Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your background?
Robinson: I am with the National Minority Business Council - NMBC - an organization founded in 1972 for the purpose of supporting minority businesses and helping them to compete in the mainstream American corporate marketplace. I have worked in numerous capacities at the NMBC, but I have been the full time President and CEO since 1979.
Perkins: I have been with Weil, Gotshal & Manges since 2001. Prior to that time I was in the United States Army. I served in the Army for 23 years and retired as a Colonel. I was fortunate toward the end of my Army career to be assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point to direct the Center for Enhanced Performance, which is the largest performance enhancement facility in any university system in the country. While there, I also became involved in some of the major diversity challenges that the Academy and the Army faced with recruiting. I worked with the United States Army Recruiting Command and West Point's recruiting staff in their efforts to bring women and minorities into the Academy and the Army. I interviewed with Weil Gotshal in August 2001. With this background, I came to the firm as their first Diversity Manager.
Editor: The Army has been several steps ahead of the rest of society in advancing minorities and women.
Perkins: The Army has been a leader in integrating and then advancing women and minorities in the military. I would say that considerable work still remains to be done, in terms of inclusion, throughout our society.
Robinson: We have been engaged in this effort for a very long time, considering the fact that President Truman - who deserves a great deal of credit - started military integration in 1948.
Editor: Weil Gotshal has an enviable reputation for its diversity. This did not just happen. Would you tell us about the evolution of diversity at the firm?
Perkins: If you look at the history of Weil Gotshal, you will see that its sensitivity to diversity, and the basic sense of fairness that diversity demands, is part of its history. So it should be no surprise that the present leadership desires the firm to be a leader in terms of diversity in the legal profession. Our Chairman, Steve Dannhauser, and our Management Committee take diversity and inclusion very seriously. In 1992, Weil, Gotshal & Manges was the first firm in New York City to institute a firm-wide diversity training program and a formal diversity policy. This policy served as the initial model for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Diversity and inclusion training and the supplier diversity program are fundamental components of the Weil Gotshal diversity platform. The purpose of training is not only to increase awareness and understanding of workplace diversity, but also to develop concrete skills among our people that will facilitate enhanced productivity of, and communications among, all our employees. We remain committed to eliminating any barriers at the firm that may arise, or be perceived to arise, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability - indeed, any characteristics other than talent and hard work.
Editor: One of the principal elements to the firm's diversity program is its diversity-based vendor-purchasing program. What is the origin of this program?
Robinson: In 1991 the NMBC received a call from Steve Dannhauser. He invited us to meet with him to discuss what Weil Gotshal was doing in regard to minority development. What he proposed was the formalization of a minority purchasing program at the firm - a program that would encourage purchasing from minority-owned enterprises - and he asked for our help in this effort. We provided the firm with some guidance on policy direction, as well as a list of qualified minority-owned businesses. Among the steps taken by the firm at the time was the issuance of a statement by Mr. Dannhauser which announced the adoption by the firm of a policy of utilizing qualified minority- and women-owned concerns in its purchasing practices. The first area targeted concerned office supplies. Mr. Dannhauser believed that it was possible to get traction in that area and to take successes there into other areas. That, indeed, is what happened. A few years ago he spoke at the NMBC Annual Business Awards Luncheon, our principal fund-raising event, about this effort and about the pride he and his partners at the firm took in its success.
Perkins: That success derives, in no small part, from the leadership at the firm. Commitment from the top, taking the first steps to establish a policy and then following that up with actual implementation, is necessary to the success of any such program. Weil, Gotshal & Manges has a supplier diversity program that provides opportunities to establish business partnerships with minority- and women-owned businesses in the U.S. In 1991, the firm began to document the vendors with whom it did business, with the goal of creating new opportunities for vendors, including minority- and women-owned businesses. Since 1994, our per annum use of minority- and women-owned vendors has grown from $375,000 to more than $10 million. We are committed to press on in our quest to work with more minority- and women-owned vendors. We recognize the growth opportunities business diversity creates. I hasten to add that this program is not about handouts. It is about providing a fair opportunity for everyone to compete for the firm's business. That is, it is our obligation to see that the opportunity is there; it is up to the minority- or women-owned enterprise to then compete with everyone else for the business and to show that they can do the job.
Robinson: The law firm community has been somewhat reluctant to approach the diversity issue from this particular direction, that of minority- and women-owned suppliers and vendors. It is very much to the credit of Weil Gotshal and its Chairman, Steve Dannhauser, that in taking this step they set an example for all of the other firms to follow. They sent out a very clear message that diversity is more than identifying one or two minority- or women-owned concerns with which to do business. It is a commitment to fair and equal access, a principle that extends across the whole diversity spectrum and includes the hiring of lawyers, the retention of auditors and other professionals and doing business with suppliers of every conceivable item or service a law firm requires to function.
Editor: How do you get to minority- and women-owned enterprises that are in a position to provide services to the firm?
Robinson: The NMBC is a membership organization, and, of course, many of our members are in a position to provide services to the law firm community. In addition to other services the NMBC provides to its members, we encourage them to obtain validation along a whole range of governmental certifications, city, state and federal. For a supplier to have an appropriate set of certifications enables the NMBC to then provide someone like Larry Perkins with a profile. That helps him identify and develop a list of suppliers qualified to compete for the firm's business.
Editor: And the National Minority Supplier Development Council?
Perkins: That is another organization engaged in work similar to the NMBC. The primary objective of the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) is to provide a direct link between corporate America and minority-owned businesses. They are a large membership organization that was chartered in 1972 to provide increased procurement and business opportunities for minority businesses of all sizes. Weil Gotshal works with both organizations and is one of the few law firms affiliated with both organizations.
Editor: What advantages flow to the firm from the diversity-based vendor-purchasing program?
Perkins: The vendors that we use are very competitive, so very often we get bids for goods or services which represent a real financial savings. In addition, we believe this program is a way of leveraging our community outreach. By dealing with minority- and women-owned businesses, we are reaching into communities that are new to us. That results in new opportunities.
Robinson: Another way of saying this is that the enterprises that the NMBC represents are no longer just purveyors of goods and services. They are very often mature consumers of legal services, and they come to the table with a desire to be recognized in some sense as equal partners and to do business as such.
Editor: Are other firms following Weil Gotshal's lead in this initiative?
Perkins: I do not know a great many law firms that are where Weil Gotshal is at the moment. We are certainly out in front, and it remains to be seen how many firms are following our lead. I think John may have a real point in indicating that many of these suppliers are now serious consumers of legal services. This development parallels what has occurred in the corporate world. Many corporations have had supplier diversity programs for a long time, and the reason is that those corporations have been selling their products in very diverse communities for an equally long time. We in the law firm community are very much aware of this because those corporations try to retain law firms with diversity policies that reflect their own policies. They ask us about our diversity policies; they pay attention to how we staff their matters and projects. We are very glad to tell our clients about the program.
Editor: How about the firm itself? Please tell us how the firm's strong commitment to diversity, and the vendor-purchasing program in particular, contributes to firm morale.
Perkins: We want to project an image of Weil Gotshal that promotes diversity and inclusion. Having a strong diversity platform - which includes having a full-time Diversity Manager - enables the firm to recruit, and then retain, a very strong group of young attorneys. The vendor-purchasing program brings an element of competition to the firm's purchase of supplies that can result in substantial savings to the firm. It is something that carries weight with the firm's clients, as I have indicated. Most importantly, it reflects a set of values to which the firm and the people at the firm subscribe. The people at the firm take pride in these values, and that contributes to our morale and productivity.
Editor: What about the future? How do you see this program developing?
Robinson: Ideally, and as more women and persons of color take leadership roles in corporate America, the need for diversity-based supplier programs will end. That, however, is some time off.
Perkins: I see a need for such programs in the foreseeable future. I would like to see more law firms get involved in this initiative. The legal community is in a position to have a real impact in providing opportunities for those who are able to compete but who have not had the chance to date. I would also like to see this program extend beyond minority- and women-owned businesses to include gay- and lesbian-owned enterprises, as well as other underrepresented businesses.