If there is one thing Joe West believes in, it’s that every law firm -- every company-- is more successful because of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The partner and Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at the Washington DC office of the prestigious Duane Morris Law Firm has seen the evolution of DEI over many decades, in positions as in-house counsel, with firms and through non-profits where he has served.
“Corporations understand the value of a meaningful approach to doing business and creating impact,” said West, a graduate of Tulane Law’s Class of 1986. “The impact of DEI has a certain inevitability and certainly, a demographic inevitability. Companies ignore that at their peril.”
West, of course, is referring to the extensive research about America’s changing demographics, fueled by the greater affluence and buying power of communities of color, which is changing behavior in the open marketplace and which in turn, “drives everything,” said West.
DEI has been his life’s mission, and work, in many ways. The lack of diversity in the legal ranks certainly shaped that mission, he said.
West arrived at Tulane Law in 1983 from well-regarded Southern University in Baton Rouge, the nation’s largest HBCU, where he had majored in journalism. Tulane Law had integrated less than 20 years earlier, and West found himself in his first semester with what he called “culture shock.”
“It was a challenging time because there weren’t a lot of people in my classes that looked like me…and it was eye-opening,” he recalled.
He made the most of his law school days, though, and made deep connections, including now Judge Terri Fleming Love (L’86) of the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal and an LLM named Darius Nickerson (LLM’84) whom West described as someone “who could not be more different than me, but is one of my brothers.”
“So, while challenging, I also established close lifelong relationships at Tulane,” said West.
Whether it was his experience at Tulane, or within the firms and companies where he worked, West has always been at the forefront of DEI, and reminding others of why it matters. As a partner at Duane Morris’ Trial Practice Group, which handles complex litigation for global companies such as Exxon Mobil, Walmart and the Dubai-based Al-Ahli Holding Group, West also launched a first-of-its-kind consulting practice within the firm, which has been noted for its innovative approach to crafting sustainable DEI solutions for corporate clients. The firm’s clients who have taken advantage of these efforts include large and small companies, including Discover Financial, Chick-fil-A, and the Carolina Panthers, among others.
His legal background is equally peppered with efforts to see more people like him in the ranks. Before joining Duane Morris, he worked for more than five years as the President and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, where he was solely focused on DEI in the legal profession. Prior to that, he was Associate General Counsel, and head of the Global Outside Counsel Management at Walmart Stores, where he had oversight of the company’s relationships with outside firms worldwide, which included more than 600 firms domestically and a budget of more than $300 million.
His work at Walmart drove the company’s growth of lawyers who were women and minorities, as well as LGBTQ and disabled attorneys, to record highs.
“And, as we expanded those numbers, the quality of the work got categorically better,” West said. “In some ways, this is a story of self-interest. When you ignore other voices, these efforts disadvantage us all.”
Before Walmart, West was in his native Louisiana, as Assistant General Counsel for Entergy. His recollections are fond of that time – and it’s evident he has been most comfortable as a trial lawyer.
“I loved it,” he recalled. “At Entergy, I was in court every day. I tried tons of cases, made tons of motions. In many ways, that was a dream job.”
Before Entergy, West worked at several Louisiana law firms, where he honed his trial skills and was actually recruited to Entergy after handling a six-week jury trial against the company.
But it has been his work with DEI that West sees as having had a significant impact, whether he was leading it or not. Just joining Walmart’s team, he recalled, made a huge difference as he became part of leadership which hired more women and lawyers of color.
And he continues to do more in the DEI space. Last year, he was named to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to mobilize the nation’s leading lawyers as agents for change in the Civil Rights Movement. The prestigious organization continues the work started during the Civil Rights era through legal advocacy to achieve racial justice and fulfill the promises of democracy.
West serves as co-chair of the Committee’s board, and at the end of August, will make the trek to the White House where President Biden will honor the work of the organization in its 50th year.
“It is a full-circle moment for me and the organization,” said West. “I am proud to be associated with an organization – it’s nonpartisan and nonprofit – which enjoys wide support of so many corporate leaders. And, they continue to have the best staff which is engaged in protecting and preserving democracy.”
And he currently serves as the chair of the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which oversees the accreditation of the nation’s law schools as well as state by state Bar admissions. Members of the council include circuit court judges, law deans, and state Supreme Court justices. As Chair of the Council, West helps manage compliance with the various standards that law schools are required to adhere to in order to maintain accreditation.
“I was honored to have been asked to lead this body,” said West.” “I work with such an amazing group of professionals dedicated to making our profession more effective and more accessible.”
For his efforts, in 2019, Mr. West was the recipient of the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award: Diversity & Equality from Chambers and Partners. He has received numerous awards over the years, including being named to Savoy Magazine’s 2018 list of Most Influential Black Lawyers, awarded the Diversity Collaboration Award in 2016 by the JTB Pipeline Organization, the Beacon Diversity Award in 2014 by the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association, the Louis L. Redding Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 by the Delaware Barristers Association, and the 2014 Minority Business Leader Award by the Washington Business Journal.
He continues at Tulane to serve as a thought leader among the alumni ranks, speaking at the 2023 Black Law Alumni Reunion on DEI and best practices, and to mentor students as faculty in the Trial Advocacy Program.
“I am a proud alum of Tulane Law School,” said West. “But what makes me proudest is the interaction with the current crop of students. To a person, they are extraordinary.”