Law Firm Management
Diversity managers aren’t running from their huge challenges
Posted Oct 1, 2008 12:30 PM CDT
By G. M. Filisko
No one would blame Kevyn Orr for feeling like he’s being squeezed in a vise. Instead, he feels invigorated by his task: increasing racial and gender diversity at his firm.
The Washington, D.C.-based chairman of Jones Day’s firmwide diversity task force acknowledges that corporate clients are pushing harder these days for tangible results from law firm diversity programs. He also knows that those demands collide with the cold reality that hundreds of law firms are competing for hires in a finite pool of minority and female law school graduates each year.
“I don’t feel that as pressure but as a welcome challenge,” Orr says. “I see this as an opportunity that says to me that corporate clients get it.”
Corporate clients do get the value of diversity, and they’re increasingly pushing outside counsel to show they’re doing more than just paying lip service to calls for more variety at the law firms they retain.
In July, as Microsoft announced a bonus program for firms that increase the raw numbers of minorities and women working at their firms or on Microsoft matters, the company included a gentle rebuke to the legal profession. “It seems we’re still spending an awful lot of time talking about why diversity is important rather than achieving concrete results,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, in a press release. “The focus has been more on activities than outcomes.”
Published reports say retail giant Wal-Mart may be going digital with diversity, using a software program to track minority staffing data for outside counsel. A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to be interviewed for this article or to confirm what an in-house attorney said about the software at a Florida diversity conference in May.
Meanwhile, with an economy that discourages hiring, a continuing trend of women and minorities (especially blacks) abandoning law careers, and stubbornly low black enrollment in law schools, one can expect a perfect storm of difficulty for diversity managers.
More law firms are hiring or appointing diversity directors or managers.
In 2008, 58 percent of big law firms reported having such a position, and an additional 5 percent planned to add one within the next year, according to a survey of nearly 200 of the largest U.S. firms by Milwaukee-based Altman Weil Inc., a legal consulting firm. And 53 percent of firms surveyed have at least one full-time staff person devoted to the firm’s diversity program.
At 49 percent of firms surveyed, the diversity manager is like Orr—a practicing attorney in addition to being responsible for diversity efforts. “In addition to carrying a caseload,” he says, “[work on diversity] can easily be upwards of 25 percent of my time.” Orr declined to comment on whether the firm has considered making the position full time.
At Jones Day, 6 percent of the firm’s U.S. partners and more than 10 percent of its U.S. associates are minorities. In 2007, 18.7 percent of its first-year U.S. associates were minorities. Women compose nearly 20 percent of the firm’s U.S. partners and more than 46 percent of its U.S. associates. In 2007, 48.9 percent of its first-year U.S. associates were women. Twenty-eight percent of its U.S. offices—including those in Atlanta, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.—are headed by women.
DIVERSITY OF DATA REQUESTS
Whether working full or part time, diversity managers say neither internal pressures nor corporate clients are making them feel under the gun.
Instead, Elvera M.A. Pollard, manager of diversity and inclusion at Blank Rome in Washington, D.C., would like to spend less time responding to the large volume of client questionnaires she receives, each asking different questions. “Some ask for data as of September, others ask as of the end of the year,” she says, “and others ask from July 1 to June 30.”
As of July 30, 15 percent of Blank Rome’s 278 partners are female, and fewer than 3 percent are minorities. Forty-seven percent of the firm’s 198 associates are women, and 13 percent are minorities.
Each firm’s head of diversity has a unique focus on how to improve the firm’s raw data, but there are elements common to their efforts. For instance, each firm is heavily involved with affinity groups.
“They’re a key element of our larger strategy,” says Meredith Moore, the New York City-based director of global diversity at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “For example, we have a black attorney group, Latinos at Weil, and an Asian-American/Pacific Islander group, and they’re actively involved in recruitment.”
The firm’s most recent partner class included 20 percent women and 20 percent racial or ethnic minorities.
Law firms are also spending a great deal of time creating a broad pipeline of students to shepherd into the profession in the next decade or two. “Firms are forced to become more creative in tapping into undergraduate, high school and middle school programs,” Pollard says.
Once they get diverse attorneys on board, firms take various steps to make them feel they can pursue a career there. “We try to make sure we’re giving the best opportunities to a range of associates,” says Moore. Associates get assignments that fit their skill sets and interests, Orr says, along with the right practice groups and work team. Those not only help associates become fulfilled in their work, he says, but they also “make them feel a part of the fabric of the firm.”
The diversity efforts include a focus on what many call inclusiveness. Moore says,“There are always new issues to care about, such as religion in the workplace.
“We have a host of different religious groups represented by staff and attorneys, and there are different levels of religiosity. We’re addressing religious holidays that are celebrated, dietary restrictions and stereotypes that people might have with different religions.”
Though Blank Rome employs homosexual lawyers, so far none of them have publicly disclosed that information. “We’re working to send a message to internal employees but also to recruits and candidates that we’re a place for everyone,” Pollard says.
One method is through attending the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association’s annual Lavender Law Conference, which brings gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender attorneys together, and addresses legal issues affecting their communities.
But Mary Snapp, deputy general counsel at Microsoft, would like to see more firms broaden the scope of the schools from which they recruit. “One of the goals of any diversity program is to increase the pipeline, and that’s more than the people who go to the top 100 schools,” she says.
Coca-Cola hasn’t considered a bonus program like Microsoft’s, nor has it fired any firms solely on the basis of lack of progress on diversity, says John Lewis Jr., the Atlanta-based corporation’s senior managing litigation counsel. But like his corporate colleagues, he’s dissatisfied, and his company is beginning to hold law firms accountable.
“There are major law firms in major cities that belie the idea that they value diversity,” he says. “There’s a disconnect, and companies will take different stabs at addressing it. I use a golf analogy. ... Our company’s approach is, how best can we get firms to understand that the clock is ticking and now they have to get the ball down the fairway?”
Whatever corporations do to get that point across, it won’t change Orr’s commitment. “I come from three generations of Southern, African Methodist Episcopal preachers, and they’ve always instilled in me a duty of looking back,” he says. “My father was an Army officer, and I was born in 1958 in a segregated clinic because they wouldn’t admit my mother to Broward General hospital. ... The worst thing that could happen when I retire is to look back and say that I had an opportunity to make a difference, and I didn’t do anything.”
“It’s not easy, and there are challenges,” Orr says. “But this is a challenge I happily undertake.”