Law Practice Today | September 2013 | The Staffing/HR Issue
September 2013 | The Staffing/HR Issue
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Managing Partners Work Together to Encourage Diverse Lawyers to "grab LAW"

By Carol Ann Martinelli

Grand Rapids, Michigan is located on the Grand River about 25 miles east of Lake Michigan.  The city has a population of approximately 190,000, while the metropolitan area has a population of about 1 million.  According to the most recent U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, the Grand Rapids population includes the following minorities: African American (20.9 percent), Hispanic or Latino (15.6 percent) and Asian (1.9 percent).  In recent years, Grand Rapids transformed itself from an office furniture manufacturing capital with a reputation for quality, to a city with a high-tech and a growing biotech economy, surrounded by big-city energy and cultural sophistication while still retaining small-city charm in its neighborhoods, boutique shopping areas and tree-lined streets.   The city boasts major art and cultural assets, 90 restaurants in its downtown alone, more than a dozen excellent area breweries (voted Beer City USA in both 2012 and 2013), many outdoor activities and sports options, including great golf courses, bike trails and nearby beaches.  Grand Rapids is the home to ArtPrize, one of the largest and most well-funded open-air art competitions in the world.  The city is the location of one of the world’s Top 30 Museums - Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 125-acre botanical garden and world-class sculpture park.  In 2012, Forbes ranked Grand Rapids as the best American city for raising a family, and the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo list Grand Rapids as one of 10 cities with the most affordable home prices.  So, with such a great community to share, why are Grand Rapids law firms having difficulty attracting diverse lawyers?

According to the 2012 annual report of the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP), , Grand Rapids law firms rank low with regard to minority partners - 1.76 percent compared to 6.71 percent nationally.  At that same time, Grand Rapids is one of the top markets nationally for women legal associates, but ranks below the national average for minority associates (12 percent versus 20.32 percent nationally) and for women law partners (16.62 percent versus 19.91 percent nationally). 

One of the central factors affecting the minority rankings may be the comparatively low overall minority population of Grand Rapids, as was acknowledged in the 2012 NALP report. Grand Rapids is similar to the other cities with low overall minority populations in NALP’s rankings of minority partners.  NALP noted that its findings in certain cities reflect in part considerable contrasts in the population as a whole.  To some degree the law firm diversity statistics seem to correlate with the minority population statistics.  So what steps do the law firms take to improve their diversity in these communities?

A collaborative of managing partners of major law firms in Grand Rapids is leading the way via a new marketing campaign -  “grab LAW” - which is designed to attract minority attorneys and women to the Grand Rapids legal community. The grab LAW program is primarily a web-based campaign focused on the ability to practice in Grand Rapids, and achieving career success while maintaining life balance.  The “grab” in grab LAW stands for Grand Rapids Achieve Balance  Take a look at the new campaign’s website -  It describes the professional and personal journeys of attorneys working in Grand Rapids and reasons they are enthusiastic about their lives in this city – “A Hot City with Cool Lawyers!”  The grab LAW program is live on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, all linked to the grab LAW website.  The social media components of grab LAW will feature events, updates, discussion threads and networking opportunities reaching beyond the website.  In addition to the testimonials currently available, video clips will highlight local attorneys and their views of life at work and after work, and the attributes of Grand Rapids and west Michigan that make "achieve" and "balance" the watchwords of the Grand Rapids legal community.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association and the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative recognize that cities compete for legal talent.  They recognize the need to clearly distinguish Grand Rapids so that when diverse law students and attorneys evaluate communities to determine where they might want to live before pursuing their employment, they will already know the quality of life they can find in Grand Rapids.  They want them to know that the Grand Rapids community offers sophisticated legal practices and multiple opportunities for various life-style choices.  They also want these legal professionals to know that the firms are committed to enhancing diversity and inclusiveness of the bar as a mean of strengthening the Grand Rapids legal community as a whole.  The Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative and the Grand Rapids Bar Association have committed significant resources, time and talent toward the enhancement of diversity and inclusiveness of the bar.

The Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative includes 12 major Grand Rapids law firms working together with the Grand Rapids Bar Association to promote and achieve greater diversity and inclusion through education, hiring, retention and promotion.  The Collaborative was established based upon the past initiatives of the individual firms, and marked the first time in Michigan that a legal community tackled diversity issues collectively.  The Collaborative Agreement was signed by the law firms in June 2011.  The participating members in the Agreement plus an additional firm committed to a five-year action plan, which was finalized in March 2012.  The plan established three committees focused on the critical issues of 1) pipeline development, (2) recruitment of diverse candidates and (3) retention of female attorneys and attorneys of color. 

Recruitment and retention are familiar issues.  Pipeline development focuses on encouraging minority high school and college students to consider careers in law in Grand Rapids.  Strategies to achieve this goal include providing programs and resources regarding the law and legal careers to elementary, middle and high school students in ethnically diverse school systems and establishing programs that promote assistance to minority college students and/or law students pursuing a legal career.  Overall, the plan outlines specific strategies to achieve the proposed outcomes with regard to the three issues named in the plan, and identifies the action steps to be taken by each committee to implement the strategies and achieve those outcomes.

The grab LAW program is primarily associated with the plan’s issue of recruitment to increase the percentage of minority attorneys practicing in the Grand Rapids community.  The first of three strategies to be implemented to achieve this goal was the creation of a collective marketing campaign to promote Grand Rapids to diverse candidates.  The idea of marketing the advantages of living in a particular urban community to legal professionals may be of interest to other legal communities attempting to achieve the goal of diversity and inclusion in their local firms, particularly in situations where a less-than-favorable past perception of life in that city is not an accurate reflection of the current experience of the attorneys who call that city home.

A special aspect of this project is the collaboration of managing partners of community law firms.  The idea of law firm partners working together to achieve the goal of diversity is, however, not unique.  Before the signing of Grand Rapids’ Collaborative Diversity Agreement in 2011, at least two groups of law firm managing partners in Kansas City, Missouri and Columbus, Ohio also joined together to develop plans in conjunction with their local bar associations to achieve the goal of diversity and have been recognized for their efforts and achievements.  Kansas City’s five year plan (2009-2014) focused on retention, recruitment and education.  As a component of the recruitment, the managing partners also recognized that they must promote Kansas City as an attractive community as well as their own firms and firm cultures supporting a diverse legal community.  Columbus established three five-year plans.  The first (2001-06) focused on improving recruitment.  The second (2006-11) built on the experience of the first five years with a focus on four areas - retention, recruitment, law firm culture and infrastructure for inclusion incorporating best practices.  The third (2011-16) plan highlighted retention as the primary objective to maintain the progress achieved in the first ten years.

The Grand Rapids Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative has its own unique agenda, strategies and action steps to be implemented, and which will be evaluated in coming years based on results.  Besides addressing the achievement of diversity and inclusion goals by examining their own law firm cultures and infrastructures for diversity and inclusion, the grab Law campaign is addressing the appeal of their own civic community to the diverse attorney.  The managing partners recognize that their law firms and their community both must truly be attractive to the diverse and minority attorney and that the more people in the legal community that know that life is good in Grand Rapids the more hope there is for them to attain the goal of a diverse legal community in their city.  These partners are planning on Grand Rapids as a career destination for diverse attorneys.


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About the Author

Carol Ann Martinelli is Vice President and National Commercial Services Counsel for Fidelity National Title & Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Companies in Troy, Michigan. She is a member of the ABA LPM Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

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