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DIVERSITY ISSUE

 

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June 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 4| Page 34
FEATURES

Diversity Managers: Crafting Opportunities to Transform Law Firms

Here’s how a new brand of professionals is helping the legal profession look more like client organizations and the talent pool—and the larger world.

An increasing number of clients and prospects want to see diversity in their law firms. More and more law students and lateral hires are attracted by inclusive environments and targeted mentoring. And when it comes to retaining associates and younger partners, your diversity efforts are on the game board, too. For these and other reasons, law firms are creating diversity management positions. Here’s how this brand of professionals is helping the legal profession look more like client organizations and the talent pool—and the larger world.

 

Heightening Self-Awareness: Where Every Lawyer Shares the Challenge

It wasn’t one of those rare “ah-ha” moments of enlightenment for E. Marie Broussard. No, what she experienced in 2006 shortly after becoming diversity manager for the Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi was more subtle than an epiphany—it was a realization that slowly revealed itself.

The firm was diversity-friendly, having established a formal diversity committee back in 1999. But like many people in her role in law firms, Broussard came to understand that what she was now trying to win was a “silent battle,” as she puts it. That is, the lawyers she worked with seemed to agree that the firm needed someone to help coordinate efforts to make the firm more diverse in its ethnic, gender and sexual-orientation composition. Most actively supported her work and were pleasant to her. And certainly no one articulated any racially divisive rumblings and grumblings. But something wasn’t quite right.

For example, she recalls that during some of her early one-on-one meetings, a few of the senior partners didn’t seem exactly sure of their roles in making the firm, as the saying goes, “look more like America.” As she explains, “When I first started, I’d walk into a white male partner’s office and strike up a conversation. The look I’d get initially was a bewildered one, as if to say: ‘Why do you want to talk to me? What do I have to do with diversity?’”

Most of the challenges diversity managers must overcome are unspoken ones, according to Broussard: “In this day and age, it’s not a matter of whether we can all drink out of the same water fountain. The challenge is to make people self-aware of things we all do unconsciously that may lend themselves to prejudices. So the things we have to overcome are much more discreet.”

Two years later, she has come to another realization: The firm is winning that silent battle. “Now it doesn’t matter whose office I walk into,” she says. “They all know they have a role and that there are things for us to do together. We have successfully worked to remove those stifling parameters around diversity.”

The numbers back that up, with the 170-lawyer Robins, Kaplan -having increased its minority and women hiring: Women make up a little more than half of the firm’s associates, 14 percent of its lawyers are members of minorities, and half of last year’s summer associates were students of color.

It’s clear the lawyers appreciate what Broussard has done for the firm—with the help of many others, she’s quick to point out. This spring, as Broussard was planning to leave the firm to attend graduate school full-time, she sent a firmwide e-mail announcing her departure at the end of May. An hour later, her inbox was flooded with 67 well wishes. One female associate wrote, “I believe you were the first person here to really inquire about who I was and where I wanted to go with myself. I’ve appreciated every bit of kindness.” And a partner offered this: “Thanks for all the energy and creativity you’ve put into this work.”

While this sort of internal praise has encouraged Broussard, kudos for the firm’s inclusiveness efforts have also come from outside quarters. Last year Robins, Kaplan was named to Multicultural Law’s 2007 Top 100 Law Firms for Diversity. And this March it was recognized for its diversity achievements by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) with the Thomas L. Sager Award, an honor given to firms that demonstrate sustained commitment to improving the hiring, retention and promotion of minority attorneys. “It’s based on the holistic way we’re trying to institutionalize diversity,” Broussard says.

 

Making Progress But More Needed

Certainly, the legal profession has made strides in creating work environments that are more inclusive of women and minorities. This includes an increase in the number of firms that now have the relatively new position of diversity manager. An April 2008 study of AmLaw 200 firms conducted by Pennsylvania-based consultancy Altman Weil found that 58 percent of responding firms now have a designated diversity manager or director position, which is an increase of 8 percent from the previous year. (See the sidebar on page 37.)

So what do diversity managers do? First, they work with hiring committees to bring in minority and women associate and lateral attorneys. They also help create professional development and mentoring programs, which can go a long way in retaining and promoting the diverse lawyers firms hire. And they spend a lot of time in individual meetings, talking to lawyers to help them overcome any challenges they may encounter. “This job is all about people and it’s all about change,” Broussard says. “Healthy dialogue creates opportunities for transformation. Even if people aren’t comfortable with change, they must have confidence that ‘we can do this together.’”

Many law firm leaders have made a commitment to such change because they believe it’s the right thing to do. But it’s no secret that there’s another factor behind this trend. “The move to make firms more diverse is probably 80 percent driven by clients,” says Virginia G. Essondoh, an Altman Weil consultant who works with diversity issues. “There are the altruistic reasons, too, of course. But mostly it’s from clients who are demanding that their law firms become more diverse.”

While this has been true for years—as in other areas, Corporate America has been far in front of the legal profession in diversity initiatives—a new standard was set in 2004. That’s when then-general counsel for Sara Lee Inc., Roderick Palmore (now with General Mills), wrote “A Call to Action: Diversity in the Legal Profession.” The document, embraced by the MCCA and scores of companies since, strongly emphasizes a commitment to diversity—and it lays out in no uncertain terms that companies should hire law firms that make progress in this area and punish, even fire, those that don’t.

Essondoh says she’s encouraged by law firms’ efforts to hire more minority and female lawyers but still believes they must work harder at retention and promotion. She knows of diversity managers who have left their firms out of frustration, discouraged that leadership develops diversity programs without any punch: “Some get frustrated that the firm won’t take the next step to link compensation with how well a practice group leader or others in management are carrying out their diversity initiatives. They won’t change some of the ingrained policies in the firm. They hire a diversity manager and say, ‘Okay, we’re done.’”

Or, Essondoh says, management looks the other way when senior partners undermine diversity efforts and fail to treat all lawyers as equals. “Managing partners need to show support for diversity initiatives and not put up with those naysayers who are verbally divisive,” she says. “It shouldn’t be acceptable for someone to trash the diversity program.”

 

The Band-Aid Problem

Does that really happen in 21st century America? Are there still people in the profession who deliberately undercut diversity efforts and treat women and minority lawyers poorly? In a word—yes. To think otherwise is simply naive.

Consider what happened this spring when an African-American woman, who had been a staff attorney at a major East Coast firm, wrote this on the political blog The Huffington Post: “[The partnership] has certainly diversified its firm; however, its attorneys are far from equals. The vast majority of [the firm’s] black attorneys do no substantive work, have no control over their case assignments and no opportunity for advancement.” When The Wall Street Journal picked up on the blog and posted the woman’s views on its own blog, the response was overwhelming—and very revealing. At one point there were more than 27 pages of responses to the story—and many were vitriolic in tone and content against diversity programs.

“It triggered highly emotional issues,” says Derede McAlpin, a vice president with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications, who speaks regularly at diversity conferences. “Those who oppose diversity—many of them lawyers—posted a lot of anonymous comments. And they were blunt, to say the least. Now, a diversity program is not a Band-Aid and when it’s used like a Band-Aid, as it seems was the case at this law firm, problems like this arise.”

The East Coast firm in question is hardly the only one to blunder in the diversity arena, of course. According to McAlpin, law firms too often stop their diversity initiatives at recruitment and fail to develop effective mentoring programs or create open and honest lines of communication. Consequently, they lose the diverse lawyers they hired.

But she’s not pessimistic and sees scenarios like this spring’s blog incident as an opening for improvement. “This is a great opportunity to reassess where the problems are and resolve them,” she says. “If law firms make a sincere effort and run after it—just as they run after a crisis—then often they become a standard-bearer for diversity.”

 

A Top-of-Mind Essential

At the New York-headquartered firm Day Pitney, where Lynn Baronas manages diversity efforts, it seems the partnership has long held a commitment to making its offices all-inclusive.

“When I came on board in this position [in 2001] the stars were lined up,” says Baronas, who serves as the firm’s director of professional development, diversity and legal recruiting (“the world’s longest title,” she jokes). “The firm was ready and poised. We had leaders and we still have leaders who really embrace the value of diversity, with partners ready to step in and take action—and not just minority partners, although they are especially invested.”

In the 400-lawyer Day Pitney a solid 12 percent of the attorneys are minorities—and 41 percent, nine of 22, of its summer associate class are lawyers of color, according to Baronas. Seven of 23 of the first-year associates who join the firm this fall are minority attorneys. “I don’t view these as my own personal successes but I am proud of these numbers,” she says.

When they visit law schools, Baronas and other recruiting staff give students as much information as they can on the firm’s diversity efforts. That’s key because, just like law firm clients, more and more students want to see diverse demographics at the firm they select for employment. “We make sure that right from the get-go young lawyers understand our commitment to diversity,” Baronas says.

The firm also puts a strong focus on retention, particularly with its Executive Committee Minority Mentoring Program, in which each executive committee member mentors one or more minority attorneys. These informal partnerships give senior lawyers the opportunity to share their expertise and experience in how to seize opportunities and advance in the firm.

The program also works the other way around. That is, minority lawyers are encouraged to talk about their own successes, challenges and frustrations at the firm. “By pairing minority attorneys with leaders of the firm, it allows leaders to hear what’s working and what isn’t,” Baronas points out, adding that the firm also has a women’s networking group that helps with retention and promotion of its female lawyers.

All of this is not to say that the firm doesn’t still face challenges. It does and that sometimes frustrates Baronas. “As a friend reminds me, diversity is a journey and not a race,” she says. “It’s like a good relationship; you have to work at it consistently. The results come incrementally, and waiting to see results is tough for me.”

So what is the ultimate goal of the journey? One of Baronas’s core objectives is to make diversity an integral part of everything the firm does. “It’s essential that whatever we do,” she says, “diversity is top of mind.”

 

A Resounding Good-bye to the Old Century

When Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal acquired the smaller New York firm Cooperman Levitt in 2000, lawyer Helise Harrington was struck by something. The firm she was joining, Chicago-based Sonnenschein, was known as a fine partnership with forward-thinking, new-century leadership—but its demographics looked like the white-bread 1950s.

“I was asked to be on the recruiting committee in the New York office,” Harrington says, “and another attorney and I noticed the homogeneity of the office, the committee and the people we were interviewing. We were distressed by that.”

So she and the other attorney went to the office’s managing partner, and he told them, “Go ahead. Do something about it,” Harrington recalls.

Given the green light, they did “do something” by forming a diversity committee for the New York office. It soon grew to a firmwide committee, with Harrington selected to lead it. From there, the committee launched an ambitious diversity campaign.

Initially, the committee met some resistance from some senior partners who questioned whether a diversity program was needed, with some even wondering whether it would translate into reverse discrimination. “There was some doubt about whether the firm had any responsibility [to become more diverse],” says Harrington, a partner at the firm. “This wasn’t everybody, although I did hear this concern expressed.”

But some of the firm’s senior leaders offered their full support to the campaign and their will prevailed. “I have to give a lot of credit to management at Sonnenschein because it’s been very responsive,” Harrington says.

Responsive, indeed—and successful, too. Sonnenschein has gained national prominence for its inclusiveness efforts, and in March it was ranked as one of the Best 20 Law Firms for Diversity by the highly respected publication Vault. In the same report, the firm was ranked eighth nationally for Diversity with Respect to Women.

Of the firm’s 600-plus attorneys, 27 percent are minority lawyers—including 11 percent of the partners—and nearly half are women, including 23 percent of the partners. One of the firm’s showcase programs is a partnership with Washington University School of Law in which Sonnenschein lawyers and staff have organized a two-week study seminar to help entering first-year law students who face economic or sociological challenges.

“These are people who may be the first in their families to go to college, or maybe they have language problems, or maybe some have anxiety disorders,” Harrington explains. “It’s a group that would likely experience difficulties in their first year of law school, and of course, first-year grades are so important. So we set up a program with Sonnenschein attorneys and a wonderful professor. And it’s totally free.”

The program, now in its third year, has been so well received that the firm is starting another one like it at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In addition, in a move echoing corporate counsels’ stance in the “Call to Action,” Harrington and her team have created a Supplier Diversity Program to ensure that the vendors the firm hires are also equal opportunity employers. “Whenever we hire new vendors, we try to hire ones who are diverse,” Harrington says.

She also says that, importantly, one of the keys to Sonnenschein’s success in retaining and promoting minority and women lawyers has been its commitment to mentoring: “We work hard to make sure that each of our offices feels inclusive, and our lawyers who serve as mentors help make that happen.” This firm and others like it are making inspiring moves across the board.

About the Author

Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who writes on various subjects in the legal media.

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