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.