Advocates of diversity move to effective, measurable action

prev
next

 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
“We have diversity in our clients. We now need to go to Diversity 2.0 – we need to not leave any talent on the table,” said Robert J. Grey, who is the public voice of an initiative to ensure tapping into the diverse legal talent pool of this country.
The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) is composed of managing partners of major law firms and chief legal counsel of corporations. They came together to make more effective the promise of the legal profession to diversify its personnel. The council hired Robert Grey, who was the first keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s Diversity Roundtable March 9, as Executive Director in August 2009.
Rodney Martin, Diversity Partner at Warner Norcross and Judd, noted in his introduction of Grey that there is a rich, and sometimes troubling, history leading up to the council’s formation.
In 1999, about 500 chief legal officers of major corporations signed on to a document called “Diversity In The Workplace - A Statement of Principle.”
In 2004, a key player in this history, Rick Palmore — then Chief Legal Counsel at Sara Lee, now at General Mills — felt frustrated by the lack of progress he saw in the legal profession, so he initiated a process which resulted in a renewed commitment. “A Call to Action — Diversity in the Legal Profession” called for law firms and corporate legal offices to take action based on the original statement. The Association of Corporate Counsel backed the Call to Action and the list of signatories grew.
Then in 2008, the American Bar Association appointed a body as part of its Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity to come up with recommendations to make such commitments work. LCLD was an outcome of its paper on “Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps,” since some entity was clearly needed to move forward its recommendations.
A Call to Action Summit in early 2008 also called for more strategic actions to accomplish the goal of a diverse legal workplace, and the LCLD was formed.
At the Diversity Roundtable, Grey outlined the priority strategic areas the LCLD’s prestigious membership developed.
The first is to ensure that surveying and profiling are done in a meaningful way. Grey deplored the “check-box” variety of survey, and said LCLD’s surveying will ask the tougher questions: are minority and women attorneys working on the highest-profile cases? Are they part of the teams that work on the most revenue-producing cases? Grey feels that open-ended answers to those questions will lead to a more comprehensive profile of what is on the ground currently.
The second is to ask firms to be very intentional about development opportunities and relationship-building. This may mean changes at some law firms where mentoring is less formal, but Grey noted, “Often it’s like we throw people into the deep end and tell them to start swimming.”
Third, LCLD recommends intra-firm partnerships, entailing a team approach to representation. The teams offer an excellent opportunity for
in-depth training and expertise enhancement.
Finally, “the pipeline” is critical to retaining a diverse work force. By this Grey meant not just ensuring that law school graduates reflect the diverse population, but that the pathways to success are brought “to scale” and best practices are spread around.
Grey said that the onus is not solely on firms, but that minority and women attorneys must grab hold of all opportunities that come their way and act in partnership with their firms. He concluded by focusing on the diverse nature of clientele, which mandates meeting that with diverse legal representation as a sure route to legal firm success.
The second keynote speaker at the Diversity Roundtable offered a very different perspective on the status of women in the legal profession.
Cynthia Thomas Calvert is co-director of the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR), which combines a strong research component with very practical recommendations for retaining diverse attorneys.
PAR focuses on work-life balance issues and strategies for the advancement of women.
Calvert started out by saying that, although law schools are doing a great job in graduating female students, and law firms and corporate legal departments are meeting that with better hiring rates than in the past, but part of the reason there are not more women in leadership positions at law firms is that retention rates are not good.
She said that 78% of female associates have left by their fifth year, and by eight years after hiring, 98% of women of color have moved on.
Calvert emphasized the need for flex time, which PAR discovered through direct research and a high-level team of strategizers would be key in retention. Most of her presentation discussed moving “Balanced Hours” forward. She said this would benefit not only women who were primary caregivers, but also GenX/Gen Y upcoming lawyers who say they want to focus on a fuller life outside of their careers, and baby boomers who may be taking care of aging adults.
She feels flexible Balanced Hour programs remove the stigma of working part-time, as well as the potential for being overlooked on high-level cases. Technology has helped move this idea forward, provided participants are flexible about client contact.
A panel of three local corporate attorneys responded to the presentations. Mary Fair-Matthews, Corporate Counsel at Kellogg, remembered when she was at a law firm which gave out assignments at 6:30, before she could arrive from dropping off her children. The General Counsel for Whirlpool Corp., Daniel Hopp, said that he welcomed the new ideas Grey and Calvert had presented, and talked with gratitude about mentors he had encountered, including women of color.
Beth O’Shaughnessy, who is currently at Steelcase, said she often goes into preparation for such presentations thinking she will be proud of her profession, but is humbled by the story told by the numbers. She feels it is a critical juncture for those in the legal profession to take very seriously their pledges to promote diversity.
The Grand Rapids Bar Association (616-454-5550) is always looking for additional members of its Diversity Committee, which hosted the March 9 roundtable, along with a number of sponsors, including Champions Miller Johnson, Steelcase Inc., Varnum, and Warner Norcross & Judd LLP.