Six years ago, corporate law departments began the dialogue of encouraging their outside counsel firms to make greater efforts toward the goal of increasing diversity in the legal profession. In 1998, BellSouth developed what has become known as "Diversity in the Workplace: A Statement of Principle" to promote diversity in the workplace. As of 2005, more than 500 chief legal officers have signed the statement. In 2004, another effort titled "A Call to Action: Diversity in the Legal Profession" was initiated by Roderick Palmore of Sara Lee to aggressively make decisions about law firms based on their diversity efforts and successes. While there have been advances in gender and racial diversity in the legal field, those gains remain marginal: Only 4.3 percent of partners in major U.S. law firms are lawyers of color, and only 17 percent are women.1
Law departments need to continue to shape their workforces to reflect the diversity of their customer base. The requirement that outside counsel join in this commitment should be as high of a priority as receiving top legal service from those firms. Recognizing that not all law firms may be fully convinced of the business case for diversity, law departments must not only communicate their commitment to inclusiveness but may also need to proactively assist their law firms toward this end—starting with words and then moving to action. Below are five strategies law departments can use to assist the diversity efforts of outside counsel.
1. Communicate the Corporate Committment. The general counsel should author a letter to all law firms that handle the majority of the law department's legal work. It should explain the overall corporate diversity policy as well as the law department's diversity philosophy. The correspondence should be sent to the relationship partner(s) and the managing partner of the firms. It is important that the general counsel explain why diversity is key to the law department and why it should be a high priority for any law firm that handles its work. Law firms will respond to a well-articulated business case for diversity. Law departments can build the business case by stressing the following:
- A diverse legal team approach offers the diversity and scope of legal views that your law department expects. Diversity of input, thought, and perspective provides innovative and creative problem solving and is essential to delivering excellent service to customers, clients, business units, and so forth.
- Diversity is necessary in a complex, global, and evolving world. Law firms and law departments that are diverse are more resilient and better able to withstand the challenges of today's multi-cultured business world.
- Inclusiveness helps break through stereotypes and assumptions.
- Diversity generates inclusiveness. Increasing lawyers of color helps build critical mass.
- Justice is best served when law practitioners reflect the face of the society.
2. Revise Outside Counsel Retention Policy. If you have not done so already, revise your department's outside counsel retention policies to include a diversity section and provide the new or modified section to your law firms. Here is an example:
The company desires to encourage and expand the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities within and among all law firms providing legal services. We wish to reflect the diversity of all of our customers, client base, and so forth. The law department of the company expects its outside counsel and legal vendors to include women and minority partners and associates when working on our matters. We require an annual utilization report updating progress toward increasing opportunities for women and minorities in the legal profession.
3. Share Your Strategies and Challenges. Law departments historically have been more successful than law firms in recruiting and retaining women and attorneys of color. More open and direct communication between law departments and law firms can be fundamental in improving diversity in the profession. Law departments should share their successful strategies with their law firms. Even if your department is not doing as well as it would like, share your department's hurdles and plans for meeting those challenges. If your department uses recruiters who specialize in providing a diverse candidate slate, or if your company participates in or sponsors minority job fairs, encourage your law firms to also become involved and utilize similar strategies.
Law departments should share internal demographic information annually. Explain to law firms why your department's numbers have improved or why they have not improved (for example, turnover, promotion of lawyers to other corporate positions, and so forth). Regularly "spotlight" all of your lawyers, including the minority attorneys who will be working with the law firm on your department's legal matters.
4. Require Annual Utilization and Demographic Summaries. Regularly ask law firms for their demographic information regarding partners/shareholders, senior associates, associates, and paralegals. Information should be broken out by total men, total women, minority men, and minority women. Demographic information should be provided "by matter" as well. Let the law firm know where you think improvement is needed. The following examples illustrate some effective ways major corporations are implementing this strategy:
- DuPont's law department asks firms in its Primary Law Firm Network to submit a self-critical analysis of what they have done in areas of interest to DuPont, including efforts to promote inclusiveness.
- Shell's legal department requires its key law firms to provide general demographic information about lawyers within the firm as well as those lawyers specifically working on matters for the company. Shell uses the information to evaluate the outside firms' overall diversity efforts and results, as well as the firms' commitment to utilizing women and people of color on Shell matters. Shell shares its evaluation with its firms on an annual basis and includes data (on an anonymous basis) informing the firms about how they compare to other Shell firms that billed a similar amount in the prior year.
- A firm's performance in the area of diversity is considered by Wal-Mart's law department when making outside counsel decisions. Recently, the company asked each of its top 100 law firms to submit a slate of candidates from which a relationship attorney would be selected. The slate had to include at least one lawyer of color and one female lawyer. The company's top firms are routinely requested to provide detailed information concerning diversity of lawyers and the firm's overall commitment to diversity.
5. Stroke of Genius. Law firms give the same reasons or excuses as to why their diversity demographics are not up to par: not enough qualified candidates, or inability to attract minority candidates. Corporate law departments must not continue to accept such excuses. Law departments must remind law firms that they are in the business of providing solutions and resolving difficult situations.
Law firms that understand why a diverse legal approach improves the scope as well as the quality of legal advice will take diversity initiatives much more seriously. General counsel and other law department decision makers are in the best position to set diversity standards as a necessary element in providing optimal legal service.
Virginia Grant is a senior consultant with legal management consultancy, Altman Weil, Inc., serving clients in the areas of organization, client satisfaction, custom benchmarking, strategic planning, and management structure.
- See "Women and Attorneys of Color at Law Firms—2004," National Association for Law Placement (NALP) at http://www.nalp.org/content/index.php?pid=253.
From the March/April 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®