MBA Diversity & Inclusion Interview: Virginia Essandoh of Ballard Spahr LLP
By MBA Insights Staff
March 13, 2018
(One in a recurring monthly series featuring efforts of the Mortgage Bankers Association's Diversity & Inclusion Committee, part of MBA's commitment to increase racial, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic diversity within the mortgage banking industry.)
Virginia Essandoh is Chief Diversity Officer with Ballard Spahr LLP, Philadelphia, a national law firm with 14 offices that has championed its long-standing commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion for more than a decade.
The firm has created strategies to enhance the firm's collaborative culture and to support the networking and business development of its employees. The firm also partners with affinity-based law student organizations across the country to support a pipeline of law students entering the legal profession. In 2016, Ballard Spahr Chair Mark Stewart was named recipient of the Associated Black Charities' Change Agents Award. And in 2016, Ballard Spahr earned recognition by the Mortgage Bankers Association for its diversity and inclusion efforts.
Essandoh sits on the firm-wide Management Committee and is responsible for overseeing, implementing and providing strategic leadership to Ballard Spahr's diversity initiatives. She also provides strategic guidance and tactical support to the Ballard Women affinity group, helping to develop business and encouraging the development and advancement of female lawyers. Working closely with the Diversity and Inclusion Council, she advises firm constituencies on best practices for ensuring diversity among lawyers and staff. This ranges from high-level development of diversity-related recruitment, retention and advancement strategies to tactical implementation and execution of such strategies for lawyers at all levels.
Before joining the firm, Essandoh was senior consultant with Altman Weil Inc., where she assisted in developing and implementing diversity and gender initiatives and strategies in private law firms and corporate legal departments; advised on organizational and management structures for law firms and corporate legal departments; and facilitated law firm strategic planning, client satisfaction, strategic marketing and management structure analysis for her clients.
MBA INSIGHTS: How long have you been with Ballard Spahr? What is your area of practice?
VIRGINIA ESSANDOH: I've been at Ballard for 10 years, this June. I focus 100 percent of my time on developing our strategies and leading our efforts to have a diverse and inclusive law firm.
INSIGHTS: When did Ballard Spahr begin its diversity and inclusion efforts?
ESSANDOH: Formally, 15 years ago. Ballard hired its first Director of Diversity in 2006. I started in 2008 as Director of Diversity and was promoted to Chief Diversity Officer in 2011.
INSIGHTS: For the past two years, Ballard Spahr has been named by Law360 and the National Law Journal as one of the top 100 law firms for female attorneys. Has this been a deliberate focus?
ESSANDOH: We are also a top law firm for minority attorneys and we scored 100% on HRC's Corporate Equality Index. There are other things that we are proud of that goes unnoticed. In 2017, women were 50 percent of our partner compensation system. This year 40 percent of our Department Chairs are women including a partner of color.
Women and minority partners lead as Office Managing Partners and women and minority lawyers are on our highest governing body. We are intentional about making sure all of our talent are tapped for leadership opportunities. Our partners elect women and minorities and our Chair appoints them to positions.
INSIGHTS: Your firm's chairman, Mark Stewart, has made bringing greater diversity to the legal profession a priority. How important is that buy-in from the top when crafting a diversity and inclusion strategy?
ESSANDOH: Our Chair is the difference maker. He appoints people who understands that their roles as gatekeepers means they have to be culturally competent and prioritize diversity and inclusion.
INSIGHTS: How does your firm's partnership with affinity-based law student organizations work?
ESSANDOH: We support law school affinity groups financially and by lawyer participation in panel and mentoring programs.
INSIGHTS: What inclusionary and cultural processes are in place for new lawyers and staff who join Ballard Spahr to integrate them into the firm?
ESSANDOH: Affinity groups are the primary way in which we integrate lawyers into the firm.
INSIGHTS: What advice would you give to someone looking to implement/expand a diversity/inclusion program at their workplace?
ESSANDOH: Understand your workplace climate and build your strategy based on your company's culture. As they say, "culture eats strategy for breakfast."
For more information about Ballard Spahr's diversity and inclusion strategies, click the following links:
The MBA Diversity and Inclusion Committee was formed in 2013 to provide leadership and guidance to help the real estate finance industry gain a competitive advantage by increasing diversity in leadership, workforce and suppliers.
MBA encourages its members to support these efforts and to recognize the competitive advantages of embracing a diverse and inclusive workforce and marketplace. For more information about the MBA Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, click https://www.mba.org/who-we-are/mbas-diversity-and-inclusion-initiative/about-mbas-diversity-and-inclusion-initiative.