On a panel about law firm diversity, Joseph West, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said diversity has become a numbers game, which he called "a blessing and a curse."

On the one hand, West said, the legal profession clearly had ramped up efforts in recent years to recruit minorities and women. But those numbers didn’t reflect the poor job many firms and corporate legal departments were doing at keeping and promoting those lawyers, said West, a panelist at the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts annual conference in Washington.

The panelists highlighted how diversity affected their bottom line. Grace Speights, managing partner of the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius office in Washington, said she found that lawyers from different backgrounds approached cases and client matters in different ways, all for the better.

"You get the best solutions for your clients when you have diverse teams," Speights said. Firm diversity, she said, sometimes helped bring in new business. Still, she warned, there are clients who say diversity matters in how they hire counsel but who don’t follow through in practice.

Several panelists spoke about the role corporate general counsel can play in pushing for diversity. West said that when he was associate general counsel for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the legal department prioritized diversity in hiring outside counsel and found that the quality of work got better. "A broad net that was cast yielded greater results," he said.

Anecdotally, West said, he found that when Wal-Mart hired lawyers who might have been underappreciated at their firms, "they knocked it out of the park."

Still, Leslie Thornton, vice president and general counsel of Washington Gas and WGL Holdings Inc., said she was disappointed at the lack of effort at some companies to hire women and minorities in law departments. "It’s my default," she said, of factoring diversity into hiring decisions.

Speights, who serves on the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, drew a connection between the lack of diversity in law firms and legal departments and the lack of diversity in the courts, especially at the federal level. She said partnerships between the judiciary and the bar to get more women and minorities interested in the law early on — and to encourage diversity in clerkships — would make a difference.

Other solutions to encourage diversity included offering bonuses or fellowships when hiring diverse candidates and coming up with alternative hiring arrangements to counter shrinking associate classes.

The panelists agreed that mentorships and sponsorships were critical to keeping women and minorities in the profession. Squire Sanders partner Roger "J.R." Clark said attorneys had to network and make sure they understood how they were being evaluated and what it would take to make partner.

Manar Morales, president and CEO of the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance and executive director of the Project for Attorney Retention, said that allowing flexibility in how lawyers manage their schedules would go hand-in-hand with law firm goals on diversity. Recent law school graduates from a variety of backgrounds were increasingly calling for more flexibility, she said.

Benjamin Wilson, managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond and the panel moderator, said his firm had a "piss-poor" record on diversity until they started making a concerted effort a decade ago. He called on firms to "demystify" the process of making partner if they wanted to not only attract lawyers from diverse backgrounds, but also to keep them.

Speights said she was optimistic about the future, but that all partners, and not just lawyers and judges from diverse backgrounds, needed to be involved.

This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.