Atlanta-based lawyers with a passion for diversity now have a local organization committed to the success of women and minority attorneys in law firms and corporations in the city. The Atlanta Legal Diversity Consortium (ALDC), which hosted its third symposium on diversity in April 2004, is an umbrella organization dedicated to enhancing diversity within the Atlanta legal community by supporting other groups' programs, creating new ones, and furthering the dialogue on the importance of diversity in law.
The ALDC's mission is "to connect everybody," explains the consortium's president, Tom Wardell, a senior partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Atlanta. "We reinforce those initiatives that need more muscle, more public relations, more support. We look for niche needs that others are not filling and try to find things that will enhance diversity initiatives already going on," emphasized Wardell.
The ALDC began life as a symposium on diversity. The group was founded by Wardell and Naomi McLaurin, a former dean of career services at Emory Law School who became ALDC's executive director in August 2003. McLaurin and Wardell realized their similar philosophies when they met in early 2002 during the Southern Regional Black Law Students Conference in Birmingham, Ala.
"Diversity benefits everyone," McLaurin says. "It's the 'right thing to do,' but it's also a business necessity in the legal community," she adds. "It's common now for clients to say, 'We are a diverse company, our customers are diverse, and we want companies that represent us to be diverse as well.'"
Wardell sees diversity in industrial terms. "Lawyers are trained to operate the gears of society. That means cutting new ones and junking the old ones," he explains. "We operate the engine room of society – if the people don't resemble the people on the boat, I'm not sure you can possibly have the right set of gears."
The two had dinner together and discussed how Emory might host a program on ways for the law profession to increase diversity. The first symposium took place a few months later.
The initial goal was to "take the pulse, do a status check of where we were in the process of driving more diversity into the legal community," Wardell remembers, adding that the approximately 30 participants were from large law firms in Atlanta. After a successful panel discussion on the subject, "It was very clear this concept was important and every year, we'd take a different set of snapshots on these issues."
The following year, the number of participants for the spring symposium doubled, and included more sole practitioners, law school professors, associates from small firms, and others. McLaurin and Wardell started talking about formalizing the program to create an organization that would oversee the symposium and other initiatives. At the 2003 symposium, about 15 participants expressed interest in being part of a steering committee.
In October 2003, the ALDC was incorporated. Its first program was a Communications Forum in December, which included 11 representatives from minority, majority, state and local bar associations to discuss the ALDC's objectives and how the groups could collaborate. And in January 2004, the ALDC board members – many of them original steering committee members – met for the first time.
Naomi McLaurin Bridging the Diversity Gap
After a career as an insurance claims representative, ALDC Executive Director Naomi McLaurin, who was previously dean of career services at Emory Law School, received her law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1989.
A North Carolina native, McLaurin says she has never personally experienced racism, but has always been sensitive to diversity. "As an African-American female, I did have the same types of challenges as any other minority would have, which stems from [lack of] opportunities," she explains, adding that she sought diversity in each firm she joined and often was called upon to help recruit minority attorneys.
McLaurin worked for a large labor and employment firm in Manhattan before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1991. After practicing at various law firms, including two minority-owned firms, she was named assistant director for diversity of Georgetown University's Law Center in 2000. She moved to Atlanta to work at Emory in 2001.
Today, there are more than 30 members of the Consortium, including law firms, bar associations, and corporations, as well as individuals (see sidebar). The 26-member board meets monthly to discuss upcoming programs, content for the website (www.aldcinc.org), marketing issues, and other matters. "That core group has its finger on the pulse of different groups, so there's a lot of cross pollination," says McLaurin. "These are very busy meetings."
While similar groups exist in Chicago, San Francisco, and a few other cities, the ALDC has a broader approach. "Most of those groups are formed around diversity in large law firms," Wardell explains. "We felt, especially given Atlanta is already a city of substantial numbers of professionals of color and is a draw city for graduates, we could and should reach beyond the large law firm universe."
The ALDC operates on a shoestring with no plans to grow its budget, gaining most of its $150,000 to $200,000 annually from memberships. Fees range from $1,500 for a corporation to $10 for a law student, and charter and lifetime memberships also are available. The consortium is able to keep its costs down because sponsors fund most programs, and printing, mailing, and other administrative costs are donated, as is office space.
McLaurin says the ALDC operates "on the kindness of members," including board member Andy Scott of Paul Hastings, who enlisted his firm to handle ALDC's incorporation pro bono, as well as its tax and corporate counsel needs. "Members recognize the need for this group exists and everyone wants to be part of it," McLaurin notes.
Among the ALDC's programs for 2004 are a summer associate's hotline for students seeking confidential advice and a September "8 Minute Mentoring" event, jointly sponsored with MCCA® and modeled after a program created by MCCA to bring potential mentors and mentees together for networking. Only a year old, the ALDC is already gaining national exposure by assisting with the programming for the American Bar Association's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity during the ABA convention in Atlanta in August.
A Diversity Leader
A 1966 graduate of Harvard Law School, Tom Wardell is a senior partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge in Atlanta. He is also a Montana native, who worked for several firms in Boston before becoming CEO of a tech company in the late 1980s. In 1993, he sold his company, retired, and moved to Atlanta, where he picked up where he left off in law and joined McKenna Long in 1994. He heads the firm's nationwide corporate practice group. He may be a white male, but diversity is in his blood, he says. "It comes out of the way my family lived and lives today," Wardell explains, citing his exposure growing up to his parents' commitment to the plight of American Indians and, as a married man, his adoption of racially diverse children. Promoting diversity "is part of the way I view my role as an American."
Over the long term, the ALDC plans to continue its work toward making Atlanta's legal community as diverse as possible, including perhaps some road trips to the nation's law schools to showcase Atlanta's legal community.
Wardell cites the ALDC's commitment to the Georgia Law School Consortium Fellowship Program, created by the Georgia Supreme Court to promote opportunities for educationally or financially disadvantaged students to prepare for law school. The ALDC is working with that program's staff to ensure that by spring 2005, it is fully funded and installed in Georgia's legal community. Another program the ALDC will continue to support is the State Bar of Georgia's "Georgia Diversity Program," which works to increase the retention of minority attorneys by consumers of legal services in the private and public sectors. "ALDC will go to any lengths to support these two critical programs," McLaurin says, adding that the consortium is assisting in getting more corporations involved.
If the early responses to the consortium's spring symposiums and other programs are any indication, the ALDC is sure to continue to gather support for its mission, McLaurin concludes. "Sometimes people need a reason to change. They need to be encouraged or prodded to 'do the right thing.' The legal community is slow to change, but it has to look at itself in terms of where we are and where we want to be in the future."
The following are the firms and organizations that make up the Atlanta Legal Diversity Consortium, as of mid-June 2004:
*Denotes Board of Directors Representation
From the July/August 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®