Adopted from Korea by parents of Italian, German, Japanese and Irish descent, Frances Barbieri was raised with Black, white and mixed-race cousins. This diverse upbringing fuels her hope that one day law firms and organizations will look like the people they serve.
Barbieri joined World Wide Technology in April, after more than four years at U.S. Bank as vice president and senior corporate counsel, employment law. She previously worked for firms in Boston and St. Louis. She sits on the board of directors for Nurses for Newborns and is president of the Missouri Asian American Bar Association.
What motivates you most in your work as an attorney and as an advocate for Diversity & Inclusion?
My family is very diverse. I was adopted from Korea, my dad’s family was Italian and German, and my mom’s family is Japanese and Irish. I grew up eating sushi and homemade Italian bread. I have a Korean sister and a sister my parents had biologically, and my cousins are white, Black and mixed-race. So I had a very innocent view of diversity growing up — it was very harmonious. We all appreciated our differences but got along and supported each other.
My optimistic and unrealistic view of the world continued through law school, because my law school class was diverse, and I saw many of my peers of color get offered great jobs. It wasn’t until I was a practicing lawyer when the rose-colored glasses fell off, and I saw and heard about the negative experiences of women and people of color, particularly as their careers advanced.
What goal remains unfulfilled for you as an attorney and advocate for Diversity & Inclusion?
I plan to continue working towards diversity, equity and inclusion for the rest of my life, and I know that when I’m gone there will still be work to do. We can look at the law school admission rates and see they have diversified during the past 25 years, and that’s good, but then we need to look at hiring practices. When we start to feel good about hiring practices, we need to look at promotion rates. Currently, the senior leadership of most law firms and corporations is not really any more diverse than it was 25 years ago, and that needs to change. We need to fully understand and rectify the reasons why women and attorneys of color get great jobs out of law school but end up leaving before hitting the leadership level.
What must Missouri’s legal community do to promote meaningful and long-term diversity within its legal/justice system?
One of the most pressing opportunities for the legal profession in Missouri is the selection and retention of judges. Judges have such a huge influence on how our laws are enforced and interpreted, which in turn affects the situations of Missouri residents. I think the Nonpartisan Court Plan is a pretty good way to select judges, but it has not been extended to most counties in Missouri. The retention procedures are also a bit of a mystery to most citizens, including most practicing lawyers. There is a single, statewide judicial review committee that reviews judges up for retention and provides “findings” on them. There are several issues with this process: Most lawyers do not know how the review committee is selected or what experiences those individuals are bringing to the table; [and] the findings of the committee (which reviews every single sitting judge up for retention) are not widely publicized to voters. We need a better system of reviewing judgment and making retention recommendations to the public.