Diversifying legal departments

Some corporate legal departments are doing their best to create a more racially balanced legal staff

Some corporate legal departments are doing their best to create a more racially balanced legal staff.  Nationally recognized labor and employment attorney Donald Prophete is helping that process along, attorney by attorney, company by company.

Prophete reports, “There is a huge exodus of racially diverse lawyers from large law firms yearly.  We have a system that is not conducive for racially diverse lawyers.” 

Prophete, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson, believes that nonwhite attorneys walk out for several reasons, including “…lack of mentorship, lack of sponsorship for real opportunities to move up, lack of access to meaningful work, and frankly, racial bias.  All of those things have negatively impacted racial diversity in the legal profession.”

Prophete, who represents 30 Fortune 500 companies, believes that to break that glass ceiling for nonwhite attorneys in the corporate world, in-house legal departments need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

He’s help to build a racially diverse team in his own firm’s legal department. To encourage diversity in hiring within corporate legal departments, and to introduce his own diverse team to his clients, Prophete will often provide clients with contact points they would not normally have in labor and employment matters, attorneys who can handle matters on an expert level.

“I’m shameless in my policy of always introducing my clients to diverse lawyers in other practice areas.  For instance, I have a large network of diverse lawyers in corporate, high-end non-employment litigation.  Frequently, I’ll have lunch with a client, and I’ll bring them along so the client can get exposure to other diverse lawyers in other technical areas,” says Prophete.

He’s also helped place a number of in-house lawyers with his corporate clients.  “Studies have established that a diverse work force is more productive, more tolerant, generates better ideas, etc.,” Prophete says.

“General counsel need to stop being aspirational about racial diversity but focus on racial diversity in a meaningful way,” he said. “There is no better way to show commitment to racial diversity than to have exquisitely qualified racially diverse lawyers handling a very high end meaningful company matter.”

One in-house attorney who shares the same outlook at Prophete is Jim Rowader, vice president, general counsel, Employee and Labor Relations, at the Minneapolis-based Target Corporation. Rowader’s sector of Target’s legal department, which works directly with human resources, comprises 21 attorneys, while the remaining 60-65 lawyers work in the traditional legal department.

“At the end of 2013, 30 percent of our attorneys were diverse and 62 percent were female.  As for attorneys in management positions, 39 percent were diverse and 63 percent were female.  Since 2010, 87 percent of all attorneys hired were women and/or racially/ethnically diverse,” reported Rowader, referring to Target’s ER/LR legal team.

Part of the reason that Rowader has been focused on diversity within Target’s legal department is that it is reflective of the diverse population of Target’s own 350,000 employees nationwide. 

Because Minneapolis is a fairly homogenous city as far as racial diversity is concerned, Rowader has had to recruit from other, more diverse cities.  “As soon as we made a point of recruiting people outside the metro area, it became easier for us to find diverse candidates.” Committing to racial diversity, coupled with geographical diversity, as well as gender diversity, is the synergy that has proven to be an effective formula at Target.

Rowader is an advocate for diversifying his legal team, both on a personal level, as he is of Puerto Rican descent, and from a company standpoint, it was apparent that having a diverse legal team working on issues that take place all throughout the country, is invaluable.  “ We are dealing with issues relating to, either teammates or guests, all racial and ethnic groups.  It’s a great advantage to our department to mirror the demographics of our team members.  We are dealing with issues that come up in people’s everyday lives, and it is easier to do that, to bring personal perspective to match those in the lives of team members.”

And as Prophete tends to introduce diverse attorneys to his corporate clients, Rowader, too, does the same with his staff.  “If they get to see and work with people like Don, it reinforces the notion that diverse lawyers can and are being successful,” he said. 

Rowader says that Prophete has “… helped show our lawyers internally why its important to be more involved with diverse bar organizations on a national level.”  Rowader himself is involved with the Hispanic National Bar Association.  “It provides a good support network for the team that we have, but that also gives us an opportunity to meet diverse lawyers on the outside who might come on our team.” Rowader adds that he is able trace at least half-dozen hires to connections with some of these diverse attorney organizations. 

And recruitment is just one piece of the puzzle---retention is another---as is constant vigilance to maintain that commitment to diversity.

While Rowader keeps a close eye on the law firms with whom they work, assessing their diversity statistics annually, he is equally demanding of his own law department.  “You have to have intent and a commitment, and you have to be willing to collect relevant data and measure yourself and hold yourself accountable.  If you’re not doing as well as you hoped, own up to it.”

 

Further reading:

 

HNBA/Microsoft Intellectual Property Law Institute Offers Opportunities for Latino Law School Students 

Diversity and the chief litigator

Building from without and within

Still a long way to go for women in the boardroom

 

Contributing Author

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Hilary Daninhirsch

Hilary Daninhirsch is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.  In 2000, she left the practice of law to raise her children...

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