Diversity best practices Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Corporations worldwide are demanding the advancement of diversity within their own firms and the companies with which they do business, especially with the law firms they depend on for outside counsel. Their philosophy is simple: promoting diversity internally and externally creates significant new opportunities for minorities and women, plus it is good for the bottom lines of the companies and law firms alike.

However, that approach also creates a dilemma for the law firms: how do they quickly focus on attracting, hiring and then retaining minorities and particularly women, who are leaving law firms at an unprecedented rate? That is a major problem for law firms, and the solutions are not readily apparent.

Smart Business spoke to Patricia Diulus-Myers of Jackson Lewis LLP to learn more about what law firms are doing to attract and retain minority and female attorneys, and how accomplishing that task benefits the firms, the attorneys and corporate America.

From a diversity perspective, what does corporate America expect from law firms?

Corporations demand a similar level of work force diversity from law firms that they employ internally. Exemplifying this requirement is the call to action initiated by the general counsel of Sara Lee, which has evolved over the past couple years from initial inquiries into outside firms’ diversity initiatives by general counsel at large corporations. The inquiries have grown to a mandate by general counsel that their outside firms assist them in reaching their diversity goals.

Now, corporate America wants to see results demonstrating that outside law firms hire, retain and promote minority attorneys and women throughout their ranks. Additionally, many companies require that female and minority attorneys actually be a part of the team that does their legal work.

What assurances are there that female and minority attorneys will stay at a firm?

Obviously, diversity is now a business necessity for law firms. The focus is on recruiting qualified minority and female candidates and demonstrating acceptable numbers among their attorney ranks. However, these numbers tell only half the story because law firms must institute initiatives directed toward retaining those very qualified individuals. Emphasis must be placed on inclusiveness such that minority and female lawyers become and remain valuable assets and are accepted within the firm.

How quickly can law firms build successful diversity programs?

The process will not happen overnight. It requires building a pipeline of potential lawyer candidates and making an investment in the future of their ongoing diverse culture. That can be done through efforts like partnering with recruiters who specialize in minority recruiting for lateral hires and working with minority law student associations for hiring at the clerkship and first-year ranks.

What recruiting and retention tactics are proven to be effective in increasing the inclusion of women and minorities?

Retention efforts start with a diversity committee that comprises all segments of the firm — associates and partners alike — with the charge and authority to recommend, implement and oversee diversity initiatives. Within the committee, affinity groups should be established, like Hispanic, African-American, Asian-Pacific-American, gay and lesbian, and women’s business development affinity groups. These groups are wonderful avenues for diverse attorneys to work through common issues, be mentored on professional goals, and contribute to an accepting and inclusive environment.

Mentoring is a major retention tool. Mentoring programs vary with each firm but generally aim at nurturing lawyers from the time of hire, educating them to the firm and the legal practice, developing successful techniques with business acquisition and marketing and preparing them for partnership.

Some firms are appointing chief diversity officers or coordinators who are responsible for promoting, achieving and maintaining diverse workplaces.

Work-lifestyle balance initiatives designed to promote family-friendly environments are also essential for retaining good lawyers, particularly females. Years ago, women accepted that they had to sacrifice their family and social lives to be successful in the major law firm. Flex work schedules, tele-commuting and part-time career paths are becoming the typical demands of younger lawyers who want something more than work in their lives. Hopefully, such efforts will foster diversity at law firms and assist in retention of females and minorities, and benefit their clients as well.

How will such programs benefit clients?

Most major public companies maintain a strong policy today of promoting diversity. They are strongly focused on developing a diverse and inclusive environment that reflects the communities that they serve. In documenting their diversity efforts, they are looking to their outside counsel to assist them in accomplishing this goal. Corporations want their vendors to be a reflection of their own commitment to inclusiveness. Simply put, diversity is morally right, and it is just good for business.

PATRICIA DIULUS-MYERS is a partner and co-chair of the Diversity Committee at Jackson Lewis LLP. Reach her at (412) 232-0404 or diulusmp@jacksonlewis.com.