The Minority Corporate Counsel Association's Creating Pathways To Diversity: A Showcase On Progress

Monday, December 1, 2008 - 01:00

The Minority Corporate Counsel Association's 9th Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference was held on Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel. Among the extremely important programs taking place during this one-day event was a luncheon session on "Goals to Measure Success," which consisted of reports from a variety of MCCA working groups established in connection with the Call to Action initiative in 2004, followed by a spirited discussion between the panelists and its committed audience. The session dealt with the progress that has taken place since the Call to Action.

American Airlines, as sponsor of the luncheon, was represented by General Counsel Gary Kennedy, who noted that since the launch of the Call to Action initiative, more than 100 general counsel had pledged to pursue diversity in their legal departments and with their outside law firms. He went on to state that in April of this year the first General Counsel Call to Action Diversity Summit had showcased an unprecedented dialogue between industry leaders - general counsel at Fortune 500 companies and managing partners at the country's leading law firms - on how to create a sustainable plan to improve diversity in the profession. Four working groups, he noted, had resulted from the April conference - concerning recruitment, retention and advancement; the Call to Action at law firms and corporate legal departments; strategies for partnering between law firms and corporate legal departments; and goals by which to measure success. He noted we're now making progress reports to the MCCA membership as a whole. He described the overriding commitment as one to improve diversity in the profession, with a particular focus on the legal departments of corporate America and on the law firms that service these corporations, and he went on to provide an overview of each working group's mission:

1. The group concerned with recruitment, retention and advancement of lawyers from diverse backgrounds had a title that spoke for itself, he noted, but the sustainability of these efforts on a going-forward basis was not necessarily well understood. He pointed out that it was insufficient for a law firm or a corporate legal department to adopt a plan, however well drawn, and think that the issue had been addressed.

2. A unified Call to Action letter that worked at both law firms and corporate legal departments, he said, would not only serve to advance the overriding goal of advancing diversity in the profession but also enhance the communication that must take place between the two workplaces most vitally concerned - the legal departments of corporate America and the law firms that serve corporate America - if real progress was to occur.

3. The development of strategies for partnering between legal departments and their law firms, he said, was also vital if the effort were to proceed effectively and efficiently. He noted that pressure from within these entities was more essential to success than pressure brought from outside this particular arena.

4. Establishing clearly defined goals by which to measure success, he said, was vital to achieving success. The best of intentions, however well expressed, were not sufficient to sustain the efforts necessary to achieve real success - the absence of a need to pursue diversity as a goal because it was in place both permanently and in a sustainable way - but the perception of progress measured in terms of concrete goals achieved was capable of leading to such success, indeed, was necessary to such success.

Co-chairs of the session were A.B. Cruz, III, general counsel of the E.W. Scripps Company and Walfrido Martinez, managing partner, Hunton & Williams and formerly general counsel of Yahoo-North America. Participating on the panel were Samur Hamadeh, chief operating officer of Vaultcom, the career information media company whose products include the Vault database and guide to the leading 100 law firms in the country, and Stephen E. Picket, general counsel of Southern California Edison.

Mr. Cruz began his presentation by noting the essential nature of collaboration and cooperation across the profession - and between corporate legal departments and their outside law firms in particular - for any progress to occur in the diversity discussion. He noted that the Call to Action Diversity Summit had evidenced considerable progress, albeit difficult to quantify, on the part of both firms and legal departments in embracing, rather than merely recognizing, diversity as a core value. He went on to state that gathering metrics on a consistent basis was important in translating what everyone acknowledged as a meaningful value to something with real authority in the evolution of the discussion on meeting the challenges of diversity in the legal and, indeed, other professions. He noted two crucial goals for the working group on goals: identifying short-term and long-term goals to measure the progress of diversity and acting as an advisory voice in the evaluation of the data captured by the Vault, MCCA and other surveys.

He went on to note the multitude of firm diversity surveys in circulation, pointing out that they not only represented a multiplicity of effort but also raised the question as to whether the same things - or even the right things - were being measured. He added that it was important for general counsel to be perceived in the same light by their law firm counterparts as the law firm lawyers were by corporate counsel, as to which he posed the question: are corporate counsel requiring firms to do the same things they are requiring of themselves? He also highlighted geographic and practice area anomalies, and variations from industry to industry, that people should be aware of in assessing the data.

Mr. Cruz went on to discuss the importance of distinguishing qualitative and quantitative metrics. He noted the importance of the headcount, particularly in connection with assessing long-term progress, but he pointed out that a variety of pipeline issues, including recruitment and retention at both law firms and corporate law departments, could not be properly evaluated on the basis of the headcount alone. A similar discrepancy, he noted, existed between aspirations and more long-term goals, and the visible goals that were often more immediate in nature, and he pointed out that many law firms and corporate legal departments were at different points in the implementation of their diversity programs. He noted that, while momentum was good, this discrepancy was somewhat confusing and even misleading. The need for a baseline or benchmark period was obvious, he said, and as a consequence two subcommittees - one for law firms and the other for corporate legal departments - had been established on metrics in order to identify areas of concern within the organization that would enable us to ensure that the right things were being measured. Standardized law firm diversity metrics, he noted, would make some of the most subjective issues - such as law firm culture - capable of being addressed.

Mr. Hamadeh addressed the timeline underlying the evolution of the Vault database and guide to the leading 100 law firms in the country. He noted that the initial survey in 2004 constituted a rather modest project and was developed by a team put together by Veta Richardson, the executive director of MCCA, consisting of Jim Diggs, general counsel of PPG Industries, Tom Gottschalk, then general counsel of General Motors, Rick Palmore, then general counsel of Sara Lee Corporation and Gloria Santona, general counsel of McDonald's Corporation, together with a number of managing partners at major law firms. The 2005 edition, he said, was based on data through the end of 2004 and measured data on minority men, minority women and white women. The following year GLBT attorneys were added, and the survey was distributed in CD-ROM format in addition to a print version. He added that the 2007 edition was available only in CD-ROM format and included attorneys with disabilities and other physical challenges. He also noted that much of the data included in the current edition was also available on the MCCA and the Vault websites. The latest edition, he pointed out, included a website searchable database upgraded to coordinate with the General Counsel Call to Action Diversity Summit held in April of this year. He indicated that the working team had determined to add a number of qualitative questions to the survey, drop several quantitative questions and begin to collect data on associates and partners by racial breakdown rather than collect only total minority data, and he went on to state that a searchable database of the new data would be available by mid-December of this year.

Mr. Hamadeh went on to review the survey's participation, which, over the four years the survey had been underway, consisted of approximately 200 law firms reflecting Vault's Top 100 Most Prestigious Firms and The American Lawyer's list of the nation's 200 largest-grossing firms. He noted the excellent participation on the part of the Vault 100 and the Amlaw 200, and stated that an effort had been made to bring in an additional group, currently totaling 99 firms, in the small and midsize category. He said that Bank of America had been particularly helpful in this regard, having gotten some 20 of their outside firms to participate.

The open discussion that followed addressed a number of important questions. As to an overview of the diversity landscape, there appeared to be general consensus that limited improvement was underway but that considerably more work was needed. It was noted that diversity among the non-equity ranks at law firms was improving faster than diversity among the equity group, and that this was not necessarily a negative development. With respect to a question on demographic breakouts, the response was that the categories utilized in most law firm diversity surveys followed the categories utilized by the EEOC and the Census Bureau and that it was easier to get firms to participate if a survey were limited to these categories. It was also pointed out that most firms did not collect data on their attorneys with disabilities or openly GLBT attorneys. It was noted, however, that with an increase in interest on the part of law students in diversity generally and in a variety of diversity categories in particular, together with the gradual increase in the number of firms participating in the Vault database and guide, the willingness of law firms to collect data beyond that requested by the EEOC and the Census was improving.

The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel salutes MCCA for its extraordinary efforts in advancing the discussion on diversity in the legal profession. We look forward to the next Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, scheduled for November 11, 2009, when we anticipate hearing of the substantial progress made on the universal adoption of the Vault/MCCA surveys for law firms and on standards for holding firms and corporate legal departments accountable for the implementation of best practices with respect to diversity.