do some internal reflection about where we are and where we have been, and frankly, where we thought we were going,” she added.The chief diversity director position is a leadership role, with a seat at the table for RLF’s executive committee. The task forces, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Diversity and Inclusion Network, the Women’s Initiative, and the Wellness Initiative, will be overseen by Damon. The idea is to streamline strategic goals and identify measurable steps to take.In the past, RLF has cast a broad net in recruiting from 25 law schools as well as affinity groups in what the firm has to offer for internships and full-time positions. That includes, but is not limited to: the Black Law Student Association, the Hispanic Law Student Association and the Southeast Asian Law Student Association. But Damon notes that many candidates leave RLF before they can get elevated. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed some of the roll-out of those initiatives, but she hopes to continue and maximize those efforts.“Breaking down our recruitment, it’s something I describe as pipeline opportunities first and hiring second. When it comes to the pipeline, we focused on law schools. But we started to think, that may be too late,” Damon said. “We started building out those opportunities, not just for legal positions, but for any position within the firm, to introduce middle school and high school students ideas about marketing, computer science, and accounting with a law firm.”RLF has started bringing in high school students to expose them to various jobs. TeenSHARP Wilmington students have started an externship program with the firm, rotating through various departments, and the firm has also started on-site mentoring with other schools.“Part of the strategic plan is building out on a broader scale, but also going in on a deeper level,” Damon said. “It’s about training, thinking about hiring differently.”Other measures include taking a look at hiring practices, such as removing pictures and names from resumes and auditing position descriptions to see if there are barriers to people applying for positions – like requiring a higher education degree for select jobs that may not need it.In her first year, Damon hopes to see a more defined pipeline of Delaware high school students considering pre-law, or other undergraduate degrees to better position them for specific practices. She would also work on exploring retainment and development efforts.“I think sometimes organizations make a mistake when they think of DE&I as something separate or something part of human resources. But it has to be part of the fabric of the firm to be meaningful. It’s an issue for the organization as a whole,” she said.