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Panelists offer strategies to enhance law firm diversity and performance

Panelists offer strategies to enhance law firm diversity and performance

By John Glynn

The facts are undeniable: On average, women comprise less than 20 percent of equity partners at the 200 largest law firms. It’s even worse for minority lawyers. Why do the largest firms move like glaciers when it comes to career and compensation parity and where are the opportunities for change within the legal system?

On Saturday, a panel of experts tackled this tough issue in “Law Firm Models: Improving Gender Equity and Performance,” sponsored by the American Bar Association Law Practice Division and the Commission on Women in the Profession.

There are two major challenges when it comes to changing the culture of law firms:

  • The empowered leaders seldom have an interest in making the kinds of changes that affect the status quo
  • Real change in a business model cannot happen without an adjustment in thinking. Our brains are wired to favor the comfort of the familiar and to dislike change, even if it is for the better.

Often firms that operate under older business models favor the “first touch” rule – the lawyer who first brings in the client often remains the originating attorney, and origination credit affects pay and promotion, often to a substantial degree.  But under newer business models, client credit is shared as a team among several partners, allowing a greater diversity of lawyers to benefit from the client acquisition.

Panelist Richard E. Quinby, a partner at Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP, said that that the world is becoming more diverse every day, and any law firm that wants to grow must embrace and reflect that diversity to be competitive.

“More and more, clients are insisting on not only hiring a firm with a diverse team, but actually seeing that diverse team produce the work,” he said. “You can’t just have diversity in the office; you need a diverse team showing up at the table.”

According to panelists, any changes to the law firm business model that are best for the organization as a whole, coincidentally, are also best for building inclusion and diversity at the highest levels of power and earnings.

Panelist Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said that women and minorities have to speak up and advocate for themselves, make themselves heard.  

“Women need to be unique, and be their best,” she said. “They cannot be quiet or speak in a small voice. They can’t be hesitant to blow their own horn.”

When it comes to hiring women and minorities, panelist Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel for EMC Corporation, said that for him, it’s simple.

“I hire only the best brains,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re purple, gay or straight. I care about how good their brain is and what they’ve accomplished. Some of my best employees are working mothers, single mothers. I’m hiring them for their mind. I think it’s very important that we speak up about this issue.”

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