Responding To The Critics: A Leader Of The Profession Points To Substantial Progress In Diversity

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. McLean, Akin Gump's commitment to diversity and to a culture of inclusiveness is celebrated across the country. This did not just happen. Would you tell us about how this commitment originated and how it has evolved over time?

McLean: The firm's commitment to diversity is deeply rooted in our culture. It reflects a significant part of the values of the founding partners, people like Bob Strauss, Dick Gump and Irving Goldberg. Irving left the firm in the 1960s to serve on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he participated in some of our country's crucial civil rights decisions. We take great pride in the fact that Clarice Davis, a partner in our Dallas office, was the first female partner at any major firm in Texas, and that Vernon Jordan, an attorney in our Washington office, joined our ranks in 1982 as our first African-American partner. It is deeply satisfying for me to be able to continue a great tradition of diversity as the firm's Chairman.

Editor: Your personal commitment to these values is also well known. Would you tell us why you consider this to be such an important aspect of law firm culture?

McLean: As a member of American society, I believe that supporting these values is the right thing to do: right for our firm and right for the profession. The principles on which our society is based require us to build a workplace climate where lawyers of various backgrounds can achieve success regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Equally important, supporting diversity is good for our business. We do a better job of serving our clients when our attorney population is diverse and reflective of the diversity of our society today. Our clients expect us to mirror their own diversity and that of their customers.

Editor: One of the principal issues that law firms face today is that of retaining their young minority associates. How is Akin Gump faring in this regard?

McLean: This is an issue for us. Over the past decade we have seen a rapidly escalating attrition rate among our associates, and the turnover for women and minorities is higher than the overall rate. We are focused on this, and one of our major strategic objectives is to reduce the overall rate and, in particular, that for women and minorities. We know that we must retain our most talented young people at the firm to build for the future.

Editor: Speaking of retention, on November 29th The New York Times published a front-page story on a recent study by UCLA law professor Richard Sander that suggests that elite law firms may be setting up young African-American lawyers to fail in the competition for partnership by hiring minority lawyers with much lower law school grades than their white counterparts. Needless to say, the Times story has caused some considerable stir, and it is not without significance that it quotes your critical reaction to the study. You have indicated that Akin Gump considers GPA as but one factor indicative of success. Would you share with us the factors that would be considered in a typical law school interview and hiring process?

McLean: Grade point average is a significant factor for us in recruiting associates, as is the quality of the law schools from which we recruit them. One of the points I have tried to make in expressing my opposition to the Sander report is that GPA is a marker for a variety of factors indicative of success at the associate level. It is a marker for intelligence, for discipline and a willingness to work hard, for communication and writing skills of a high order, for ambition and drive, and for the ability to be successful in a competitive environment. The GPA is not, however, the only way for us to make judgments about these characteristics. We consider whether a student has worked while in law school or has been engaged in pro bono, community, law journal or other extracurricular activities. We assess communication and interpersonal skills through the interview process. As we focus on these factors, we find that we are able to hire first-year minority associates who are as capable of success at our firm as non-minority associates, including those with high GPAs from the elite law schools.

Editor: Does the firm differentiate among law schools? As a general matter, would someone in the middle of his or her class at, say, Yale or Columbia be looked upon more favorably than someone on law review at a less prestigious school?

McLean: It has been our experience that law students who have succeeded at the regional law schools possess all of the traits that we look for, and we see a high success rate among them. One differentiating factor is that the elite law schools admit students with very strong undergraduate records and the highest LSAT scores in the country. It is hard to argue against the fact that the average intelligence and skills of a Yale law student are among the very best anywhere. Nevertheless, we have demonstrated that we can find highly intelligent and talented students, who will be successful with us, at virtually every law school in the country.

Editor: Recruiting at entry level, both at the law schools and laterally, is both very competitive and very expensive. Is there any reason why a law firm would engage in this exercise if it knew the people it was hiring were not potential partnership material?

McLean: We do not hire anyone who we believe will be unsuccessful in our organization. We know, of course, that not everyone will succeed. The procedures we follow in hiring associates are as careful and painstaking as possible, but they are not perfect. I believe that other law firms are engaged in similar exercises, and I know of no firm that would deliberately hire someone they believe is not going to succeed in their environment.

Editor: Why is mentoring such a crucial element in retention of minority and women lawyers today?

McLean: Mentoring is a critical element in the success of every lawyer, and it is particularly important in a big-firm setting. We believe that good mentoring is one of the crucial factors in addressing the attrition issue, and we believe that the best mentors are often those who are role models - people who have been successful in our firm and who have faced those same challenges in their careers as the young people we are trying to retain.

Editor: In your efforts to make the workplace environment inclusive, how can you tell whether you have succeeded?

McLean: Well, for one thing, we ask our associates whether they think the firm is appropriately inclusive and whether we are responding to their concerns. We are attentive, and this is at the heart of our efforts to address the attrition rate.

Editor: Have you found that certain stereotypes regarding minorities and women continue to survive in the profession?

McLean: I would hope that such stereotypes would have disappeared from the profession some time ago. The Sander study alludes to the proposition that the failure on which he reports serves to reinforce such stereotypes. I disagree with that, and I cannot find anything in his work that would support such a conclusion.

Editor: What characteristics does Akin Gump look for in selecting new partners?

McLean: When we look at someone for partnership, we are looking at more than what may have made that individual successful as an associate. We are looking for excellence in work product, to be sure, but we are also looking for judgment, leadership, the ability to gain the confidence of clients and the ability to represent the firm in the larger community. We are conscious of a whole range of criteria that mark partnership status, and the process is considerably different from what we do in hiring at entry level.

Editor: What correlation - if any - have you found between law school grades and the associates who cross the line into partnership?

McLean: The correlation between GPA and success at the firm is there, but it tends to diminish in importance with the passage of time. As I mentioned earlier, when we look at candidates for partnership we are looking for things that are not necessarily reflected in GPA. We are particularly successful in our lateral hiring efforts, and very often we will bring lawyers into the fold who have been highly successful elsewhere but whom we would not have considered had they applied for a position directly from law school. Of the top 10 lawyers at Akin Gump, four are graduates of elite schools and the balance of regional schools, and not necessarily at the top of the class. What they have in common is a fair share of those characteristics that enable people to achieve great success as practicing lawyers in a high-powered law firm environment. Over the course of a lawyer's career, the importance of GPA diminishes.

Editor: Nevertheless, attrition rates for minority and women associates - and particularly for minority women - at large law firms are very substantial. In your experience, why are these young people leaving?

McLean: One of the problems that the profession is struggling with at present concerns the perception of women that they must make a choice between success at a firm and being a good parent and building a healthy family environment. Many women leave the profession because of this perception, and we have had male attorneys who feel the same pressure. This is a very serious challenge for the profession.

With minority lawyers, we see, in addition, an extraordinary range of opportunities to leave the firm for corporate legal departments or for the government. Clients look upon the law firms that serve them as terrific training grounds for their legal departments and, indeed, for non-legal executive positions.

Editor: You have characterized the Sanders study as a superficial look at a very complex set of issues and its critique of law firm diversity efforts as counterproductive and ineffective. Would you care to elaborate?

McLean: The Sander study goes into great detail with its statistical analyses. I am not in a position to criticize those statistics. My criticism of the article is that Professor Sander ignores some of the things that I see as obvious in the efforts of the profession to achieve diversity. Those efforts have resulted in substantial progress over the past decade in terms of the number of minority lawyers who have succeeded in elite law firms, including law firm partners and persons holding leadership positions. I do not think that can be ignored in pursuing such an analysis as this.

There is no question that a study such as this provokes discussion. That is salutary and helps us focus the discussion on both the methodology and the tactics we employ to achieve diversity. Where I take issue is the proposition that we are putting minorities into a position where they will fail and that, as a result, our efforts are counterproductive. I do not believe that. There are too many opportunities available today that are a direct consequence of law firms feeling compelled to become more diverse, and I take great pride in the fact that Akin Gump is among the leaders in the profession in this regard.

Please email the interviewee at bmclean@akingump.com with questions about this interview.