How I Became a Male Ally: A Conversation with Leon Silver

Leon_SilverLeon Silver is a co-managing partner in the Phoenix office of Gordon & Rees LLP. He is also a member of Take The Lead’s board and a lifelong supporter of women’s rights.Recently, Take The Lead President and Co-Founder Gloria Feldt interviewed Leon about what inspired him to volunteer on behalf of women and how he is applying his experience to improve diversity in the legal profession.GF: Tell us about yourself. What was your path to your current professional position?LS: When I started college, I wanted to be a lawyer. But I also had some talent as an artist, so I decided to take some art classes. It didn’t take long to decide that spending hours and hours painting was much more interesting than spending hours and hours studying political science. So I changed my major to fine arts. When I graduated I took a job as a high school art teacher in Coolidge, Arizona. At the end of my first year of teaching, one of my students said to me, “Hey Silver, you keep telling us that if we put our minds to it and make a plan, we can be anything we want, go anywhere we want, and do anything we want, right?” I, of course, agreed. The response: “So why are you a high school art teacher in Coolidge?” I decided then I wanted to be a lawyer.I graduated from law school at ASU in 1989. From there, I spent six years in a couple of medium-sized local firms before forming my own firm. While I was only 33 years old, I had the great advantage of looking like I was over 40. I led my firm through several iterations, having at one time as many as five lawyers working together.When I could no longer keep hiring enough people to keep up with the amount of work coming in, I merged my practice into the Phoenix office of a regional firm. A couple of years later, I found myself an equity shareholder in an Am Law 100 firm. Finally, last November, I was recruited to join Gordon & Rees, another large national firm, where I am currently serving as co-managing partner of the Phoenix office and group leader of the retail & hospitality practice group. My mission here is to grow the Phoenix office and turn it into a major office for the firm and for the city.GF: Did you have a sense of male privilege as you were growing up and/or rising in the legal field?LS: Growing up—no, at least not at the time. But looking back I can see how I benefited (and continue to benefit) from both white and male privilege.In the legal profession the turning point really came when I joined a large national firm. The firm, like most, talked about embracing diversity and how important it was to “appear to be diverse” (apparently actually being diverse was not the goal). The firm, like many, had an entire page of its website devoted to diversity. And the group of partners who led the local office were a surprisingly liberal-leaning group for business lawyers. But every time we had a shareholders meeting, there were 12 to 15 white guys and maybe one or two women. As the office grew from 25 to 75, the ratio only got worse. It made me think back to my law school graduating class, where 15 of the top 16 ranked graduates were women. I wondered: where did they all go?Along the way, I was taking advantage of the various male-dominated events that all of my firms seemed to embrace: golf tournaments, outings to sporting events, scotch and cigars on the balcony Friday afternoon—all the standards…GF: You’ve been on several boards of organizations (including now Take the Lead) that serve primarily women, and have sometimes been the first or only man. What motivates you to do that? How did you become committed to women’s equality?LS: When I was a high school teacher at Coolidge, dozens of high schoolers turned up pregnant. This was a small school, so the numbers were dramatic. The school did not have a sex ed program; their reasoning was that if you taught sex ed, then the students would start having sex. At 22, I was young enough that the kids would actually talk openly to me about a lot of things. I learned that—according to common knowledge at Coolidge High— you could not get pregnant if the girl was on top, or if she stood up really quickly right after sex. One 14-year-old did not understand how she got pregnant, and asked me, “You have to go to the doctor to get pregnant, don’t you?”When I started law school I knew that along with whatever else I was going to do, I was also going to do whatever I could to fix this. At the end of my second year, I applied for an internship with Planned Parenthood. They turned me down. Despite this major setback, when the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision came down near the end of my third year, I showed up at a briefing being held at Planned Parenthood by none other than Gloria Feldt. That day, I signed up to be on the Planned Parenthood Attorneys’ Action Council. As luck would have it, the chair of the council at the time was a partner in the law firm where I got my first job. So that makes it 26 years now that I have been a volunteer for Planned Parenthood.In that time I have served Planned Parenthood in almost every conceivable volunteer position. The most meaningful contributions, though, happened in the few years that I spent taking young women through the judicial bypass process. To experience the difference you can make in a 30-minute interaction with a 15-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant, alone, and terrified is really quite moving.In addition to supporting Planned Parenthood, I’ve served on the board of the YWCA of Metropolitan Phoenix. (I was the second man on that board, after Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.) The YW helps women with a focus on economic issues, and my experience on its board confirmed my belief that economic power is a substantial driver of institutional discrimination.Once I completed my board term at the YW, I was asked to join the Take The Lead board. For me this organization allows me to draw on all of my professional and volunteer experiences from over the years.Most importantly, my experiences on boards and in the classroom have given me firsthand insight into the value of bringing together a diverse group of people to make decisions at a leadership level.GF: You have said you want to build your law office into one that is fully diverse and gender balanced. Why do you think that is important?LS: An orchestra of 80 violins would be awful.The point of embracing diversity is the recognition that each person brings a unique perspective, a unique background, and even a unique set of implicit biases to the table, and when put together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As I’ve often said, a dozen straight white men sitting around a conference table can make decisions very quickly and be very proud of how easy it was for them to agree. But would you want to base your company’s future on that kind of homogeneous groupthink?GF: You’re an accomplished painter and musician. What have you learned from these artistic interests that might be useful to women aspiring to leadership? LS: In both painting and music you have to learn to find your unique voice and you have to perform without fear. Learning to play a piece of music note for note and tone for tone as you hear it on the record is fine for practice, but it doesn’t make you anything more than another technically proficient musician—and those are a dime a dozen. Trying to make your paintings look just like someone else’s will not make you a successful artist. The most successful artists and musicians are the ones who bring something unique to their art.For a female lawyer, that translates to not just doing what you see the men doing and not trying to be like some other lawyer—male or female—who has been successful. It means finding what there is about you that makes you unique and able to speak to your audience (be it a client, opponent, judge or jury) in an effective and persuasive way. Don’t hide from who you are. Don’t try to play a defined gender role because you think you have to in order to be successful. Be yourself and be proud of who you are. Don’t be afraid to let others know who you are.