In-house Action Key to Increasing Law Firm Diversity

Diversity has come a long way in the new millennium but still has a long way to go.

The first decade of the new millennium was momentous for our profession, as the law played a prominent role in so many landmark events. The Supreme Court became the final arbiter of the 2000 presidential election. Sept. 11 and the resulting "war on terror" continues to test the limits of the rule of law and the seemingly irreconcilable tension between national security and civil liberty.

It also was a decade of excess. Big firm associates' starting salaries became the envy of federal judges. Per-partner profits at a number of the largest firms soared above the million-dollar threshold.

We saw the hourly rates of a few big firm heavyweights eclipse the $1,000 mark.

On the diversity front, the past decade ushered in many notable developments. Throughout our profession, our collective diversity dialogue improved dramatically. To our credit, diversity is now part of the discourse in our mainstream bar associations and in law firm management meetings. Major law firms became conspicuously engaged in diversity programming, sponsored diversity events and hosted diversity speakers.

Today, virtually all large firms have a diversity program. Virtually all firms publically embrace diversity as a core value. For this shift in consciousness over the past decade, we largely have in-house lawyers to thank. For instance, in 2004, Rick Palmore, then Sara Lee general counsel, issued his "Call to Action" (CTA), which declared that diversity in the legal profession is critical and that progress (or lack thereof) would determine which firms would have enlarged business opportunities with corporate America. Palmore asked his fellow chief legal officers to become CTA signatories. Hundreds of CLOs representing the largest companies in the country, including my company's general counsel, Geoff Kelly, have become CTA signatories. Big firms took note.

Other CLOs emerged as champions of diversity in the legal profession. Stacey Mobley of DuPont, Tom Mars of Wal-Mart and Cathy Lamboley of Shell, along with numerous other heads of corporate law departments, all sent their partner law firms a clear message that diversity was a critical business driver and the lack of meaningful progress would be a competitive disadvantage. Big firms took action.

But for all of the diversity-related advances ushered in during the past 10 years, one advance is conspicuously absent--an increase in the number of diverse partners in large law firms.

Bluntly, to date nothing has moved this needle. Not client pressure. Not expensive diversity programming. Not even the prospect of enlarged business opportunities from accessing the untapped "value" represented by diverse lawyers and their affinity constituencies. National Association for Law Placement (NALP) data confirms that today roughly 6 percent of partners at major law firms are minorities, up from roughly 4 percent in 2000. Similarly, today 19 percent of Big Law partners are women, up from 16 percent in 2000.

So as we enter the second decade of the new millennium, in-house lawyers must continue to lead the way in driving law firm diversity. We do this by proactively ensuring the composition of our outside counsel teams is diverse. We make sure that our partner firms high potential young lawyers of all hues, genders and orientation have opportunities to work on matters that provide the exposure and training essential to partnership consideration. We ask tough questions of firms that appear unable to recruit, retain or promote diverse women lawyers.

We must take a stake in law firm diversity, for our profession's sake and our companies' sake. Only a diverse field of lawyers in all practice settings will be able to optimally guide our companies through the legal challenges presented in the new age of business.

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