Diversity: How Firms Deliver What Clients Want

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 01:00

Defining diversity and inclusion is an essential first step in developing a mission and objective for a law firm diversity committee, and that definition must include the disabled, ethnicity, gender differences and sexual orientation. In addition, a successful firm requires the attainment of diversity at all levels of the organization, and there are few things more important than internal marketing in achieving that goal. That includes education and training for non-diverse attorneys and events and diversity retreats and similar undertakings that are open to all attorneys, not just the diverse attorneys. Diversity is a subject that belongs on the agenda of every major firm meeting, and an annual report to the firm's leadership should address the firm's progress - or lack thereof - toward advancing diversity. An effort must be made to ensure that the message of diversity and inclusion reaches everyone; this does not just happen.

Corporate America has long acknowledged that its customers today do not look like those of 20 - or even 10 - years ago. America's demographics are changing. Today's customers need to be addressed in the manner in which they wish to be addressed, and if they are not they are quite likely to take their business elsewhere. The fact that one of the most diverse divisions in most companies is the legal department reflects a strategic commitment - and very often a public commitment - to diversity as a strategic business imperative, both internal and external. More than ever, general counsel today are taking a long hard look at the firms they retain and are willing to drop those firms which fail to follow through on their diversity promises. Having a diversity statement and a few token attorneys to represent a seeming commitment to diversity is no longer sufficient. General counsel are looking behind the faade and asking tough questions about the staffing of a matter, the allocation of credit for the billings on a matter and how the firm is doing with respect to the retention of its diverse attorneys. And, general counsel talk to each other. Word gets around quickly today on which firms are sincere in their efforts to promote diversity and which are just going through the motions.

Participation in and support of bar and professional associations with a diverse orientation - the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the National Bar Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Hispanic National Bar Association, by way of example - is a key indicator in a firm's commitment to a culture of diversity and inclusiveness. These organizations hold regular conferences and events that constitute important opportunities for diverse law firm lawyers to interact with their corporate counterparts and to build relationships that may be crucial to their careers and to the well-being of their firms. Among other things, these conferences and events are a learning experience for firms on how to deliver on their diversity commitments.

It is also important to understand the diminishing role of government-initiated affirmative action and EEOC-type programs. These are quantitative programs that are driven by law and regulations and have a strictly internal focus. These programs do not educate people - that is, senior partners and the leadership of a firm - on the real value of diversity in practice, do not address cultural sensitivities and do not respond to the growing desire of clients to have a diverse group of attorneys working on their behalf. The ascendancy of firm-driven diversity programs, on the other hand, is a consequence of such programs being voluntary. They are qualitative in their focus, proactive, and attempt to respond to both internal and external issues.

A successful firm diversity program is based on the presence of a number of interconnected elements, including committed firm leadership; a firm-wide diversity audit; a strategic plan; and internal and external communication of that plan. The plan itself should require - and that means setting the stage for implementing , as opposed to just talking about - diversity training for all attorneys, not just minorities and women; the nurturing of an inclusive workplace culture; the development of a minority or diversity supplier procurement program; and projecting the firm's image of diversity in all the markets where the firm conducts its activities, local, regional, national and global.

A successful diversity program is one that is focused on long-term change and includes clear goals and benchmarks as a means to measure progress.

A successful diversity program is one that showcases its initiatives to clients, actual and potential. Such a program coordinates with a variety of law schools to encourage minority students, and, once those students have been brought into the fold, greets them with a strong mentoring program to introduce them into the firm culture and ensure that they receive an opportunity to work on the best assignments.

A successful diversity program is its own affirmation of how firms can best deliver what their clients want.

This editorial is an effort to capture thoughts expressed at a panel discussion presented on February 15, 2007 by the Greater New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA). The panelists were: Russell Harris, Diversity Initiatives Manager, Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP; Tommy Shi, Corporate Development and Transformation Officer, Mercedes Benz USA, LLC; and Kelly N. Burrello, Senior Consultant and Director of Research, Diversity Training Group, Washington, DC.