Practicing What They Preach: Ballard Spahr Fosters Diversity In-House And Among Its Clients

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Please give our readers some information about your background.

Clemons: I have an undergraduate degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management and a master's degree in Diversity Management. While attending graduate school in New York City, I managed a hotel where I was responsible for the development and administration of the diversity management program, including the employee handbook and performance appraisal system.

Before law school, I also worked as an independent diversity consultant trainer and taught second grade in the South Bronx. I decided to attend law school to pool the skills I had acquired in those three distinct professions.

I chose Ballard because of the breadth of knowledge that the lawyers in this firm have and its diverse practice areas. Ballard has a large labor and employment group with a national reputation for excellence. At Ballard I utilize the skills I gained in my previous positions to counsel clients on the full range of diversity matters and anti-discrimination issues.

Editor: Please tell us about your current practice.

Clemons: I am an attorney in the Labor, Employment and Immigration group and a member of the Corporate Diversity practice. As an attorney drawing on my experience in human resources and diversity training, I offer unique perspectives on the issues relating to diversity and provide a broad range of services. I make specific recommendations to help organizations enhance their current practices and advise them on industry best practices. For example, I have been retained by clients to conduct comprehensive reviews of their existing diversity practices and to institutionalize diversity within their businesses. I conduct diversity reviews and audits, prepare action plans, and provide ongoing support during plan implementation. I also assist our clients in building relationships with governmental entities and community organizations designed to avoid future problems.

My practice includes a broad range of labor and employment litigation and counseling focusing on discrimination, harassment, civil rights litigation, restrictive covenants, trade secrets, ERISA, and the preparation of affirmative action plans.

Editor: Do you view yourself primarily as a diversity practitioner or as a lawyer? How do you distinguish between the two roles?

Clemons: Both. It is my role to advise clients on diversity issues and counsel them on the legal ramifications of their diversity initiatives. Few lawyers have my practical and technical background and many don't understand the intricacies of implementing a diversity program. On the other hand, few diversity practitioners have the necessary legal foundation. In my practice, I bring both skill sets to the table to assist clients in developing workable programs that are compliant with the law.

Editor: What benefits will a company realize if it implements a diversity program?

Clemons: There are many compelling reasons for implementing a diversity program. First, the population of the U.S. is growing more diverse and the implementation of diversity workplace programs is an implicit recognition of that changing environment. Second, implementing an effective diversity program can further an employer's own interest. Even at facilities where employers have homogenous work forces, the employees must serve and deal with a diverse public. A well-designed diversity program can help employees work harmoniously together and better serve all customers.

And finally, the most compelling reason for implementing a diversity program is that it can help an employer avoid liability for discrimination. Litigation based on civil rights laws continues to occupy a significant percentage of the caseload of the federal courts - against employers of all sizes and types, from large corporations to small businesses, to higher educational institutions, hospitals, nonprofits, etc. Judgments and settlements in these cases continue to rise to staggering levels and sometimes result in the employer implementing a court-mandated diversity program. The implementation of a well-designed diversity program to resolve the issues that lead to civil rights litigation, before litigation begins, is a less expensive and a proactive way to avoid the negative publicity and considerable costs associated with such cases.

Editor: What are the dangers for companies not properly paying attention to diversity initiatives, and what should they do to protect themselves?

Clemons: Courts have repeatedly emphasized the prevention aspect of the anti-discrimination laws as well as punitive and compensatory aspects of those laws. Thus, employers with equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies and procedures in place will have an affirmative defense in litigation. Similarly, the absence of those policies and educational programs is routinely highlighted by plaintiffs as evidence against the employer. The existence of a carefully designed and serious diversity program, combined with other training programs and policies, can go a long way in combating such claims.

Most successful organizations are built upon trust, collaboration, and teamwork. It is more obvious now than ever that an organization's employees are its most valuable resource. As simple as the philosophy of inclusion sounds, it is difficult for individuals to abandon negative influences such as assumptions, biases and stereotypes that some people carry from childhood. For this reason a diversity program is necessary for every employee and manager - even those who champion and openly support diversity within an organization.

Editor: Is a company likely to be at risk for potential discrimination suits from its employees, whether minorities or members of the majority, if the diversity initiative is not properly structured?

Clemons: Many diversity program critics assert that the goals of diversity can polarize employees and lead to harmful lawsuits. Typically, the concerns for reverse discrimination are raised and there is a fear that other types of discrimination claims will increase. It is important that employers avoid the following when establishing a diversity program: perpetuating harmful stereotypes that have been around for some time; training methods that provoke hostility; poorly timed training; and defining diversity too narrowly. Diversity is a broad and expansive concept. It should not be confined to apply to one race or gender. It is critical that diversity be defined in a way that encompasses multiple dimensions of similarities and differences. Without such an inclusive definition, some employees may reject the program because they will not view themselves as diverse.

Editor: Please tell us about your experience with collaborative diversity projects with clients.

Clemons: The number of clients who actively manage their outside counsel's diversity performance has grown significantly in recent years. In addition to solicitations from clients for information about our diversity performance and programs, we have had several clients provide opportunities for us to collaborate with them on diversity initiatives. The largest and most long-standing of those collaborations is with DuPont.

As a Primary Law Firm of DuPont, we are invited each year to participate in an annual job fair for minority law students nationwide hosted by DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware. For the last 10 years, Ballard Spahr has coordinated the job fair, and one of our firm's administrators received an award for our efforts in this event.

Most recently we had an opportunity to collaborate with Allstate Insurance Company on a new diversity initiative. As part of this partnership, we will participate in a Street Law Program in Washington, DC, where several of our lawyers will teach legal classes to local area high school students.

Editor: How much of what you advise your clients to do to effectively manage diversity is your firm doing?

Clemons: We like to think that we practice what we preach. There are basic principles and universal objectives of diversity management that apply in the context of a corporation or a law firm. We have incorporated those principles into our diversity efforts.

Just as we advise our clients, we have a strong commitment from our leadership. Our chairman's commitment is then filtered into every aspect of our firm's management - from recruiting to retention efforts to business development and client relations and even supplier and community relations. Our full-time diversity director, Stacy Hawkins, is charged with overseeing our efforts in conjunction with our firm-wide diversity committee. And we have the budget to support the implementation of those efforts.

Editor: Commentators have suggested that the inability to retain minority attorneys within law firms is due to a lack of key factors necessary to foster a suitable work environment including: (1) adequate training, (2) mentoring relationships, and (3) exposure to important clients and projects. How does your firm's diversity program integrate these factors into its work environment?

Clemons: The attrition rate has increased among all associates although admittedly it's higher among women and minority attorneys. The success factors you mentioned should be available to all associates. Given these two facts, we viewed improved institutional performance in each of these areas as critical to our success to retain all associates, including minority attorneys. Therefore, our diversity director and manager of professional development have been working closely to ensure that we provide competitive training, meaningful mentoring, and early exposure to clients and business development across the board to all associates. We also have affinity groups such as the Women's Marketing Initiative and a Minority Associates Group through which our diverse attorneys can receive tailored support in each of these areas to meet their personal and professional development needs.

Editor: A concern noted by law firms in achieving their diversity goals is that the pool of talented minority attorneys is too small. Would you comment on Ballard's partnership with community organizations on a pipeline program?

Clemons: Ballard is involved in actively growing the pipeline of minority attorneys. Many pipeline programs are focused on law school or undergraduate populations. We are proud to be among the first law firms in the nation engaged in a pipeline project that reaches out to high school students.

In June 2006, we announced our sponsorship of one of Philadelphia's newest magnet schools, Constitution High School for American Studies. Constitution High School was opened by the Philadelphia School District in partnership with the National Constitution Center and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The curriculum of the school is focused on history, law and government to foster active civic engagement among the students, many of whom aspire to become lawyers. We believe Constitution High School, which has a student body that is approximately 80 percent minority, represents the future of the legal profession. We are honored to be the sole law firm sponsor.

We provide more than monetary support. Two of our lawyers sit on the advisory boards of the school, and to date we have developed a mentoring program for its students, coached the school's first mock trial team and hosted a job-shadowing day for the students. We look forward to expanding that relationship in the future.

Editor: How do you expect the practice of Corporate Diversity to develop over the next five years?

Clemons: In the ever-increasing competitive environment and growth of global markets, diversity management will remain a tool which, when successfully implemented, will leverage a company's workforce to maintain a competitive edge and improve the bottom line. The demographic composition of the U.S. is changing. The population of tomorrow will be older, contain more women and be more ethnically diverse than it has ever been. Businesses that stagnate and fail to grow and change in the marketplace will inevitably be swallowed by the competition or fade away. When an organization ignores potential customers and workers, they quickly take their purchasing power and skills elsewhere. To succeed in the new century, an organization must connect with the emerging diverse population. As a firm we will continue to counsel local, national and international clients on a full range of diversity matters. We expect that by building our reputation as one of the top corporate diversity practices in the nation we will continue to receive interesting and rewarding work.

Please email the interviewee at clemonsl@ballardspahr.com with questions about this interview.