Step onto the floors of any major retailer. Both behind the counter and in the aisles are people of many races, transcending age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability. More than any other industry, the retail sector depends on diversity to ensure that its products and offerings match customer needs.
While retailers across the country have discovered the importance of reflecting customer diversity on the selling floor, it is not so readily apparent that diversity is a priority behind the scenes as well. But across retail management ranks, including the legal departments, efforts to diversify are indeed being championed to expand the successes already seen at point of purchase.
Retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Co. (Sears) and specialty retailer Gap Inc. have both taken major steps to position themselves as industry leaders in embracing diversity within all areas of business, and specifically within their legal departments.
Sears, Roebuck and Co.—Maintaining its Diversity Advantage
Sears is the largest U.S. department store chain, employing approximately 250,000 people in the United States and Canada. Ranked number 32 on the Fortune 500 list, the company operates more than 2,300 Sears-branded and affiliated stores in the United States and Canada. As with most large retailers, Sears operates in some of the nation's most densely populated areas, and as such, the diversity of the communities it serves is reflected throughout the company's workforce.
The vision for diversity is just as focused at Sears' legal operations. General Counsel Andrea Zopp heads the organization's legal staff of approximately 160, which includes 65 lawyers. For the past year, she has managed a team that is responsible for all legal services of the company, including day-to-day operational and regulatory issues, employment, litigation, contracts, and compliance. According to Zopp, Sears' diversity efforts are driven primarily by the company's desires—and her own—to have a diverse workforce within the overall company. Sears has had a long standing commitment to diversity and has employed a variety of efforts, both externally and internally, aimed at advancing that commitment. "In the law department, we simply are living that commitment. Our goal is to ensure that we hire the best lawyers and we have a diverse group of lawyers internally and externally. That is very consistent with where Sears has been," says Zopp.
Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Scott Becker handles outside legal counsel hiring, and heads up the organization's outside counsel diversity program. According to Becker, one of the organization's top business priorities is "to build, leverage, and value a diverse high-performance team." As important as diversity is to the company internally and in the marketplace, it is equally so in the hiring practices of outside counsel.
"Our goal is to ensure that we hire the best lawyers and we have a diverse group of lawyers internally and externally. That is very consistent with where Sears has been."
General Counsel, Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Recently, the department began reviewing outside counsel with whom they do business to ensure that not only are the firms themselves diverse, but that they are also developing and implementing effective diversity practices. While some companies weigh the results of their diversity efforts by measuring the number of hours diverse attorneys bill to their matters, Sears looks at the lawyers who actually manage the corporation's legal matters. For Sears, the rationale is that although a firm can have a minority "running a lot of the discovery," inclusiveness is not ultimately being promoted if the lawyers involved are not actually managing the cases for the business.
It is important to Sears that, in doing business with large majority-owned firms, the organization's work be handled by a team of diverse attorneys. This strategy impacts the hiring decisions of outside counsel. In small towns where small firms handle many litigation cases for Sears, initiatives of this type encourage firms to hire women and people of color to do the company's work. "We have told them how important this initiative is to Sears, and since they value us and our work, it is an incentive for them to go out and recruit minorities," Becker explains. "It makes them take a long, hard look at themselves. By focusing on who's actually managing the work, what we are doing is encouraging firms to go out and try to hire, and in many instances, promote and retain the diverse attorneys that they have," Becker adds. While this initiative is still in the early phase of its rollout, Becker has seen several success stories and, in some instances, has even seen firms offering partnerships to minorities due to their work with Sears.
Internally, Sears works to promote diversity through the Chairman's Diversity Advisory Council, along with a company wide collective of associate networks—including a women's network and a network for the disabled—all directed at promoting acceptance of a more inclusive workplace. The legal department also works very closely with their partners in human resources to continually reach a diverse audience, and is active within MCCA® and other legal organizations to boost those efforts. While Becker believes there is still more work to be done, he feels confident that the legal department has the right strategy in place that will enable it to be positioned as an industry leader on the issue.
Ultimately for Sears, diversity in the legal department is about improving the quality of representation at the corporation. Making the case for diversity with the law firms that represent the organization essentially provides a higher quality of legal representation for the company and its shareholders. "By promoting diversity in outside firms, we are promoting diversity of thought and perspective, and ultimately, improving the quality of our representation," Becker adds. "It's about the quality of representation as much as anything else. The two go hand in hand: firms which promote diversity provide a higher level of service," Becker concludes.
Gap Inc.—Demonstrating its Top Driven Commitment to Inclusiveness
Gap Inc. is one of the world's largest specialty retailers with three of the most recognized and respected brands in the apparel industry—Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Employing more than 150,000 individuals and operating about 3,000 stores worldwide, Gap Inc.'s eye-catching, fresh, innovative marketing messages are created to resonate with the diverse populations the company serves. Headquartered in the eclectic San Francisco Bay Area, this creativity is reflected within all units of the organization, including its legal department.
When it comes to addressing the retail needs of its consumer base, Gap Inc.'s legal department feels a shared responsibility to ensure that the messages sent to customers are not only appropriate, but that they serve to promote an open and inclusive community. Led by General Counsel Lauri Shanahan, diversity in the legal department, and within the company as a whole, is viewed as much more fluid and wide-ranging today than in the past. Shanahan believes that the legal department's success is directly attributable to building and leveraging a diverse team that is reflective of its customer base and which views diversity as a key imperative to functioning as a world-class department.
The company's legal team of approximately 80 employees is committed to having and maintaining an inclusive workforce that embraces all definitions of diversity. Wilma Wallace, associate general counsel, vice president of legal, government affairs and environmental affairs, explains, "Diversity is something we certainly value and look for while recruiting candidates. At Gap Inc., we define diversity broadly—from a traditional to a more unconventional definition. But even by traditional calculations, we have a diverse team. We have and value diverse perspectives and approaches to work and lifestyle as well as diverse ethnic backgrounds, gender, and sexual preferences."
Having a diverse team is one of the department's top goals, and Shanahan believes its priority sends a strong message. "To the extent your workforce reflects the diversity of your potential or existing customer base, the far more likely you are to be successful," says Shanahan. "Having a diverse legal department that really understands the company's businesses gives us the ability to impact beyond the strict legal traditional approach. If you have a department that brings diverse perspectives to the table, whether you're dealing with marketing, design, or operations, that input can be channeled and used in a way to benefit the ultimate customer experience."
Increasingly, Gap Inc. is devoting efforts and resources to maximize the value of being in a diverse community. Every member of the legal staff is held accountable and is charged with seeking to promote a diverse environment. Diversity issues are no longer seen as separate and discussed as special concerns. Shanahan believes that having a diverse team is also fundamental to providing superior legal support because it allows for differing perspectives and approaches to evaluating and analyzing risk, particularly given the diversity of the operation's customer base. According to Wallace, "Having a diverse group of lawyers enabling the business provides us with a competitive edge, since the lens through which risks and opportunities are evaluated is itself multi-perspective."
"To the extent your workforce reflects the diversity of your potential or existing customer base, the far more likely you are to be successful."
General Counsel, Gap Inc.
As a priority objective of the legal department, employees are encouraged to support the department's diversity goals in a variety of ways, such as volunteering in the community or mentoring someone with a differing perspective. Also, the department makes a very assertive effort to utilize myriad channels that may bring diverse candidates to the pool, including various internal and external affinity groups and diverse bar associations. Department hiring managers are fully expected to proactively seek and develop a diverse pool of qualified candidates before hiring.
Shanahan stresses that diversity is also a key consideration in assessing and hiring outside counsel. Continuing to nurture and build relationships with minority-owned and women-owned firms, as well as with diverse attorneys in majority-owned firms, is another major push for the legal team. "This year we have been quite successful at reaching out and looking at some of the boutique firms across the country. It's something we work at all the time. And we have to draw the line in the sand and make it clear to our counterparts at some of the larger firms that this is something that is very important to Gap Inc.," Shanahan adds.
With an open acceptance of any sexual orientation, and a large number of females and many ethnicities represented, the department's makeup is as broad as its outlook, and the team constantly challenges itself to ensure that the diversity of the work environment is maintained. Wallace, who is optimistic about the department's future, feels proud to be associated with Gap Inc. "At the end of the day, I feel proud of the work that we have done, and I am extremely optimistic about the opportunities we see for improvement," she says. "Gap Inc. is very committed to diversity, which is demonstrated by the values we stand for and the progress we've made to date as a company," Wallace emphasizes.
When companies incorporate diversity into their business practices, they not only maximize their potential, but also solidify their stance within the business community, which on all fronts affords them a richer, creative, and more innovative result. Recognition of an inclusive workforce begins with a commitment from the top; sustainable diversity has to begin with leaders. These industry giants are setting the standards for many others to follow—once the "right" thing to do, diversity is now certainly the "smart" thing to do.
Donna Dick is a freelance writer based in Montclair, New Jersey.
From the March/April 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®