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DIVERSITY ISSUE

 

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June 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 4| Page 50
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Achieving Sustainable Diversity: Colorado's Approach to the Inclusion Dilemma

Clients are demanding greater diversity, minority associate attrition rates are climbing, and fewer minorities are entering law school. Some say dramatic change is needed, and Colorado’s legal community is taking up the challenge.

Nationally, based on U.S. Census data, the legal profession is at the bottom of the list for all professions in terms of diversity—with minorities comprising only 9.7 percent of all lawyers. Compare this to physicians at over 24 percent and accountants at nearly 21 percent. But the statistics tell just part of the story. When taken in context, there is cause for even greater concern, especially for law firms. Increased client demand for greater diversity, troubling minority associate attrition rates, and declining law school applications by minority students are leading many to conclude that current diversity efforts in the profession are not working.

Since 2004, more than 100 Fortune 500 companies have signed on to the “Call to Action” initiative, which requires law firms to increase their diversity or risk losing signatory corporations as clients. The momentum behind the “Call to Action” continues to build and is driven in large part by the unsettling data on minority associate attrition in law firms—and the percentages grow alarmingly high as associates approach partnership. For example, by the eighth year of employment, when partnership often comes into play, more than 86 percent of female lawyers of color have left their firms, according to a 2006 American Bar Association study. This leaves very few minorities, and especially women of color, available for partnership.

While the high attrition rates are capturing the lion’s share of the attention right now, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that law school applications among minority students are in decline and not expected to increase any time soon, according to the Law School Admission Council. Without an adequate pipeline of diverse students into the profession, issues of increased client demand and high attrition rates may become even more acute. Clearly, dramatic change is required—but in what direction? Here’s how one state is tackling the challenge.

 

A Tremendous Catalyst: Colorado’s Legal Community Comes Together

In Colorado, only 6.9 percent of lawyers are members of racial and ethnic minorities. Recognizing the need for a stronger focal point to address the pressing issues behind that number, the two law school deans in the state—David Getches, of University of Colorado Law School, and Beto Juárez, of University of Denver Sturm College of Law—decided in 2006 that the state’s entire legal community had to take action. To that end, they formed the Deans’ Diversity Council, a group of the top leaders from all sectors, encompassing legal education, private practice, the public sector, corporate departments, bar associations and the judiciary.

At the council’s first meeting, the deans were joined by 45 leaders of the profession, including the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, Colorado’s attorney general, the managing partners of 25 law firms, Denver’s district attorney and the president of the Colorado Bar Association. The group generated ideas for the inaugural Rocky Mountain Legal Diversity Summit, held in Denver in September 2007. Members also made long-term commitments to volunteer for working groups to research best practices and develop strategies relating to the pipeline of diverse students and recruitment and retention of diverse lawyers. To obtain baseline data on issues affecting those areas, the council then joined with other legal diversity groups to conduct a major 2007 survey of Colorado’s legal community (sent to over 5,000 Denver-area attorneys).

In a remarkable move, the council also developed a vision statement that calls for all Denver metro law firms and corporate legal departments to create cultures of inclusion by the year 2016—cultures where “attorneys of all backgrounds succeed without regard to gender, race, religion, national origin, disability or sexual orientation.”

To achieve this vision, the council created the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence (CCIE), a nonprofit that will provide the resources to help legal organizations build inclusive cultures.

 

The Key to Real Success: Inclusive Excellence

The term “inclusive excellence,” coined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, is a new paradigm for the legal profession. It moves beyond numbers and involves embedding practices and philosophies that encourage diversity in every aspect of an organization. Demographics are a critical component of any diversity initiative, but as long as diversity is viewed as merely a number, a strategy or a phase—as it largely has been in the legal profession—progress will be elusive. And discrete diversity initiatives, such as recruiting or mentoring programs, while important, will never have a significant impact if they merely overlay a culture that continues to exclude diverse attorneys in many ways.

CCIE’s work is focused on taking diversity efforts to the next level by establishing practical steps for creating inclusive workplaces where all lawyers, including those who are diverse, want to stay and feel deeply connected and valued. A key part of the program is a manual (adapted from a similar workbook by the Denver Foundation) that helps legal organizations work through the process of transforming their cultures with a six-step process. A working draft of that manual was circulated for the first time at the 2008 Rocky Mountain Legal Diversity Conference at University of Denver Law School, sponsored by CCIE this March. Among other speakers, the conference featured Miguel Rivera, Associate General Counsel at Wal-Mart, who spoke about the compelling business case for diversity. (See the sidebar on page 53.)

According to Rivera, “If firms build an inclusive environment ... the ‘diversity problem’ will take care of itself—[diverse attorneys] will come ... and will flourish.” But to date, most legal organizations have been at a loss as to how to transform their cultures to meet that goal. CCIE’s step-by-step process requires legal organizations to reexamine all aspects of their internal fabric in response, including procedures, policies, physical environment, compensation, work-assignment systems, professional development, marketing, promotions and budgeting, as well as diversity programs involving recruiting and mentoring. Qwest Communication’s Legal Department is piloting the CCIE manual and documenting its progress in creating an inclusive culture. Two law firms in Denver are also slated to pilot the program.

 

The Case for Inclusiveness: Bottom-Line Benefits

Why invest the time and resources to create a culture of inclusion? The fact that it is simply the right thing to do should be obvious. But it also provides many concrete benefits to both an organization and its employees, including diverse attorneys and staff. Improved recruitment and retention among all levels of a law firm exist in a symbiotic relationship with improved collaboration, productivity and innovation. In turn, these increase an organization’s competitiveness, paying the organization back through enhanced client development and reputation.

Consider some of these benefits:

▪ Because environment often matters more than money to newer lawyers when they consider offers, inclusive cultures increasingly affect recruitment outcomes.

▪ An inclusive environment builds momentum for recruiting additional diverse attorneys, thereby increasing the pool of applicants.

▪ Employees generally stay in an environment where they feel valued, have a chance to succeed, and have opportunities for professional development. In turn, this reduces the turnover costs of both recruitment and training, which may be as high as $350,000 for a third-year law firm associate, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

▪ Inclusive legal organizations exhibit high morale and loyalty because they provide resources to employees that may have been previously unavailable, including flexible work arrangements, on-site day care and child- or senior-care benefits.

▪ Research shows that diversity increases organizational creativity, innovation and problem-solving capacity, factors that necessarily contribute to productivity and enhanced competitiveness.

▪ Clients value legal advice from a team that truly understands their business and their increasingly diverse customers, which makes inclusive organizations more competitive in client development and retention.

▪ Inclusiveness enhances an organization’s overall reputation among multiple elements in the market, making the firm more inviting to everyone from potential clients and vendors to the broad pool of recruitment candidates. Remember, many lawyers and especially newer, diverse attorneys, talk with each other about firm cultures and diversity. A poor reputation can often takes years to overcome in terms of recruiting.

The key to achieving all of these benefits lies in taking diversity efforts to the next level by achieving genuine change not just in individual firms but in the legal profession as a whole. That is why cooperation and communication between all sectors of the legal community is so critical, and why it lies at the heart of the model in Colorado.

 

The Intersection: At the Core of the Campaign for Change

In his book The Medici Effect, a best-seller on organizational innovation, Frans Johansson theorizes that all brilliant ideas happen when different people come together at “the intersection,” a place where creativity and innovation happen. The circumstances supporting Colorado’s journey to this intersection in its efforts to increase diversity have been remarkable. The state’s legal community has come together to address this important, and difficult, issue and hopes that it will serve as a model for the profession on a larger scale.

Several factors have led to the success of the Colorado effort. The first was the formation of the Deans’ Diversity Council, since all diversity “best practices” lists must start with commitment by top leadership in legal organizations. The systemic change needed will never occur without the direct involvement and genuine commitment of an organization’s leadership. Denver’s legal leaders responded to the law deans’ call and continue to actively support the initiative. The combination of people involved in the council and their passion for creating a sustainable diversity effort was a major catalyst for progress.

That led to the creation of CCIE and generated a great deal of momentum in a short period of time. But it is important to note that there were already a number of organizations working on diversity issues in Denver and it was these organizations that created the environment that eventually allowed key players to come together at the intersection.

The process began in 1993 when 23 law firms signed the “Pledge to -Diversity,” vowing to do better in terms of increasing the numbers of diverse attorneys. In 2000, the Pledge Group created a summer 1-L hiring program that received an award of distinction from NALP in 2007. Dozens of diverse first-year students from the University of Colorado and University of Denver law schools have been employed by member law firms during their first summers and many are now associates in those firms. The Pledge Group also awards scholarships to diverse law students and sponsors networking receptions for lawyers and students.

In addition, the Diversity in the Legal Profession Committee of the Denver and Colorado Bar Associations has been active for many years in promoting diversity. One of its primary initiatives is a mentoring program that matches diverse students at the two law schools with diverse attorneys from the minority bar associations.

The Deans’ Diversity Council continues as an advisory group to CCIE and its efforts to take legal diversity efforts in Colorado to the next level. Regular discussions among the leaders in the legal community are vital to raising awareness of issues and solutions. Accordingly, CCIE’s Board of Directors brings stakeholders from all of the legal diversity organizations to the same table, including the Pledge Group, DILP and the diverse bar associations. This structure provides greater organization and communication between existing groups to avoid duplication of efforts and to move the entire community toward the new paradigm of inclusive excellence.

Another major factor in Colorado’s efforts is the deliberate adoption of a “campaign” approach to bringing inclusiveness to the legal community. This approach favors action over endless discussion and is designed to mobilize people, not just develop a plan that sits on a shelf. An expectation is created that forward movement will happen and that there will be commitment to that movement, even without agreement of all. The approach requires that energy goes into actions to maintain momentum; that participants in the process act their way into new thinking; and that the profession’s culture supports the notion of trying things. Not everything will work—but testing ideas and learning from them is more important than not trying them.

But at the end of the day, one of the biggest reasons for the recent developments in Denver is the commitment of hundreds of hours of volunteer time by lawyers—with key players including a number of white males—who are passionate about increasing diversity in the profession. Because white males currently constitute the majority of lawyers, having them fully invest in the issue and see themselves as key players in creating cultures of inclusion could well be the crucial factor in the ultimate success of the effort.

We are genuinely hopeful in the Denver legal community that we have found a key to transforming the legal profession through a process that any legal organization can use to create the change needed to increase diversity.

About the Author

Kathleen Nalty is Executive Director of the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence. Formerly a federal civil rights prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, she also helped found the Colorado Lawyers’ Committee’s Hate Violence Task Force and worked at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where she specialized in diversity programs.

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