Diversity Maintaining A Diverse Workforce

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 01:00

When I wrote for this special section on diversity this time last year, I had recently been appointed to the post of Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP (K&L). K&L was recognized as the first major law firm to make an appointment of this kind at the management committee level. The announcement was hailed as "groundbreaking" and K&L was roundly praised for "Raising the Bar" on diversity in law firms and the legal profession.

At the time, we were considered a large domestic law firm. As of January 1, 2005, less than a year later, we have combined with the London firm of Nicholson Graham & Jones to become Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP (K&LNG), a firm comprising 950 lawyers practicing in 10 U.S. offices and London.

Although we may have enlarged our territory, our mission with respect to diversity remains the same: to promote, achieve and maintain a diverse workforce, in this decade. While our efforts across the pond will require a fresh approach, our commitment on both sides of the Atlantic will be unrelenting, uninterrupted and unequivocal. My primary purpose in this article is to concentrate on our domestic offices and what we have accomplished over the last two years.

It always surprises me that from time to time I am asked, what is diversity and why does a law firm have a Diversity Officer? Despite the fact that corporate America has been engaged in an effort to diversify its workforce over the last quarter century, given the globalization of our economy and the new demographic projections of the workforce in this century, people do not see that movement as having anything to do with the legal profession and law firms. On the other hand, laymen find it ironic that law firms, of all institutions, should want or need someone to lead their diversity efforts. They note that equality under the law is our creed, our moral compass and, more than any other institution, the legal profession should be at the forefront in the quest for and a model of a diverse workforce. The answers to these questions are very complex and it is easy to overwhelm people with your answer.

A short, and far less than adequate response, is that large law firms are like corporations, global in scope, as witnessed by our recent combination with Nicholson Graham & Jones. Our new status, as well as our corporate clients, demand that we reflect that globalization. Diversity is a business necessity and makes good business sense in today's and tomorrow's economy. Indeed, as I noted in my previous article, "Diversity as a Senior Executive's Mission," diversity "means inclusion and that is good for the bottom line and is simply good business practice." That was the view of six corporate general counsels of Fortune 100 companies whom I had previously interviewed for that article.

Peter Kalis, Chairman of K&LNG's Management Committee, provided us with an excellent response to the question of why a law firm needs a Diversity Officer when he commented, "...achievement of a diverse workforce has been in the mix for some time as one of the many laudable goals or business objectives to pursue [by major law firms]. While this state of affairs is an improvement over the historical neglect shown the subject within our profession, it nonetheless became clear to us at K&L that being 'in the mix' is not sufficient to achieve the sort of tangible progress that is required in the diversity field... We created a position called Chief Diversity Officer, and placed that Officer on the same plane as our Chief Operations Officer and Chief Financial Officer." I like to say that within our law firm, diversity is part of our DNA.

Given the elevated status of diversity within our law firm, we have spent the last two years nurturing that cultural imperative throughout the firm, and whenever and wherever possible throughout the profession.

The results to date are significant, though we realize that we have miles to go in this journey. In the past year, the firm's minority lawyers increased in number from 70 to 92, and the number of women lawyers increased from 221 to 254. More importantly, a year ago K&LNG had seven minority partners; the firm now has thirteen.

Clearly this is just the beginning of things to come. K&LNG has made it a strategic priority to continue its effort to increase these numbers at all levels within all of its offices. However, although sheer numbers are a valid measure of progress within a firm, they are not the only, and are definitely not the best indication that a firm is truly being transformed to reflect more closely the demographics of the nation or the community wherein the law firm is located.

According to one African-American and former associate at a large law firm, numbers can be deceptive. There are more reasons than race or ethnicity as to why an associate leaves a firm. He viewed the reasons why associates fail to make partner or stay with law firms for a longer period of time as a result of the fact that "...at the end of the day, most people aren't willing to do what it takes to become a partner." Statistics prove that most associates, regardless of race or gender do not become partners at big law firms and are gone within ten years.

A case on point is a New York law firm which is a major player in the New York legal community, which had a 50-year history as a virtually all-white firm. In the mid-1990's the firm offered African-Americans what is almost always needed to attract young minority talent - a critical mass. This law firm, which in 1989 had only one black associate, shot up to 23 in 1992, and by 1996 the firm recorded 30 African-American associates, 14 Latino lawyers and 24 Asian lawyers, up from 6 Latino lawyers and 7 Asian lawyers in 1992. The swing represented the highest critical mass of black attorneys in the country. By 1999, the firm had none - not even one African-American lawyer.

How could a firm go from so sweet to so sour that quickly? One partner at the law firm called it "the phenomenon of the prejudice of low expectations." It is also referred to by some as negative expectations. All partners bring their "expectation" baggage to the table when they distribute work assignments to associates working under them. This is where subtle differences based on stereotypes seep into one's thinking about their associates/colleagues, whether conscious or unconscious. As a consequence, you hear about partners who feel that certain work can only be done by certain associates and partners who do not want to give work to associates if they believe they will need to do a lot of rewriting and provide a lot of guidance in order to get their work done quickly.

Harvard Law School professor, David Wilkins, refers to this de facto double standard as the product of racially disparate expectations and standards, which is a common barrier for black attorneys. "It's a cycle in which expectations reinforce behavior, which in turn confirms expectations," he notes. Wilkins has written on this subject of law firm diversity extensively and has interviewed over 250 black lawyers about their experiences in large law firms. His views bear out my conversations with minority lawyers who almost universally agree that they get lousy assignments, critical feedback about their writing, and very little support if they make mistakes. Given this condition in their environment at large law firms, it is no wonder minorities and women leave earlier and in greater numbers than their white male counterparts.

Yet the fact still remains that becoming a partner is quite an elusive goal for 80-90% of all associates. If an associate is to succeed at a large law firm, he/she has to want it more than anything else in life, and even then he/she still might not get it. It is not a job; it is one's life's work. If an associate has this "go-getter" approach and applies it to his/her professional life, and the firm he/she works for has a stake in the associate's future through opportunities such as mentoring, the odds that an associate, especially an associate of color, will make it to the partnership ranks are much better.

At K&LNG, we believe that mentoring is the key to promotion and retention, and therefore is a core value of our law firm. Our commitment to "intergenerational excellence" is not mere rhetoric; accordingly, we have undertaken an effort to revitalize, revamp and, in some cases, revolutionize our mentoring programs, policies and practices. Mentoring is a continuous process that nurtures the protégé through the professional development stages of his/her practice and continues through the client development period of his/her tenure with the law firm. It ultimately is a two-way street, which provides benefits to the mentor as well as inspiration and support to the protégé. While mentoring is very beneficial to the protégé, it is equally advantageous to the law firm that is firmly committed to a mentoring program.

We are trying to level the playing field. Once we have recruited diverse associates, we pay special attention to mentoring them, making them feel "wanted" and a part of our firm culture. Again, as Peter Kalis has said, "in the mix" is not good enough for us at K&LNG. Mentoring is the lynchpin to our future success at retaining minority and women associates and, consequently, we have both formal and informal mentoring programs which start with our summer associates and continue until the associates are ready for partnership consideration. We foster an atmosphere where associates know they can make mistakes and that good assignments will still come their way. We give associates feedback and the opportunity to get whatever assistance they need in order to fully develop their skill sets. This facilitates confidence, competence and credibility on the job. We accept the fact that not every associate will become a partner, but for those that see K&LNG not as a job but as their "life's work," we give them every chance possible to become "a contender" for partnership.

Going into my third year in late February, 2005, I see this as the critical path for our law firm. We have recruited broadly throughout the country, we have trained all of our lawyers on the best practices for effective mentoring for all associates, and we have involved ourselves in and with institutions such as Howard University Law School and Texas Southern University-Thurgood Marshall Law School. We have shared our story, experience and commitment with the wider legal community in hopes of getting more law firms and the corporate community involved, and now we must sustain our efforts and not let our journey get the best of us.

Diversity at K&LNG is as exciting today as it was two years ago when we first announced the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer. More importantly, we see the face of K&LNG growing more diverse as we approach the half-way point in the first decade of the 21st Century.

Carl G. Cooper is the Chief Diversity Officer for Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP. He works with the firm's Management Committee and other firm personnel to design and implement an agenda for K&LNG that promotes, achieves and maintains a diverse workplace. He is based in the firm's Pittsburgh office and can be reached at (412) 355-6502.

Please e-mail the author at ccooper@klng.com with questions about this article.