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Microsoft General Counsel Makes His Case for DiversityMicrosoft general counsel Bradley Smith chairs the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity's Pipeline Committee. In this Q&A he talks about the committee's work to develop a diverse law school graduate pipeline, the business case for diversity, and what Microsoft is doing to change the face of the legal profession.
2012-08-16 12:00:00 AM
The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity held one of several regional meetings in San Francisco earlier this month. One panelist who's been focused on improving diversity in the legal profession is Bradley Smith, general counsel for Microsoft Corp. Smith chairs the organization's pipeline committee, and during his visit to the San Francisco Bay Area he talked with The Recorder about some of the council's recent efforts and how Microsoft works to improve diversity.
Q: How/why did you get involved with the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity?
A: My involvement really grew out of a meeting that took place in Phoenix, which was an outgrowth of the Call to Action. And it quickly became apparent that it was going to inject an important new voice into the national diversity discussion in our profession. What really is unique about the Leadership Council is that it brings together managing partners of law firms and general counsel. In fact, the membership just passed the 200 threshold, and there are now a total of 205 law firms and companies that are members. What attracted me to the organization was the strong focus on action and not just words, on bringing together the leaders of our profession. When I attended the initial meeting, I guess I expressed my opinions with enough comportment that someone thought they should invite me back.
Q: Can you tell me more about the objectives of the Pipeline Committee and how the mentoring program is working?
A: Our goal in the pipeline committee is to really try to build a pipeline that will make law firms as diverse as the nation's graduates. Right now there is really a shortage of African-Americans, Latinos and Hispanics in the legal profession, even in law schools. If you look at the data for California, they account for 7.1 percent of the lawyers in California, even though they account for almost 44 [percent] of the people who live in California. If you look at the passage rate for the bar, it's a little better but not much better. In 2010, they accounted for 9.7 percent of the individuals who passed the California bar.
So what we have really focused on is developing a series of programs aimed at attracting more diverse students to law school and helping them go on to succeed in their careers. We've developed three programs in the last two years.
One is for college students where we enlist volunteers who work with other groups to try to better inform college students about opportunities for a legal career and coaching on how to apply to law school. The first half of this year we were able to reach and work with just over 500 college students and 300 pre-law advisers, so we are already ramping up that program.
The second is geared toward students after their first year of law school. We created a 1L scholar program that encourages law firms and companies to hire more diverse students after the first year of law school. This year we have 155 1Ls across the country participating, which is triple what we had a year ago.
In some ways, the most exciting thing we've done is launch a mentor program. We now have over 1,400 mentors -- 706 mentors and 706 mentees. What this program does is match practicing lawyers with diverse law students and we now have people working together in 24 cities across the country. What this shows is that we're starting to build programs that can scale.
Q: What's the business case for diversity in the legal profession?
A: I think that if you look at the customers that American companies have, our customer base is very diverse. And our employees naturally reflect the diversity across the country. So it's really vital that we have a legal profession that reflects the diversity of the country, and that's perhaps even more true when you look at the needs of the more diverse population of the country. It's well established now that a majority of the Americans born in the country were in fact what we would previously call a minority, and if our profession is going to do an effective job of serving the country, it needs to reflect the diversity of the country.
Q: How do you give diversity initiatives teeth and avoid people just paying lip service to the idea, but not making substantive changes? How do you avoid window dressing that can sometimes happen when law firms bring minority lawyers to pitches but they then aren't involved in the matter?
A: I think that the general counsel community has become much more focused on expecting law firms not only to talk the talk but to walk the walk when it comes to promoting diversity. And you see this increasingly reflected in the hiring decisions clients are making, and you see it in the firing decisions companies are making. At Microsoft, we also pay our outside counsel a diversity bonus that's equal to 2 percent of the fees they charge, if they make quantifiable progress in diversity, either in population or in the number of diverse representatives working on our behalf. I think more and more we're seeing clients look at the hard data and look for real results.
Q: What other kinds of diversity initiatives does Microsoft have internally and what do you expect from the law firms you hire?
A: First, when it comes to Microsoft itself, we have programs that focus on recruiting, on the development of diverse attorneys, on the partnerships we have with law firms, and then on outreach in the profession more broadly. We are constantly seeking to innovate in those four areas. What I really look to do is have us become more diverse each year, both in total number of lawyers and in our leadership ranks. We have measured our progress, and we have been making progress year after year.
When it comes to firms, I really look for three things. One, I hope the firm will become more diverse. Two, I expect to field each year a more diverse team of lawyers working on Microsoft matters. And three, we look to have more diverse people assume leadership roles in law firms, and that includes women, ethnicities, people with disabilities or people who are members of the LGBT community. We really want to see diverse individuals assume stronger leadership roles, and that is something we increasingly are seeing. We have to keep focusing on moving forward. You can never rest on your laurels because so much work remains to be done.
Q. What other incentives do you use to encourage the staffing of diverse attorneys on legal matters you outsource to outside counsel?
A: Another program is a mentorship program with Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, which combines diverse in-house lawyers as mentors with young associates in the law firm. We've really looked for ways to cross the divide between law firm and client and engage in more collaborative work together. Another more concrete program is in the pro bono area, which is another area where we can pull together teams of lawyers who work in house with lawyers who work in firms and have them work in a different context together.
Q: Have you ever fired a law firm for not meeting diversity objectives?
A: As a company we have let firms go where their diversity has been a factor. What I have generally found is that simply by making it part of the bonus equation, law firms pay attention. And, personally, I think it's really helpful to have something that is more graduated than simply a hire or fire decision. But the truth is, if you put your money where your mouth is, people know what you care about, and law firms tend to do a good job of paying attention to what their clients care about.