Rodney Martin, Warner Norcross’s Diversity and Inclusion Partner
by Cynthia Price
Because he believes so strongly in the work he does on diversity and inclusion, it is sometimes difficult to track whether Rodney Martin is talking about his own firm, Warner, Norcross and Judd; the Grand Rapids/Kent County area; or the state of Michigan.
Martin’s effectiveness is furthered by his recognition that such arbitrary divisions often may not further the quest to increase the number of women, people of color, and other currently under-represented individuals in the legal profession.
The latest developments along Martin’s path are his appointment to the newly-constituted State Bar of Michigan Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, and the release of Warner Norcross’s annual diversity and inclusion report.
Immediate Past President of the State Bar of Michigan (SBM), Tony Jenkins, had appointed a special presidential advisory committee on diversity and inclusion during his 2010-2011 term. Jenkins also encouraged firms to adopt the “Pledge to Achieve Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession in Michigan.” At the 2010 SBM annual meeting held in Grand Rapids, signers from around the state joined Warner, Norcross and Judd and the Grand Rapids Bar Association, who as early adopters had already signed on.
Now the SBM Board of Commissioners has made the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee an official standing committee of the State Bar. The Board of Commissioners charged the committee, working with SBM Director of Diversity Gregory Conyers, to:
—review concepts and ideas to recommend to SBM leadership, including how to measure progress if recommendations are adopted;
—provide guidance to SBM groups and committees, including the Diversity Project Workgroup of the Equal Access Initiative, in seeking more signatories to the Pledge;
—identify tools and strategies to assess diversity and inclusion in the Michigan legal community in order to determine a direction for improvement and how to measure that as well;
—develop ways to recognize best practices and exceptional achievements; and
—assist Conyers and other SBM leaders and staff members with communicating to Bar members.
Martin’s term of service on the advisory committee is three years. Joy Fossel, Varnum’s Diversity Partner, will serve a one-year term but, as Conyers points out, the initial appointments were made for different lengths of time so the terms may be staggered. “That doesn’t mean she can’t be reappointed when her year is up,” Conyers commented.
Grand Rapids attorney Rob Buchanan, who is on the SBM Board of Commissioners, will also serve for one year, and he — along with Martin — was part of the presidential advisory committee.
Martin says that that committee, which was smaller than the current one, decided to focus on acquiring baseline data to get a clear picture of demographics around the state. The group undertook survey work, now in the process of compilation by a consultant.
Martin acknowledges that numbers are of overriding importance, especially in tracking progress, but adds, “If your only focus is on numbers, then you’re missing out on real inclusion.”
It becomes clear from listening to Martin speak that people are what matters, which is evidenced in Warner Norcross’s just-released 2011 Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report.
In addition to offering statistics, the report tells the stories of selected Warner Norcross attorneys: one who is openly gay, one whose parents were immigrants, one who is an African-American activist, and several women who are in leadership positions in the firm. Putting a real face on the inclusion effort creates an entirely different impact from the recitation of numbers.
How does Martin define diversity versus inclusion? He quotes consultant Verna Meyers: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
In the report, Martin talks about taking a leadership role in high school when he was part of the 25% white minority at Flint Northwestern High School. When friction between the races began to escalate, Martin was chosen to undergo training so he could go into segregated elementary schools and prepare students to handle tensions as they entered the integrated middle and high schools. “We were a really troubled school. I had an opportunity to get training in how to bridge the gaps and build communications at all different levels between groups.”
But Martin traces the real root of his belief in equality and inclusion to his parents. Even when the family moved out of Flint to a larger home, his parents paid tuition so that he could continue at Flint Northwestern, which he really wanted to do. “My parents were, I think, very special in that they were deeply religious but they were always willing to look at their beliefs. My father was from the South and they started out the 1960s being very conservative, but they paid attention to the Civil Rights movement and they challenged themselves.
“They left the all-white church we went to over an incident where a deacon used the N word, and found a racially integrated church to attend. And that was just part of the journey my parents were on.
“They were great role models.”
The lessons his parents taught him were put on the back burner as he “studied very hard” at Kalamazoo College with its high academic standards. He did work with Hispanic migrant workers while there, and graduated magna cum laude.
He spent the next several years studying law at University of Michigan Law School, from which he also graduated magna cum laude, and building a career in banking and banking compliance law. He currently chairs the firm’s Financial Services Practice Group.
His parents’ lessons resurfaced when Warner Norcross Managing Partner Doug Wagner appointed Martin Diversity and Inclusion Partner in 2006.
But numbers are important and can tell a story. At Warner Norcross it is a good one: since the beginning of 2006, 17% of the associates and 14% of the lateral partners and senior counsel Warner has hired have been persons of color; 58% of new associates and 31% of the laterals have been female.
Even more important, in an effort that Martin says “can sometimes amount to a revolving door,” Warner has tripled the average tenure of associates of color and increased that of females by 50%. The firm has instituted a number of effective best practices to increase its retention numbers.
Acknowledging that retaining good attorneys is critical to achieving real inclusion, Martin has facilitated the Retention Committee of the Grand Rapids Bar’s Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative. The group’s final report will be released soon, and Martin was impressed how quickly the partners acted. “It’s been really exciting to see the managing partners come together to take on this challenge,” Martin says. “After the report we’ll all have to keep working on this together, including community members outside the legal profession.
“This is not an issue that’s going to get solved in a day or a week or a month,” Martin concludes. “It takes time and it takes patience.”