Dallas managing partners are joining forces in a multifirm collaboration to find ways to lower attrition rates among minority attorneys, according to the managing partners of four of Texas’ largest firms.

“What we’re wanting to do is find a way to facilitate dialogue and really talk openly about what the issues are in mentoring, retaining and promoting ethnic minorities into positions of partnership and leadership,” says T. Michael Wilson, CEO of Dallas-based Jackson Walker.

Wilson participated in a luncheon meeting hosted at the Crescent Club in Dallas on Sept. 24 by Glenn D. West, managing partner of Weil, Gotshal & Manges’ Dallas office. George T. Manning, partner in charge of the Dallas office of Jones Day, and Glenn B. Callison, chairman and CEO of Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr in Dallas, also were among the group of 22 firm leaders who attended the luncheon.

The meeting was a kick-off event to launch a series of get-togethers for firm leaders to exchange ideas about retaining minority attorneys at their respective firms and in the legal profession in general. Unlike previous initiatives to address issues regarding minority attorneys, this one is driven by the city’s large firms rather than outside organizations and supported by the top firm managers at those firms.

While minority recruiting efforts have improved, a disproportionate percentage of minorities are leaving firms before reaching the partnership ranks, West says.

West says that the low percentage of minority partners in Texas and firms nationwide is distressing. “It pains me to see these statistics,” he says.

A Texas Lawyer survey of the state’s largest firms indicates that there is reason for concern about minority retention. Twenty-four of the 25 largest firms in Texas, as identified on the “The Texas 100″ poster published April 28, submitted data for Texas Lawyer‘s 2008 Women and Minorities Survey. Dallas-based Gardere Wynne Sewell did not participate in the survey. The firms, which employ 5,716 attorneys in Texas, report that 18.2 percent of the firms’ Texas partners are female and 7.5 percent of the firms’ Texas partners are minorities. [See related charts.]

According to NALP, a legal-employment research organization formerly known as the National Association for Law Placement, minorities accounted for 5.4 percent of the partners in firms nationwide in 2007, and women accounted for 18.34 percent of the firms’ partners. Washington, D.C.-based NALP’s figures are reported in the 2007-2008 NALP Directory of Legal Employers available on the organization’s Web site.

Minorities make up 18.1 percent of the associates at the Texas firms participating in Texas Lawyer’s survey, a slight increase from the 16.9 percent at the same firms in 2007.

As of Dec. 31, 2007, 15 percent of the state’s 81,601 licensed attorneys are minorities, and 31.2 percent are women, according to State Bar of Texas spokeswoman Kim Davey.

“More minorities seem to leave, compared to nonminority colleagues, in the early stages of the first two to three years,” West says. “Why and what can we do about it?”

Minorities account for 12.9 percent of Weil Gotshal’s Texas partners, which is the second highest percentage rate among the large Texas firms that participated in Texas Lawyer’s survey. As of July 1, New York-based Weil, Gotshal employed 1,194 attorneys firmwide with 127 attorneys in Texas. Austin-based Brown McCarroll ranks highest on the survey with 13.6 percent of minorities in its partnership ranks.

“I have had a vision, for lack of a better word, for some time now to try to get the Dallas firms’ managing partners together in a forum in which we discuss specific issues which we can work on together for the betterment of the city of Dallas and the betterment of the legal profession in the city of Dallas,” West says. “The beginning issue is a call for addressing minority retention.”

There have been past efforts in Dallas to address minority issues, says E. Steve Bolden II, president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, Dallas’ African-American bar association.

“In the late ’80s, a bunch of law firms came together and signed a ‘call to action,’ mainly trying to get more and more firms on board with hiring minority attorneys,” Bolden says. He says that the effort was “not particularly successful,” because it was not driven by firms but by outside groups, such as bar organizations.

He says the Dallas Diversity Task Force, comprised of local bar associations for African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American attorneys, reported in November 2007 that, of the 20 largest firms in Dallas, only two had minority representation that met or exceeded minority representation in the State Bar of Texas overall. Those two firms were Weil, Gotshal and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, according to the report.

But Bolden, who attended the Sept. 24 luncheon, says this initiative is likely to be more successful than past efforts, because the people involved are top-level firm managers and the initiative is driven by private firms rather than a bar association or other outside organization.

“So often in the past when we’ve talked about diversity issues . . . a few partners trickle in, but they are never the people who are the key decision-makers and influencers within the law firms,” he says. “Having managing partners present is huge.”

Bolden says the firm leaders agreed to create a multifirm task force to identify agenda items for a follow-up meeting in October.

He says he doesn’t have any easy answers to questions about minority retention, but believes that a group of managing partners who are willing to have an open dialogue about minority retention problems is the first step to solving the problem.

“I don’t know what those key things are right now, to create success, but the first thing you have to do is say that there is a problem,” says Bolden.

Doing Lunch

West says there’s really no reason he decided to take action at this time; he has been thinking about it for a few years. He joined the J.L. Turner Legal Association a few years back to try to get better insight into the underlying issues facing minority lawyers.

“I believe that an initiative created by the large law firms for the large law firms would have much greater success than initiatives that are promoted by others,” he writes in an e-mail.

Emmanuel Obi, a second-year associate with Weil, Gotshal and a member of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, says he helped organize the event. Obi says that West sent e-mail invitations to 25 firms that have 75 or more attorneys in Dallas. He says nobody declined the invitation, but a few people had scheduling conflicts.

Much of the discussion during the luncheon was about firms considering the value of cross-racial mentoring rather than assuming that young minority attorneys preferred or would be more successful with minority mentors, says Callison, one of the firm leaders who attended the luncheon. Dallas-based Munsch Hardt employed 102 attorneys in Texas as of July 1.

Minorities account for 6.5 percent of Munsch Hardt’s Texas partners and 9.8 percent of the firm’s Texas attorneys. At the entry level, minorities comprise 16.7 percent of the firm’s Texas associates.

Callison says he hopes he gets ideas from the managing partners’ group to improve these numbers. “We are not doing as good a job as we need to do,” he says.

George T. Manning, partner in charge of the Dallas office of Jones Day, shared information during the luncheon with his colleagues about a 10-firm group in Atlanta that included his firm’s Atlanta office, where he was partner in charge before filling that role in Dallas in 2008. The Atlanta firms funded an associate study to figure out the best way to develop a course to train firm managers about diversity, he says.

“The end result was a training program, not for the heads of diversity or recruiting, but for law firm managers,” he says. Manning attributes his firm’s resulting success in promoting three minority attorneys to the partnership in its Atlanta office to the manager-level diversity training. He says the promotions are noteworthy, because the attorneys were not lateral hires but attorneys who were promoted up through the firm’s ranks.

Manning says that, with the help of the managing partners’ group, he hopes to improve minority retention rates in Texas. Cleveland-based Jones Day employed 2,353 attorneys firmwide and 245 in Texas as of July 1. Minorities comprise 8.1 percent of the firm’s partners in Texas.

“I think it is really important that our profession represent the community we serve,” he says. “And all of us are slipping behind on diversity issues.”

Jackson Walker CEO Wilson says the first meeting of the Dallas managing partners was prompted by prior discussions between West and Bolden about minority retention. Wilson says the firm leaders talked about including the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association and the Dallas Asian-American Bar Association in further discussions. “We’re looking for input from lawyers of color,” he says.

Jackson Walker is a Dallas-based firm, which had 324 Texas attorneys as of July 1, and where minorities comprise 8.8 percent of the firm’s partners.

“The common goal of improving our diversity statistics is really what brought us together to share ideas and look for ways to be individually more successful and the bar as a whole more successful,” Wilson says. He predicts that at future meetings additional Dallas managing partners will join the “forum to talk about what’s working and what is not.”