Leslie Richards-Yellen serves as Chief Diversity Officer at Sidley Austin LLP and is a proud member of the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association. Before joining Sidley in 2023, Richards-Yellen served in DEI leadership roles at several other large law firms. She is also a longtime ally of the LGBTQ+ legal community and played a critical role in founding the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s Trans in BigLaw group. This new program offers a virtual space for self-identified trans and nonbinary lawyers, associates, counsel, librarians, paralegals, clerks, legal assistants, and business professionals working in BigLaw to gather in support of one another and to discuss their authentic, lived experiences. It is facilitated by openly trans attorney M. Dru Levasseur, the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In addition to Richards-Yellen’s DEI expertise, she also has over three decades of legal experience at a major financial corporation and law firms.
Richards-Yellen’s passion for understanding and expanding access to power and justice began at a young age. She grew up in a small, traditional Iowa town, which shaped the way she viewed the world and her place in it. “I was raised by an African American mother and Bolivian bi-racial immigrant father, and we were the only ‘diverse’ family in a 40 mile radius,” she explains. “Almost everywhere I went, my differences were emphasized.” As a result, Richards-Yellen gained an understanding of how expectations and opportunities were allocated. “In many ways, that small town was a laboratory where I learned early on where I would and would not be protected; I learned what power looks like and how it operates.” As she grew, so did her desire to uplift others who lacked equal access to structures of power. The legal profession was a natural extension of that passion. After college, she went on to earn her J.D. at Cornell Law School before embarking on a career centered on advocacy through and within the legal profession.
Richards-Yellen discovered her calling when she served on the inaugural DEI team for her employer at the time, a major financial services corporation. “My in-house DEI experience has been critical to my effectiveness. For many years I have been able to work with clients to innovate and collaborate to move forward our shared agendas. Clients and law firms are incredible allies.” While still practicing law, DEI work became part of her personal brand. She began to explore more ways to advance diversity in the legal profession, such as serving as a leader of the National Association of Women Lawyers and The Chicago Committee for Minorities in Large Firms. “I learned a lot about strategy, collaboration, and the long game when I led those organizations,” she says. “Good DEI work requires a lot of compromise.”
A turning point in her career came while she was serving as both Partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at a mid-sized law firm in Chicago. “Sometimes I found myself needing to sneak a look at my watch while I had someone crying in my office or needing advice or comfort,” Richards-Yellen recalls. “I’d have a client meeting coming up and would need to convey that to the person I was assisting without making them feel like I was prioritizing a deal over their needs.” The dilemma led to a profound question for her. “I asked myself, who is going to do this work? Diversity work isn’t glamorous or safe, but it is critical to an organization’s success and is personally rewarding. I felt a calling.” In 2016, Richards-Yellen joined another large firm, this time in a strictly DEI role, and has devoted her professional life to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession ever since.
For Richards-Yellen, DEI work is about tomorrow. “I see everything as an evolutionary process,” she explains. “I try to think about how to create the best future, because you can’t win everything today.” In her current work, she focuses on different ways to build better outcomes for her firm and its clients. Sometimes, that means ensuring that employees know all their resources at each office location. Other times, it means either updating existing or creating brand new infrastructure. “Law firms are all about people and clients,” Richards-Yellen says. “We invest in people, so we need to ensure that our diversity infrastructure both meets needs and is accountable. Our investment in our teams ensures that we provide incredible service to our clients.” She also points out that DEI work plays a critical role in the overall health of a law firm. “Diversity is like the canary in the coal mine; employees with diverse backgrounds are often the first to experience challenges if a firm isn’t adequately supporting its talent.” While some may see that as a challenge of maintaining diverse talent, Richards-Yellen instead sees it as an opportunity to improve the firm as a whole. “When we implement diversity and equity practices that work, things become better for everyone at the firm.” Today, sound DEI practices and programs have also become increasingly important to recruiting new talent. “For many years, the status quo was that firms and companies didn’t have to be welcoming and comfortable,” Richards-Yellen explains. “The pervasive attitude was, ‘if you didn’t like it here you should leave.’” Because so many people now want to work in a vibrant, diverse, and supportive place, employers must think about how to meet people where they are.
In addition to building and maintaining effective DEI infrastructure, DEI work is also a matter of remaining opportunistic about turning barriers into breakthroughs. Richard-Yellen’s foundational role in creating the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s Trans in BigLaw group is both an example of this positive opportunism and one of her proudest achievements. The idea of creating a wide-reaching community for trans employees of large firms first arose early in the pandemic. “A really wonderful and brave person in the firm where I worked at the time was in dire need and was all alone,” Richards-Yellen explains. “I needed to find a home that would nurture this person, but I couldn’t find the right approach to link them with the experience, love, and care that they needed.” While her firm had good procedures in place for supporting employees through transitioning, there was no element of human to human support. “My mom was a social worker and she really believed in touching people’s lives,” Richards-Yellen explains. “So when this individual came to me, I understood that what they really needed was the ability to see and connect with someone who had already been where they were and already done what they had just decided to do.” As she pondered how best to help this employee, she received a call from M. Dru Levasseur, the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the National LGBTQ+ Bar. “All of a sudden it clicked,” she says. Levasseur and Richards-Yellen discussed how there were many more people with the same needs as the employee she was seeking to serve. They formed the idea of creating a space for trans and nonbinary employees of large law firms to seek the advice, camaraderie, and solidarity of their peers. Today, the LGBTQ+ Bar’s Trans in BigLaw group is steadily growing its membership and has become both a source of strength and a lifeline for many of its members.
In many ways, the Trans in BigLaw group represents what Richards-Yellen considers some of the best forms of support for diverse legal professionals of all backgrounds. For example, she celebrates the ways in which the National LGBTQ+ Bar strives to include every part of the vast LGBTQ+ community in its programming and advocacy – from affinity caucus meetings and dinners at the Bar’s Annual Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair to programming tailored to the needs of specific groups under the expansive LGBTQ+ umbrella. Richards-Yellen points out that the National LGBTQ+ Bar itself serves as a unifying and community building force for LGBTQ+ legal professionals. “I remember when many Black lawyers did not feel comfortable meeting together in their firms because others may question why they were meeting,” Richards-Yellen says, recalling that often Black attorneys would meet outside of work to support one another. Many organizations recognized as affinity bars today began in that way: secret groups unable to openly advocate for their community members without risking harm to those same members. The most profound change that Richards-Yellen has seen through her professional life is the ability for affinity bars to now proudly showcase their good works. “The LGBTQ+ Bar is important because it can operate like all other bar associations,” she says. “It matters because it can operate in the open, pursuing its mission proudly and strategically.”
Another one of the best things that firms can do to support their staff, according to Richards-Yellen, is providing opportunities for lawyers and staff to be seen and heard in a way that confirms their concerns are important to the firm. She points to the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s DEI Consulting Practice, led by Dru Levasseur, a model for how to support LGBTQ+ staff. “I’ve worked with Dru for many years, and he has made everything he is involved with better,” she says. “Whether it’s reviewing internal best practices, explaining different perspectives to aid in consensus building, providing brave, authentic, and cutting-edge presentations, or creating new initiatives like the Trans in BigLaw group, Dru gives so much of himself to assist others.” Richards-Yellen also hopes that firms and other employers embrace the active work of allyship by supporting programming like the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s Annual Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair and important initiatives like the Trans in BigLaw group. “DEI is all about creating a more equitable tomorrow,” she says.
While Richards-Yellen does not identify as LGBTQ+, she is a proud member of the National LGBTQ+ Bar because she believes in its mission and wants to both support and learn from the Bar. “To me, allyship is not about one moment,” Richards-Yellen explains. “It is about integrating people into who you are and supporting causes as much as you can.” Often, when she thinks about allyship, Richards-Yellen reflects on her childhood in Iowa. “My mother fell sick and a teacher at the local high school took my dad under her wing and cared for us while my mother was hospitalized. Having a white family in a mostly white Iowan town go out of their way to take care of us and make us feel like we belonged made a profound difference to my family far beyond allowing my father to stay afloat while my mother was sick.” Today, Richards-Yellen is still close with members of the family that helped hers all those years ago. “Our families have been intertwined for four generations now. To me, that is allyship.” She further points out that allies have a powerful ability to show others in similarly privileged positions that it is possible to cross divides and overcome prejudice. “When an ally really shows up for a community, they transfer their credibility and power to that group,” she explains. “That makes others think about the way they are treating the group and question their own behavior. It leads to change.”
Ultimately, Richards-Yellen is excited about the future of the legal profession and the future of DEI work. “First of all, it is important to acknowledge all of the progress that we have already made,” she says. She can see this progress in the work of one of her colleagues, Rollin Ransom, who is a partner at her firm, serves as the head of the firm’s Los Angeles office, leads the firm’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, and serves as a firm-wide DEI chair. Richards-Yellen recalls when working with someone like that would have been an exception in a large firm and is delighted that it is now unexceptional. “Sidley has so many diverse leaders, which has really been a remarkable experience for me,” she says. “DEI work is moving from aspirational to measurable,” she explains. That means that firms are successfully creating cultures where most people feel comfortable with difference and view diverse perspectives as a marker of rich company culture. “All groups are better off when the culture is strong,” Richards-Yellen continues. “Strong culture leads to trusting relationships, which is the key factor in a successful organization.” In addition to recruiting and maintaining talent, a strong culture of equity and inclusion also appeals to clients. Richards-Yellen says that she’s noticed how clients now analyze a firm using the DEI lens to understand how well that firm is retaining, evaluating, and training its talent. That impacts whether or not they want to remain a consumer of the firm’s legal services.
Leslie Richards-Yellen’s work to improve the future traces all the way back to her childhood in a small Iowa town where she learned about the transformational changes that occur when someone with power extends that privilege to others. “The future is bright,” she says, and with leaders like Leslie Richards-Yellen in our profession, it is hard to disagree. The National LGBTQ+ Bar is proud to count her among its membership and thanks her for the pivotal role she played in starting the Bar’s Trans in BigLaw group. If you would like to learn more about the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s DEI Consulting Practice or more about how to join or support the Trans in BigLaw group, please email Dru Levasseur or visit our website.