(Standing L to R) Carl Cooper, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, LLP and Lawrence E. Abbott, Abbott, Simses & Huchler. (Sitting) Susani Dixon, Hollard & Hart.
It's the dream of countless law students: the high-paying associate position at a prestigious law firm. And the dream doesn't stop at year one. Ask almost any law student, male or female, Asian, Hispanic, African-American, and nearly all plan to devote years of long hours, sweat, and sacrifice to reach the brass ring of partnership or a coveted corporate legal position. But somewhere along the way for minorities, particularly minority women, that dream dies.
Research has shown that when it comes to reaching the pinnacle of legal success, women and minorities continue to lag behind their white male counterparts. Without the right opportunities to succeed and firm-wide sensitivity to diversity issues, women and minorities will continue to fall behind the curve.
Over the years, there have been numerous reports on the diversity challenges faced by law firms. In 2003, firms still face the same struggles and challenges of prior decades. Many fail to realize that having strong diversity numbers can boost profits, and they continue to use outdated modes to evaluate and recruit incoming attorneys. Additionally, attorneys continue to experience the "revolving door," where diversity at the associate level is not reflected in senior management, and they witness high levels of attrition among both women and minorities who are seeking a more welcoming working environment and a better quality of life (see the sidebar "Barriers to Success" in this article).
What has changed, though, are the number of well-known firms taking unprecedented steps to overcome these and other hurdles. The four firms selected for this spotlight have made notable strides: Abbott, Simses & Kuchler; Holland & Hart LLP; Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP; and Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal.
From hiring diversity officers and listening to women shareholders, to working with other firms to affect change throughout the region, these firms are stepping outside of the norm, displaying an unprecedented level of commitment and new strategies for achieving diversity.
Abbott, Simses & Kuchler
The key to Abbott, Simses & Kuchler's effective diversity programming is deceptively simple—a highly involved senior partnership. More than 15 years ago, senior partner and managing director Lawrence E. Abbott communicated his desire that the firm focus on hiring and retaining women attorneys in response to the changing demographics of the nation and industry.
His peers also recognized the intrinsic value of such a move. "We did not want to be an all-male, stereotypical firm," states Abbott. "That felt very unnatural."
The firm currently boasts 48 percent women attorneys, 29 percent minority attorneys, and 43 percent women equity shareholders. Minority associates continue to outpace the firm's overall growth rate. Women and minorities hold key management roles on important dockets in the firm.
And while none of the firm's shareholders are minorities, current retention and development programs aimed at growing minority attorneys will rectify this in the future.
As the firm's diversity focus has evolved and matured, support from senior partnership remains unflagging. The partnership, for example, consciously considers the overall diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and personalities when assembling teams. "The firm places a high importance on ensuring that all teams are diverse," says Abbott, "so as to avoid a myopic approach to defending our clients."
Shareholders also commit significant funding so that firm employees may attend networking functions that are geared toward minorities and women. This year alone, attorneys were able to participate in the Diversity Symposium in Houston, the National Bar Association's conference in Miami, the Dupont Women's Conference in Wilmington, the MCCA® midwest programs in Chicago, and the upcoming Magnolia Bar Association's Annual Meeting in Biloxi.
In 2002, the firm created a formal diversity committee, chaired by an African-American female attorney, in which the firm's shareholders work alongside associates to advance the firm's diversity goals. "The committee is responsible for educating the firm's employees regarding diversity as a management principle," says Abbott, "and for developing diversity initiatives that broaden the firm's outlook with regard to the litigation practice, client base, the profession, and community involvement."
In addition to a clearly involved and supportive partnership, the firm takes a number of steps to develop and retain associates, often putting them in leading roles on critical dockets. "As an associate, Michele Allen, who is now a partner, was a coordinator of a major client's asbestos docket in Texas," says Abbott. "She also coordinated the firm's defense of another major client on a large products' liability docket." All associates are given direct contact with the firm's clients, and are also directly involved in marketing efforts.
Associates are regularly recognized and given credit for excellence in their achievements. The relative smallness of the firm ensures constant informal feedback between shareholders and associates. "We also conduct six-month and yearly evaluations wherein there is an open dialogue about the progress of the attorney and the firm," added Abbott.
The firm makes a concerted effort to produce gender-neutral and bias-free evaluations. Since 1998, the firm has utilized The Fair Measure Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations, a guide that sets forth concrete methods for eliminating bias from the attorney process.
The firm's well-rounded approach, which also includes recruiting at diversity job fairs and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a scholarship for a third-year minority law student, and a sexual harassment and discrimination committee, has paid off. Additionally, the commitment from the top, which started more than 15 years ago, will continue to position Abbott, Simses & Kuchler for achieving even greater diversity success.
Holland & Hart LLP
Susani Dixon is a whirlwind of energy, ideas, and drive—qualities that are the perfect complement to Holland & Hart's extensive and ever-evolving diversity efforts. She joined the firm as a practicing attorney in 1984, becoming the director of diversity and professional development in the late 1990s.
As such, Dixon votes on the associates committee (which reviews performance, salary, and evaluations), the recruitment committee, and the lateral hires committee. She serves as a link to ensure that issues impacting women, attorneys of color, and other diverse groups are always considered. "I constantly raise the issues of diversity, and keep them at the forefront of each committee's mind as a way of getting attorneys of color more work, skills, and opportunities," says Dixon. The position marks a remarkable step in overcoming diversity challenges.
Holland & Hart started concentrating on diversity as far back as the early 1970's—a full decade before most firms. "The leadership of the firm in the 60's and 70's— such as Steve Hart and Bob Connery—was always receptive to diversity matters," states Peter Houtsma, head of the diversity committee. "In the early 70's, the firm's focus revolved around the recruitment and retention of women, though nothing was formalized."
It wasn't until 1989 that the management committee, headed by William McClearn, decided to take a more focused approach to achieving a diverse workforce.
That year, the firm established a mentoring program in which minority associates were assigned to partners— not just supervisors—who met with them monthly to determine how minority associates were doing. The program served a dual purpose, offering associates important personal relationships and professional development support while simultaneously providing critical information on the high attrition of minorities.
Also in 1989, the firm formed the diversity committee, charged with assessing the firm's past efforts and determining how to recruit, hire, and retain minorities.
Through the committee and Dixon, the firm's recruiting strategies have expanded greatly. "We don't get a flood of minority applicants because of the area we are in, so we outreach," says Managing Partner Edward Flitton, who works with Dixon and Houtsma in planning and implementing initiatives. The firm uses its membership with a number of bar associations as a resource when recruiting, and attends job fairs nationwide. It also hosts a reception in Washington, D.C. (to which minority law students throughout the metro area are invited), and they bring minority law students to the firm for a dinner reception to informally discuss the practice of law.
Holland & Hart also participates with other firms in the Denver region in a summer clerkship program to introduce minority law students to the industry.
Holland & Hart's professional development efforts are no less comprehensive than its recruitment strategies. Dixon monitors the assignment of attorneys of color to supervisors who have a vested interest in the success of the firm's diversity. "I also do spot checks where I speak with the associates throughout our regional offices," says Dixon. "I always include all associates of color, and check to see how they're doing, if they need anything, and if they are getting exposure in their area of expertise."
Dixon's tireless efforts have worked almost too well. "We're now a prime candidate for 'cherry-picking,'" laughs Dixon. "Other firms wait until after we train associates, then offer them more money and steal or 'cherry-pick' them!"
By the time this article is published, Dixon will have been married. Her wedding took place on June 7th, and she is planning a move to Houston, Texas with her husband, Nick Clayton. Although she has not accepted a position yet, Dixon expects that she will continue her work in the area of law firm diversity. Her successor at Holland & Hart has not yet been named. Holland & Hart has retained a consultant to assist with a reorganization of its recruitment and professional development services in order to further strengthen the recruiting and retention of all attorneys, including diverse attorneys.
Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP
"There are [diversity] issues that our management isn't always aware of—no matter how vigilant we are. When you are a leader, that's heartbreaking, because it implies that you aren't sufficiently sensitive to understand it," says Management Committee Chairman Peter Kalis of the firm's decision to appoint its first full-time diversity officer. "I feel that I could stay in the position I am in now for many years and never be as smart as I was when I hired Carl Cooper."
Carl Cooper joined Kirkpatrick & Lockhart as its chief diversity officer in January 2003, participating on the management committee level and reporting directly to the firm's chairman.
In 1998, the firm had developed a diversity committee to further its diversity efforts. Paul Sweeney, an African- American, is the managing partner of the firm's L.A. office and serves as the committee's chair. The group focused on such issues as recruitment, retention, and firm-wide visibility and involvement in programs.
Over a four-year period, it made several strides—the minority attorney population grew from 25 to 69, and women attorneys grew from 140 to 243. Minority partners also rose from 0 to 5, and the firm currently has 30 female partners.
Yet, despite the dedication of Sweeney and the partnership, the work begged a full-time, trained diversity officer. In stepped Carl Cooper, an ex-law professor and Chair of the Opportunities for Minorities in the Legal Profession Committee of the Allegheny County Bar Association.
In just four months, Cooper laid down plans that will affect both the firm and every individual. After visiting each office to determine its status as it pertains to diversity goals, he discovered that the mentoring program is less than adequate for minority associates. "The program needs mentors who have a personal stake in the achievements of the associates," says Cooper, "mentors who will ensure that minority associates are given increasingly complex tasks, rather than grunt work, so that they can rise through the ranks." Subsequently, Cooper approached his former students, who are now partners at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, and asked them to be mentors to the minority attorneys. As he expected, almost all of them enthusiastically agreed.
Cooper also expanded recruiting efforts. For example, in addition to using the firm's traditional processes, he spoke with faculty from Harvard to Howard Schools of Law to ascertain likely minority candidates for the firm's summer associates program and internship positions.
In the area of client development, Cooper has begun implementing ideas on how to help minority lawyers forge relationships with clients. "We need to support and enable them to build a book of business," he explains.
Cooper also aims to address what he tags as 'pink ghetto-ization'—where women attorneys who take advantage of flex-time opportunities are robbed of partnership status and shuttled into indeterminate 'of-counsel' slots. "Women attorneys often work as many hours as men, even when telecommuting or working non-traditional schedules," says Cooper. "But because it's called 'part-time,' firms create a lower status for them."
More than anything, Cooper's raised status imbues the firm with renewed energy in its diversity efforts. Through Cooper, diversity is given utmost consideration on every level. "We wanted diversity elevated to the same level as our financial functions," says Kalis. "We thought of it as a defining issue rather than simply laudable." Cooper is therefore present for every policy-making decision, major discussion, and management committee meeting.
"I get messages daily [from partners] expressing appreciation for Carl's work," says Kalis. "There are a lot," he continues, "who don't know how to make a difference. It's less an issue of resistance and more about laying out a meaningful program that we can all buy into."
Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal
Earlier this year, Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal appointed partner John Childs as its first-ever diversity officer. The position marks a new chapter in the firm's diversity commitment, and is serving much like a pilot program in the Chicago office.
The first stage occurred five years ago, when Sonnenschein formalized its existing commitment to diversity by creating a diversity committee as part of its strategic planning. From this sprang smaller groups of lawyers within each office who have since worked independently to further the firm's diversity recruiting goals.
Though the system worked well, the firm recently decided to make a firmer commitment to diversity by installing an accountable diversity officer at its main office.
Within the firm, Caucasian women have made significant strides. In addition to strong representation at the firm—36 percent of all lawyers, 22 percent of all partners, and 51 percent of all associates—women hold leadership roles within such key committees as policy and planning, marketing, finance and legal development. "Within the last five years, the managing attorney or co-manager within each of our offices has been a woman," says Childs.
"Our success with attracting and retaining women lawyers," says Childs, "stems in part from the fact that 10 to 20 years ago we had a group of women capital partners—earlier than most—who then set out to attract more women."
The firm's track record with minorities is less absolute. For example, of Sonnenschein's incoming summer associates, 5 of 12 are minorities and the past two summer classes have boasted over 50 percent minorities. The firm participates in minority job fairs, minority hiring programs, and minority organizations. It helped found the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms, and hosts an annual reception sponsored by the Committee for Minority Law Students from the Chicago area.
Despite these noteworthy recruiting efforts, retention has been less successful. To date, minorities are 17 percent of all associates but only 3 percent of the firm's partners. "The firm has set a precedent in bringing in first-year minority associates," says Childs. "We now have a responsibility to ensure we retain the lawyers we have attracted." Childs aims to start here.
Through talks with minority partners, in just four months he identified that one of his first challenges will be to 'break' partners' tendency to utilize the same teams when a new case comes in, an act that often excludes minority lawyers. "I will also need to ensure that minorities are given real work, not just document review, by speaking with a partner directly or, when necessary, approaching the firm's manager when something isn't in line with the firm's diversity goals."
Childs is also working to expand the number of the firm's partners who are genuinely interested in minority mentoring. "There are three groups," he finds. "One group is actively supportive, another is too busy but is supportive nonetheless, and a third doesn't care. I hope to get more of the middle group into the first to increase the pool of potential minority mentors." To this end, Childs is considering consciousness-raising luncheons that feature speakers who talk about such issues as unspoken prejudice and the glass ceiling.
In line with the firm's goals, Childs will also focus on minority lateral hires. Already he has helped identify headhunters who specialize in minority hires.
Pending the success of Childs' efforts in the Chicago office, Sonnenschein hopes to roll out the diversity officer's responsibilities to encompass the firm's other eight offices.
MCCA will continue to follow the progress of these firms and the development of the role of diversity officers.
Alea Jasmin Mitchell worked for MCCA as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan University. She is now the featured editor for Diversity & the Bar® .
From the July/August 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®