Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Achieving Success and Advocating for Diversity in Business and the Law

By Joseph Hanna: May Spotlight


When Law360 named me a national “Minority Power Broker” in the legal industry in 2015, the first question they asked me in my interview was “How did you break the glass ceiling?” Our world today doesn’t look quite the way it did in 2015, but measured against the centuries that women and various minority groups have been fighting for a seat at the table—in business, in politics, and in culture—five years isn’t very long at all. In 2015 we were at least able to acknowledge openly the existence of barriers to diversity and inclusion in business and the law—perhaps transparent, but all too real. Today, in 2020, we have made some progress. I’m proud to have made a humble contribution to that progress both locally, in Buffalo, and nationally across various industries. But we have much more work left ahead of us.

The metaphor of the glass ceiling is an interesting one to me. On one hand, it is a useful description of the institutional barriers that prevent women and minorities from achieving the same levels of access, support, and rewards as their colleagues at various stages of their career. On the other hand, much like the idea of “blazing a trail,” it calls to mind an image of an individual struggling mightily—and alone—against the forces of discrimination and indifference. This is misleading. I know thousands of diverse professionals who have achieved great success; many that I work with every day have reached positions of leadership at major league sports franchises and some of the largest Fortune 500s.

And every single one of them would be quick to acknowledge the mentors and predecessors who helped them along the way and offered models for how to succeed and thrive in these environments. Those mentors have mentors, and their mentors have mentors, and so on. Maybe you broke a glass ceiling; but there was another glass ceiling in place before the one you broke, and it was at least a little bit lower. Thinking about achievement in this way helps diverse professionals and business leaders, in my opinion, recognize that we share a responsibility not only to follow a path to our own success, but to push forward and make more space for the other professionals and future leaders coming up behind us.

I feel lucky that I’ve spent my entire legal career at a firm that is exceptionally supportive of diversity. I interviewed at Goldberg Segalla as a third­year law student, when the firm was in its early years. In my interview with our managing partner, Rick Cohen, I told him I wanted to establish or help to grow a diversity initiative at whichever firm I joined. I didn’t even have a J.D., and the firm has=d never hired an associate straight out of law school; I certainly wasn’t in a position to be demanding a leadership position before I’d even been offered a job. But Rick said that a commitment to diversity was an important component of the firm’s mission, and we discussed some of the ways we both envisioned how that could play out on a practical level. After I joined the firm, I worked to learn more about the issues facing diverse attorneys, not only in western New York, but throughout New York State and nationally. A great deal of research has been done on these issues, so I devoured as much of it as I could and worked to spark conversation about it through articles and presentations. With a mandate and plenty of help from the firm, I did establish the Diversity Task Force that I had envisioned as a law student, and through this established partnerships with minority bar associations and other groups across the country. I also worked toward getting involved at higher and higher levels in local groups like the Minority Bar Association of Western New York (MBAWNY) as well as organizations like DRI, the American Bar Association, and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, again with much support from my firm and my mentors there.

Locally, I served as president of the MBAWNY in 2011 and then as president of its Foundation from 2012–14. At the outset of my tenure, I had the incredible opportunity to travel the region to visit and learn from other diverse attorneys, judges, and others in the legal profession—of all ages—and I gained insight into the wide range of struggles they had faced. One of my proudest professional accomplishments was bringing this group of accomplished, diverse attorneys together to effectuate positive change in the region. One of the marks of our success was the creation of a new diversity-focused internship program in collaboration with the UB Law School to provide opportunities for minority UB law students to gain firsthand experience in the legal system. So far, the program has placed more than 200 students in clerkships in area courts as well as in several area law firms and in-house positions at some of the country’s largest corporations.

I frequently advise diverse professionals that I mentor and address in presentations and panel discussions that these kinds of efforts promise real payouts both personally and professionally. My involvement and growing profile in national organizations helped me to network with other rising leaders in the business world, many of whom became clients. But even more importantly, my position gave me connections, resources, and a platform that made it possible to design and implement diversity pipeline programs, create national networking events, facilitate clerkship programs for diverse law students around the country.

There is always room for improvement and always work to be done, but my hope was to leverage the support I had at my firm into a campaign that would help change the culture in the legal and business communities—to make it easier for others to break through those barriers that still exist in many places. And I can see the results of those efforts in the remarkable new initiatives and accomplishments of the currently rising generation of diverse leaders in business and the law—including the 2020 officers of the MBAWNY, many of whom I’m lucky to count as colleagues and friends.

Women, minorities, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds in business face countless challenges. One challenge that we may not acknowledge enough is the responsibility bestowed on us to be leaders for the next generation—in my case, the next generation of diverse lawyers. All the effort and perseverance that it took for us to earn these opportunities for ourselves will mean nothing if we do not live up to that responsibility. We need to continue pushing and modeling and opening up space for others, so that several years from now, we’re not still sitting here talking about diverse lawyers in senior positions like it’s a rare thing.

It takes a great deal of time, focus, and energy, things that are not easy to spare for rising professionals and leaders in most industries—especially not the legal industry. But it is worth the effort and worth making the time.

There are three essential things that I believe senior lawyer and professionals or executives in other industries can do to build a more diverse leadership core for the future:

  1. We need to go back to the law schools and colleges, and even back to high schools, to teach young people about the benefits and rewards of being a lawyer (or any other profession).
  2. We must mentor students and prepare them for the demands of the profession they are choosing to enter.
  3. Then, with the young associates, professionals, or managers-in-training at our companies and firms, we need to invest the time to help them become skilled, confident and business­generating team members who will in turn become our future leaders.

It’s a big responsibility to live up to, but we need to think of it as an investment that will bring a much greater return.

And for the rising lawyers and professionals: Never hesitate to pursue a mentor­mentee relationship. It’s a relationship that can’t be forced; there must be a level of comfort and trust. Establishing a relationship with a senior attorney or someone in a comparable position at your company will provide you with the opportunity to learn from that person’s past experiences—to understand the pitfalls they encountered and how they handled the challenges they faced. It presents an opportunity to learn and grow both professionally and personally.


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