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How can general counsels be a force for change?

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four people on a panel talking

Panelists Jeff Smith and Lynn Charytan from Comcast Cable, Rick Palmore from Dentons and Hilary Preston of Vinson & Elkins. Photo by Len Irish.

Despite decades of lip service to the importance of diversity in the legal community, the upper ranks of most law firms fail to reflect the gender and ethnic makeup of practitioners or the population at large. This was the issue panelists addressed at a program hosted by the ABA Journal and Working Mother Media: “The Business Case for Diversity: Is It Still Viable?”

Composed of partners at major law firms, general counsels for large corporations and journalists who have studied the issue of diversity in the legal profession, the panel agreed that without pressure from their clients—and consequences for failing to increase diversity in their upper levels—law firms are unlikely to change at the pace needed. But there was some disagreement on who owned the majority of the responsibility to effect the needed changes.

Panelist Vivia Chen of The American Lawyer’s Careerist blog said she felt part of the issue was a flawed premise that everyone is on the same page regarding the importance of diversity. Chen cited figures from a recent trend report by the Association of Corporate Counsel: Out of more than 1,800 in-house lawyers surveyed, only 6 percent reported that their departments collect data on the diversity of the law firms they hired, and only 3 percent said they tracked how many women hold management positions in the firms hired.

“If that’s the case, where’s the pressure?” Chen asked.

Jeff Smith, deputy general counsel and senior vice president at Comcast Cable, said he has seen a shift in the way in-house counsels approach diversity in the firms they hire. In the past, he said, the standard line was one of neutrality: Counsels would tell firms they did not care who represented their companies, just that the lawyers be qualified.

Although the intention was to signal that the companies would be open to being represented by women and minorities, this was not forceful enough to move the needle.

Lynn R. Charytan, executive vice president and general counsel at Comcast Cable, agreed and said that in-house counsels must be willing to be more direct and demanding.

“I have called law firms and said: ‘Look at who you’re bringing me—surely you can find me diverse lawyers or women lawyers or both!’ ” Charytan said. “When I ask, they bring me that team.”

female panelists talking

Heidi Levine, a partner at Sidley Austin, and Vivia Chen of the Careerist blog. Photo by Len Irish.


Rick Palmore, senior counsel at Dentons, said he has seen increasing momentum at corporations to speak up and demand diversity in the legal teams that serve them.

“The hue and cry is getting much greater, but the question is: What are the consequences?” he asked.

Palmore said many firms had “a script of platitudes” when he asked about diversity in their firms, but he was met with blank looks when he asked how the firms tracked their data.

With human resources departments being much larger and more influential at corporations than at law firms, diversity efforts have been easier to put into place in the corporate world, the panel said. It’s often hard to determine who at law firms should have the responsibility to gather diversity data, and diversity officers are often overwhelmed by their other duties, such as providing advancement opportunities and mentoring support to young associates. But it is still necessary.

One option for in-house counsels is to start factoring in a firm’s diversity during the pitch process, said Heidi Levine, a partner at Sidley Austin. She brought up a corporation that made 10 percent of each firm’s evaluation dependent on the firm’s diversity levels. When firms are battling for business, tiny fractions can make a real difference, she said.

In closing, Palmore said that when the task of achieving parity for minority groups and women seems overwhelming, he is reminded of the song “I’m Not Tired Yet” by the Mississippi Mass Choir.

“We can’t afford to be tired,” he said. “We haven’t solved the problem yet.”

This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “How Can GCs Be a Force for Change?"

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