She has a unique combination of skills—public finance expertise and an impressive record at helping firms hire and keep the best, most diverse workforces. As capital partner and chief of diversity and inclusion at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago since 2007, Leslie Richards-Yellen ‘84 still works in bonds, but her chief task is to make the organization more diverse.
“Law firms have to figure out how they can be more profitable and imaginative,” says Richards-Yellen. “We’re in a different world now. You need diversity to compete. If you don’t have people who can look at and access the world in different ways, you impoverish your institution.”
But hiring the best, most diverse talent isn’t enough. “If you’re serious about diversity and want to maximize your firm’s potential, you’ll look deeply into your organization’s procedures and processes and ask what might work to the detriment of some people, then reengineer to change that,” she says.
“The most successful diverse firms have procedures in place that create opportunities,” says Richards-Yellen—“trips to meet with clients, seats on committees, access to meetings, sponsors, and other ways to help them get clients and become successful.”
Richards-Yellen grew up in a small town in Iowa. “My family was the only black family within a forty-mile radius,” she says. Her father, a psychiatrist, emigrated from Bolivia as a young man. Her mother, a psychiatric social worker, helped put him through medical school.
After attending Drake University, Richards-Yellen applied to law schools. Cornell wasn’t on her list but her father fished the application from the waste basket and insisted she apply. “Cornell gave me the confidence to go out into the world and stand my ground, learn and become a more worthy person,” says Richards-Yellen.
One constant friend has been Professor Sheri Lynn Johnson. “She was a huge influence and a great mentor,” says Richards-Yellen. “You need someone in your corner who thinks you can succeed, and Sheri became that person for me. I would not have made it without her.”
Johnson has high praise for her too. “Leslie is one of the smartest lawyers I know,” she said. “Her gift for analytic and strategic thinking made her a formidable bond lawyer, and I have been fascinated to watch her turn her talents to the recruitment and development of diverse lawyers.”
Richards-Yellen met her husband, David, in her Contracts class. “It was one of my toughest classes, as it was taught Socratically, with questions posed but no answers provided. Every time David spoke the professor looked pleased, so I would put a star in my notes next to his comments. Naturally I wanted to get to know him.”
After law school the couple, by then married, moved first to Washington, D.C., where both worked for law firms, then to New York City, where David Yellen joined the law faculty at Hofstra University and Richards-Yellen became outside bond counsel to the New Jersey Healthcare Facilities Financing Authority. She worked long hours serving “every hospital in New Jersey that wanted to issue bonds and refinance.”
She then became a lawyer for Vanguard’s Fixed Income Group for twelve years. “They were one of the world’s biggest bond buyers. I analyzed the bonds’ legal structure, looking at the legal risks,” she says. She also served on a team to recommend how Vanguard could become more diverse. “Diversity was part of my brand and part of why they valued me,” she says.
Along the way the couple had three daughters.
Then, in 2005 Richard-Yellen’s husband became dean of Loyola University’s law school and the family moved to Chicago. “For the first time in my life I moved without a job,” she says. “I’m glad I had enough confidence to take the risk.”
Of three job offers, the one at Hinshaw & Culbertson appealed to her most because it allowed her to do diversity work and bonds.
This March, Richards-Yellen spoke to the Women’s Law Coalition at the Law School, where the couple’s oldest daughter, Jordan, is now a student and a 1L representative to the Black Law Students Association.
“Jordan and I text daily,” relates Richards-Yellen. “Her first professor was Sheri Johnson, and every professor she’s had was a former professor of mine or my husband’s. I can almost put myself in her shoes.”