Small Departments Achieve and Influence Diversity
You've just accepted a position as general counsel for a company you admire. You plan to utilize diversity best practices – such as formal mentoring programs, professional skills development, culture and environment surveys, and 360-degree feedback processes – to recruit and retain minority lawyers for your law department. Then you meet your staff of attorneys. All four of them. Now what?
While much of today's diversity research and resultant best practices seem better suited to medium and large departments, even small departments – no matter what their budget and size restrictions – can play a part in developing and maintaining a diverse legal profession. Although small departments face a unique set of challenges when advocating for diversity, creativity, determination, and persistence can go a long way.
Size is, of course, a major consideration for many small departments. "I'd love to be able to reach the point where diversification is a goal," says Eunice Lin Bumgardner, vice president and general counsel of The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) and vice chair of the American Corporate Counsel Association's (ACCA) Small Law Department Committee. "But with only one lawyer in the department, my main priority is, of necessity, how do I get the work that needs to be completed done with 24 hours in a day?"
Rarely, an opportunity arises to build a small law department from scratch, as it did for IKON Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Don H. Liu. "When I got here in 1999," relates Mr. Liu, "I was able to create my own department because the old department had been outsourced." Mr. Liu immediately expressed aggressive diversity expectations that he related, repeatedly, to recruiters until he received a cross-section of highly skilled, diverse candidates.
Sunoco General Counsel Mike Kuritzkes faced a more common scenario: His department was already comprised of skilled attorneys when he came on board, and openings were far and few between. Still, Mr. Kuritzkes and his department members are diligent about cultivating relationships with a number of diversity-related sources. "Even if we don't have an immediate opening to diversify, we build that network," says Mr. Kuritzkes. "When an opportunity arises, we can focus on people our attorneys know or people we've gotten to know and have a bit of a relationship with."
Generally, it takes months for a position to open in a small department, making diversification a slow-growth scenario. When a position demands specialization, as do many in-house positions in small departments, it can be difficult to obtain a diverse selection pool through traditional channels. In-house counsel within small departments do not have the same levels of supervision that large departments or government positions benefit from, making experience imperative.
One creative solution small departments have found effective reinforces Sunoco's precedent: develop non-traditional recruiting efforts such as alliances with minority bars and women's organizations. Sunoco's Wanda Flowers, an active member of several bar associations, notes that women's organizations have been effective in pairing women lawyers with women mentors, a sound strategy for small departments seeking diversity. Utilizing non-traditional channels, small departments increase their chances of finding candidates that satisfy diversity goals without sacrificing business needs.
Small departments committed to improving diversity also expend significant energy on external efforts. For others, the result is almost incidental. "When I started at the BNA, the outside counsel we used were mostly white male attorneys," says Ms. Bumgardner. "Now, however, they're almost all females." The change occurred gradually over the years after Ms. Bumgardner's work and professional affiliations brought her in contact with skilled women attorneys that suited her department's needs better.
Other department's efforts are structured into their standard recruitment and retention of outside counsel. For example, IKON sends an annual letter to each outside counsel requesting the firm's demographics, hours of work done by women and people of color on IKON's account as well as others, and the names of diverse employees able to work on the department's projects. "We want to see if they are placing women and minorities on our projects, or simply saying they have diversity while not assigning minorities to our business," Mr. Liu says.
For the most part, firms respond favorably, readily supplying the requested information. Occasionally, however, firms have indicated a marked lack of interest in supporting diversity, says Mr. Liu, an attitude seemingly bolstered by larger clients' disinterest. Upon further inquiry, some firms admitted to a general sense that if big departments, which constitute a larger piece of business for most outside counsel, fail to push the issue, then diversity must be of lesser importance.
The finding doesn't stop small departments from exerting pressure on retained firms to increase their diversity numbers and commitment, and with considerable success. However, some general counsel also take it upon themselves to speak openly with other general counsel about their companies' position on diversity. Mr. Kuritzkes and Mr. Liu have sponsored such sessions. "Emotionally and mentally most are supportive," says Liu, "but if it disrupts their day-to-day work and requires extra effort on their end, they back away….They don't truly understand the benefit of diversity."
According to DiversityInc.com, this selective blindness is common throughout the corporate world. Despite the country's shifting demographics, the majority of corporations continue to be headed by white male leaders and a non- diverse workforce. They fail to recognize the substantial loss of potential business of new customers in a rapidly growing and diversifying market.
The Selig Center for Economic Growth projects that in 2007, the combined spending power of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans will total over $2 trillion. (Jeffrey M. Humphreys, "The Multicultural Economy 2002," Georgia Business and Economic Condition). Stated bluntly, companies staunchly refusing to take diversity seriously stand to lose significant money. According to our interviewees, this information, when imparted by general counsel, is enlightening to other leaders and can influence change, particularly when combined with personal experiences from one who has benefited from diversity in their own departments.
Our interviews revealed three key things: First, that small departments can be as determinedly dedicated to advocating diversity as any legal office, if not more so. Second, that in order to be successful, small departments must approach the situation differently than their larger counterparts. Third, that small departments confront diversification from numerous angles to overcome the myriad challenges they face.
If your small department has the desire to implement diversity practices but not the know-how, start with these guidelines:
- Get senior management's support. Senior management's actions tell employees whether a corporation is serious about diversity. Having management's support, even if the CEO is not directly involved, is integral to the success of any diversity endeavor. Have a heart-to-heart talk with your CEO to gain his or her input and endorsement of achievable diversity goals. "Most CEOs are probably already interested, but haven't had the time to implement formal changes," says Mr. Liu. He or she may appreciate your initiative on the issue.
- Develop diversity metrics that are specific to your department. Diversity metrics are quantitative and qualitative measures of diversity and its impact, which help to translate business strategy into action by measuring the financial and non-financial value of diversity within a department. According to Metrics for Success: Measurement in Diversity Initiatives, Creating Pathways to Diversity® by MCCA, contrary to popular belief, metrics can be designed for small departments. They help you with all aspects of your department's diversity initiatives and provide methods that you can use to track your department's progress.
- Broaden your networks. Perform outreach through your current employees. Utilize the skills of an experienced diversity manager or your Human Resources department. Demand diverse candidates from recruiters. Actively participate in organizations that advocate diversity. All of these actions will serve to diversify your hiring pool and give your diversity program a better chance for success when an opportunity arises.
- Encourage diversity with outside counsel. Make outside counsel aware of your commitment to diversity. Request annual reports from each firm to encourage them to increase their diversity numbers and commitment and keep these reports on file for review. Also, track the amount of money you spend with minority and women outside counsel. "Often we track these ourselves and calculate spending when we do billing," says Mr. Kuritzkes. "Other times we get the firms to track these hours."
- Speak openly with other general counsel. It's important to have candid discussions with others in the industry to help them understand the value-added aspect of diversity. Remind them that diversity enhances a company and improves its ability to serve its clients' needs by bringing different perspectives into the fold. The bottom line is that it is in a company's best economic self-interest to diversify, and that makes it worth talking about.
Alea J. Mitchell worked for MCCA as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan. She is now the features editor for Diversity & the Bar® magazine.
From the May/June 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®