Born in Panama, Mauro Wolfe came to IUP in the late ’80s from Beaver County. Now a senior partner at Duane Morris in New York City, he represents clients in white-collar matters all over the world. Next month, he’ll participate in an IUP virtual panel
discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. Here, he shares insights from his life and career.
March 17, 20211:30–4:00 p.m.
To register, visit the Panel Discussion Sign-up Page.
Senior Partner, Duane Morris, New York City
Diversity, to me, means different perspectives of people from all over the world and from different viewpoints, whether that’s race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or anything else—so, different perspectives based on life experiences.
For me, what equity means is getting a fair shot at something, whether that’s a job or a promotion, but keeping in mind that we live in a world that isn’t fair. Inclusion, to me, comes down to, are you a valued member of the team?
In my career, I wanted a chance at bat. I didn’t mind if I struck out—I just wanted a shot. I was given, in my judgment, great opportunities, and I was so hungry that I took advantage of every single opportunity presented to me. Even opportunities that
weren’t presented to me, I went out and figured out a way to get them. Those are the kinds of things that are needed, even today with as much consciousness as we have about diversity, equity, and inclusion. To me, the one thing that is consistently
missing in that conversation is individual responsibility and initiative.
As I came out of government, the discussion about diversity had been raging for years. I heard so much about it that I thought, OK, I just need to sit back and wait for somebody to knock on my door, because I’m obviously diverse, and I’m in a narrow industry
with a poor history of diversity [the legal profession].
The mistake I was making was that I wasn’t taking individual responsibility. I was expecting the “system” or the law firm or some other party to do it for me. That’s something I talk to diverse students and diverse lawyers about all the time. You can’t
ignore that you have an individual responsibility to advance your own career. You have to be aggressive and proactive, particularly as a diverse person.
I got over it fairly quickly and figured out how to maneuver and work within the system. But what I tell students and young professionals is that, while these systems are in place, they can’t take the place of you taking control and ownership of your
career. No one’s going to care more about your career than you.
Because diversity is such a prominent conversation, it can make you passive, and that’s dangerous on an individual basis—meaning the system will highlight and promote me.
I was smart enough to recognize an opportunity, and I worked really hard to figure out the game that nobody taught me of how to capitalize on an opportunity.
I’ll give you an example. I was sitting in my kitchen on a Thursday. I was in the [Philadelphia] DA’s office, and I was thinking that I enjoyed being a DA, but I really didn’t get a thrill out of prosecuting Black and Brown people for narcotics trafficking.
So I wrote down all the things that I wanted to do. That Sunday, I opened up the paper, and there was an advertisement for a trial lawyer at the SEC [US Securities and Exchange Commission]. Because I had just written down all the things I wanted,
I knew that was a job I wanted. So I applied for it, thinking there’s no way in world they would want to interview me. But they did.
Then, I reached out to people at my old law firm and said, “What do I need to know about the SEC?” A friend of mine who was a partner and who happens to be Hispanic said, “I have a friend who used to work at the SEC. Why don’t you go talk to him?” Twenty-four
hours later, I’m sitting at lunch with him. He tells me to read a book by Joel Seligman [The Transformation of Wall Street]. It’s a history of the SEC. I wanted the job so badly that from Friday to Monday, when the interview was, I read that book,
740 pages. I share this story with students and with young lawyers all the time, and I know that 99 percent of them would never have read that book.
One of the people who interviewed me, an African American female, turned out to be best friends with one of my favorite professors at Temple Law School. So I connected the dots and worked the back channels to try to get myself in the best position possible.
Believe it or not, I didn’t get the job. And I was very disappointed. What happened was that the SEC called me back and said, “We don’t think you have the experience for a trial lawyer now. However, we were so impressed with you that there’s an opening
for a staff attorney position, and if you come into this office and take that position and do well, you’ll be promoted to trial lawyer.”
To me, that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about in terms of understanding the game. Senior partners at law firms across the country do that routinely to secure the general counsel positions at a Fortune 500. They work their contacts and allies—their
networks—and they work in the background.
And that’s what I mean by it’s great to have a diversity program, but a weakness of that diversity program is that a young professional thinks all you need is the diversity program. They don’t understand and pick up these other soft skills, these non-pure
competency skills and experiences, to get to the next level. Those are the kinds of things that I think, with an overemphasis on the institutional diversity system, get lost in translation in discussion with young professionals. Simply put, students
need to learn that we do not live in a perfect meritocracy, and they have to take affirmative action to improve their chances of success.
There are at least two things you can do. One is, in your hiring, have sort of a Rooney Rule*, which is you look to interview at least one or two diverse candidates. But, there’s one other thing that is so easy and so important, and that is for the professors
and the power sources within the university to take a moment to say a kind, genuine word of encouragement to diverse students.
Those are the kinds of moments, because of my personality, that are hardwired into me—when people I worked closely with, who I trusted, who I believed in, said really honest and sincere nice things about me when I didn’t expect it. So my point is, telling
a diverse young professional something complimentary, something sincere, is the kind of thing that could alter somebody’s life.
*NFL policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and other senior positions
Note: Wolfe is currently mentoring four IUP students—two female and two African American. He is also cochair of IUP’s New York City Regional Advancement Council.