Diversity - Legal Service Providers Special Counsel's Strategic Initiative Is Model For Diversity

Wednesday, February 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor's Note: According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demographics of the United States are changing. By 2008, women and minorities are expected to make up 70 percent of new entrants to the workforce. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. workforce will be 55 or older by 2012. Approximately 40 percent of all American consumers are non-white. Spending among African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans is estimated to exceed $650 billion annually. These statistics clearly illustrate that the U.S. population is becoming more diverse. To remain competitive in today's marketplace, companies, including law firms and corporations (and their respective legal departments), must embrace diversity as a strategic initiative. Special Counsel, a leader in customized staffing solutions for corporate legal departments and law firms, has launched a program to maintain, expand and manage diversity internally and to support the efforts of vendors and clients. Set forth below is an interview with David Maldonado, Esq., Regional Vice President, Chairman of the Special Counsel Diversity Initiative Task Force and the company's National Diversity Coordinator.

Editor: In the past, society as a whole has limited the definition of diversity to including people of different races, but that definition has broadened over the years. How would you define diversity now?

Maldonado: Diversity is the recognition or inclusiveness of all people based on gender, race, education, language, military experience, age, sexual orientation or physical or mental ability. The thing about diversity is that all people are different somehow. We may be of the same ethnic group, for instance, but have dozens of differences related to our education, language and more. Differences are too vast to enumerate all of them, so we point out the most obvious, but our definition has to be open-ended. Once you close the definition, a new difference will pop up and your definition is no longer all-inclusive.

Editor: How do diversity efforts differ for a legal staffing firm as compared to a legal firm or a corporation?

Maldonado: Staffing firms differ from other corporations in that we are not only looking at diversity and how it relates to our in-house staff, vendors and subcontractors, but we also have to consider the situation of our clients for whom we provide services and our consultants who provide those services. We have to recruit with an eye to diversity, while considering the needs and wants of our clients. Our clients retain us because we are experts at recruiting and can be much more aggressive than is traditionally the case with in-house recruiters.

Editor: How is Special Counsel's diversity initiative different from others you've seen?

Maldonado: To my knowledge, we are the only national legal staffing firm that is taking steps in this area as a strategic initiative. This takes us beyond just making a statement or posting something on our website. We have appointed a task force and developed a plan that summarizes our efforts and lays out a road map to broaden and accept diversity. We "planned to have a plan," creating programs to be implemented. The initiative also provides a formula for studying itself, accumulating data and analyzing and measuring efforts to make improvements. Throughout the initiative, we state and re-state the business and moral reasons for all aspects of diversity. In addition to aiding our own operational effectiveness, we think that a focus on diversity recruiting will benefit our clients as well.

Editor: How did the initiative come about?

Maldonado: As a Hispanic, I have been a long-time member of legal organizations that targeted minority groups, such as the Mexican-American and Hispanic Bar Associations and the Dallas Hispanic Bankers Association. I became active and began to see a shift in hiring of attorneys. In 1985, when I started, there were very few people of color in big law firms. But over the last 20 years, there has been an increase in the number of minorities in big law firms. More and more minorities are now going to law school and entering the field, looking for jobs. In the beginning, many started their own practices because they could not find positions with the larger firms. The same thing was true with women. It wasn't that long ago that they had the same struggle. For instance, even though Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third out of a class of 102 at Stanford in 1952, no law firm in California would hire her because she was a woman. Of course, she went on to become the first female justice on the Supreme Court in 1981. Women and other minority groups have made excellent progress in obtaining admission to law schools and getting jobs, but most such groups are still underrepresented in senior positions. We want to help our clients do a better job when identifying and placing highly qualified persons into senior positions, so that these persons better represent all aspects of our society.

Editor: Do you see a trend with minority firms doing business in the broader community?

Maldonado: For a long time, minorities and even poor non-minorities were hardly expected to go to college, much less to law school. As more minorities earned their degrees and began looking for a job, they found some discrimination. There were a lot of areas of law practice that weren't open to minorities. However, areas that were open to minority lawyers were criminal, family and personal injury practices. You didn't have to graduate in the top 10% of your class at Harvard or Yale to do those. Fortunately, minorities and minority firms have grown out of that. They are no longer limited to those fields, which is, of course, a positive thing.

One trend that helped bolster the acceptance of minorities, not only in the legal profession, but across the board, were large corporations like Shell Oil and Coca-Cola who have recognized the need to embrace diversity and market to diverse cultures. This has been especially true in Texas where Hispanics are the "majority minority." Many corporations have recognized that it's just good business to market to diverse ethnic groups. This is reflected, too, in the law firms these companies hire. Firms and corporations want people on their staffs that share the same background as the people to whom they are marketing. Now we see minorities running whole divisions of companies specializing in diverse marketing.

Editor: How does Special Counsel help their clients develop a diverse work force?

Maldonado: Special Counsel is 20 years old, and I've been here for nine of those years. We think we've always been aware of diversity issues and conscientious about placing minorities. When we're placing candidates, we're color blind and gender blind. In order to satisfy our clients, we just want to place the best person in their job. It's really kind of easy for us as a staffing company. We just need to place the best person for the job.

Having said that, we don't believe that we have done as much as we could to absolutely know that we are casting the widest possible recruiting net, so we asked ourselves how we can broaden our group of candidates. Are we really reaching as many minorities as we could?

Now, as soon as we get a job order, we will go to as many minority bar associations and affinity groups, getting to as many contacts as we possibly can. This has been extremely effective in maximizing our reach to minorities and finding qualified, eager candidates.

We also serve as an informal consultant to our clients. As I mentioned earlier, diversity has been embraced in a big way by large corporations like Shell, Coca-Cola and others. They not only embrace it, they understand it. Some law firms hire people of color almost by default. When they call us and express an interest in hiring minorities but are unsure of the best way to recruit them, it gives us an opportunity to tell them they're not alone. We can help educate them about the available candidates, the marketplace and the positive aspects of diversifying their staff. It's another opportunity for us to provide value and build a lasting partnership with the client.

Editor: You mentioned that some clients are unsure of how to recruit and hire qualified minority candidates. Is there a certain "fear" in the marketplace?

Maldonado: I recently heard a speech on diversity from a white man's perspective. He pointed out that there is no reason to be scared of diversity. It's just something that has to be done. There are a lot of really neat people out there. "Political correctness" has made us afraid to converse with each other for fear of offending each other.

The old saying that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" is still relevant today. Generally, people tend to hire those whom they know personally or someone a friend or colleague knows. They feel more comfortable hiring a candidate who comes with the recommendation of a known source. This doesn't tend to generate a large number of "internal" candidates who are diverse. The recruiters at Special Counsel are trained to know where to look to find a diverse candidate pool, and over many years, have developed relationships with members of many different affinity groups and minority associations who can help us locate great talent.

I have a Jewish friend who, prompted by my many questions, has shared many things about his beliefs, traditions and holidays. Consequently, I have a much better understanding and appreciation for my other Jewish friends and clients. Most people are curious. You shouldn't be afraid to ask the questions. That's how we learn about each other and how you find great employees.

David J. Maldonado is a Regional Vice President of Special Counsel and its National Diversity Coordinator. His region includes the Dallas, Houston, Denver, New Orleans and Nashville offices of Special Counsel. Mr. Maldonado is a Dallas native who graduated from the St. Mark's School of Texas, Princeton University and the University of Texas School of Law. Prior to becoming part of the placement profession, he was engaged in private practice, specializing in commercial litigation and bankruptcy law, for 11 years. Additionally, from 1997 to 2003, he served as the Presiding Municipal Judge for the City of Cockrell Hill, Texas, a city with a population of 4400. For more information about the Special Counsel National Diversity initiative, you may email Mr. Maldonado at david.maldonado@specialcounsel.com.