Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Nossaman's Simon Santiago
Nossaman Partner Simon Santiago was profiled in Law360 as a part of their Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series. Mr. Santiago's full Q&A can be found below.
Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?
A: As an initial matter, I was raised with the attitude that there are no glass ceilings — professional, social or otherwise. My parents brought me, along with my three sisters, to the United States from the Philippines because America offered more opportunities for our family. Both of my parents worked until retirement age, and while they may have experienced discrimination, I don't recall a time when they expressed frustration or giving up on pursuing their goals because of their accent or ethnicity.
As I grew older, I did become sensitive and aware that certain groups and classes of our society face unique barriers to entry into the legal industry. However, I think my early "Pollyanna" view taught me not to be deterred or distracted by any glass ceilings and that talent, intellect and hard work will be rewarded in the end.
Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?
A: Our profession tends to be ultra-competitive (which is not necessarily a bad thing), and with competition there is jealousy. Unfortunately, I think that when a person of color attains a certain level of success in the legal profession, there will be the occasional whisper of doubt as to whether that person truly deserved and earned it. Especially when you are responsible for leading and supervising a group, this skepticism can create unnecessary friction and resistance which may take some time and energy to overcome. If you lead by example and hold yourself to the same or even higher standards than you expect from others, I find that this challenge can be effectively overcome.
Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: I would not classify it as discrimination, but I had a "teachable moment" with a client when I was a young associate regarding my race and ethnicity. It was the first time I met the client in person, and he was apparently puzzled by my looks. In a nutshell, he was wondering why I had a Spanish last name, looked Asian and had a tan complexion — although the actual words he used were a bit more blunt and rough around the edges. I've had similar (albeit more innocently worded) inquiries from childhood acquaintances so I was prepared for the discussion. In a matter of fact and dispassionate way, I proceeded to explain to the client my Filipino heritage, including how the Spanish missionaries gave us their religion, last name and good music. From that point on, the client treated me like any other trusted employee of his company.
What this experience confirmed to me is that sometimes the best way to address a racially charged situation is to approach it in a disarming and nonconfrontational way. By doing so, I gained the respect of the client and hope to have taught him a lesson or two about being more sensitive about racial issues. I also appreciated that the partner who was with me at the time thought I handled the situation with class and shared with me that he wouldn't have been so forgiving in his response back to the client.
Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?
A: My advice is "color neutral," but I think it will resonate with lawyers of color in particular. Our profession is primarily a service industry, so building and maintaining relationships is important for being a good lawyer. Sometimes, a person relies on race or ethnicity to find "common ground" with another person. I find this too convenient and actually counterproductive because relying solely on race and ethnicity prevents you from broadening your network and gaining exposure to diverse perspectives. You should find as many ways to connect and relate to a person — whether it is a client or co-worker. It's not as easy or straightforward as it sounds because it requires a lot of personal interaction and genuine interest in getting to know someone. However, I believe this approach will lead to more substantive and stronger professional relationships.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?
A: Increasing diversity at the partnership level starts at encouraging and fostering diversity firmwide and at all levels. Having a diverse workforce, however, should not be the end objective. I recently attended a talk hosted by my law firm in which the speaker emphasized that diversity should not be viewed merely as the "right thing" to do from a social mores standpoint. Rather, diversity makes good business sense because there is evidence that a diverse group can improve client service. To achieve this outcome, the diversity of the group must be "heard" and not merely "seen." Therefore, it is incumbent on law firms to create an atmosphere that welcomes and rewards varying viewpoints and perspectives.