At barely 7 a.m. on May 14, under overcast skies, more than 5,000 people snaked their way to the security checkpoint. Anticipation built as we wound our way through cordoned lanes to hear President Obama deliver the commencement speech to the nearly 600 females in the graduating class of Barnard College of Columbia University. A graduate of Columbia University himself, the president exemplified the diversity of the Barnard class and understood overcoming obstacles to achieve success. While his overall speech resonated with everyone in the crowd — both graduates and onlooking parents — these excerpts really hit home:

“Of course, as young women, you’re also going to grapple with some unique challenges, like whether you’ll be able to earn equal pay for equal work.”

“Today, women are not just half this country; you’re half its workforce. More and more women are out-earning their husbands. You’re more than half of our college graduates, and master’s graduates, and PhDs. So you’ve got us outnumbered.”

“After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.”

“Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”

As a Barnard parent watching these accomplished young women, I was reminded of how much has changed and yet how many obstacles remain for women and minorities in today’s workforce. Since I became a lawyer over 30 years ago, women and minority lawyers have certainly paved the way for future generations, yet they still face the challenge of advancing within the firms that represent the nation’s biggest corporations. To help overcome the disparities, many institutions launched initiatives to hold law firms accountable for meaningful change, which includes assuring that diverse lawyers participate in high-profile engagements and receive credit for their efforts. However, despite these advances, women and minorities lag behind in big-firm leadership and compensation. As a result, more and more women and minorities are leaving these firms to start their own. As pioneers, these legal entrepreneurs face obstacles to being hired to represent the largest organizations, which have the most sophisticated and lucrative legal work. In January 2010, I joined their ranks.

After 28 years of practice, I left one of the nation’s 10 largest firms, along with associate Kate Legge and Jessica Mazzeo, my firm’s director of administration, to follow this path. Over two years later, having overcome many challenges, I was motivated by Obama’s remarks to seek and share expert advice about the legal services procurement process. A constant hurdle for women- and minority-owned law firms is that legal services remain the last procurement frontier, an area in which many companies are still unreceptive to hiring minority- and women-owned providers. For most companies, legal services are often carved out of a supplier diversity program, which is often more equipped to find suppliers of pens rather than professional services.

In connection with writing this article, we received generous and sage advice, particularly from leaders of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF). NAMWOLF is a nonprofit trade organization composed of highly rated diverse-owned law firms collaborating with corporations and public entities to increase diversity in the legal profession, which seeks to accomplish this objective by increasing corporate engagement of minority- and women-owned law firms. In 2010, NAMWOLF created the Inclusion Initiative, which is a “collaborative effort of forward-looking companies committed to an immediate and measurable increase in the retention of minority- and women-owned law firms by Corporate America.” In its inaugural year, 11 companies pledged to spend $30 million with diverse law firms but exceeded that goal, collectively spending $42.6 million with minority- and women-owned law firms. In 2011, the Inclusion Initiative grew to 17 companies committed to collectively spending $70 million with diverse law firms. Once again, the companies exceeded that goal by collectively spending $97.7 million. The Inclusion Initiative started in 2012 with a collective pledge from 22 companies to spend $118 million with minority- and women-owned law firms.

So, what are the best practices for women- and minority-owned law firms seeking these opportunities? We share advice from NAMWOLF leaders in the hope it will assist diverse law firms in attracting substantial clients with sophisticated work.

Demonstrate You Are the Best in Quality and Value

Some of the most important advice we received came from Thomas Nathan, senior vice president and deputy general counsel of Comcast Cable Communications Inc., which has committed to the Inclusion Initiative. Nathan, Comcast’s representative on the NAMWOLF advisory council, urged firms seeking to be hired to demonstrate “how your firm is going to do an excellent job on the matter.” He explained, “We want a firm that can do as well as any other firm and if it also has the diversity certification, that’s a plus.” It is important to show how “your firm is going to make in-house counsel look smart because they hired you, [so] come in and sell what you can do for the company.” Nathan also urged to not make the common mistake of asking broadly for any type of work without demonstrating your firm has the relevant expertise.

Those sentiments were echoed by Joel Stern, vice president of commercial contract services at Hewlett-Packard, and NAMWOLF board member and chair of the in-house advisory council. Stern, an advocate for diversity in every organization in which he has worked, has also served as a consultant to diverse law firms on effective marketing to major corporations. Stern felt that if an organization has supplier diversity, it “has an obligation to make it work for legal groups.” He agreed as to the importance of firms demonstrating their capabilities. In his view, it boils down to demonstrating your worth: “Law firms are picked because of the value we perceive you bring, which is not just perceived quality and cost. It includes a lot of other elements … such as responsiveness and comfort.” According to Stern, “You have to show value that you bring to the client; value plus relationships are king.”

Similarly, Jason Brown, NAMWOLF’s departing executive director, who is about to return to an in-house corporate role, stated: “During almost two years at NAMWOLF, more and more procurement supplier diversity professionals are involved in how legal departments hire diverse counsel. Companies are looking at their budgets to save money and cut costs. Legal departments are cost centers … and are seeing that diverse firms, which tend to be smaller, have outside-the-box flexibility and can do things quickly.” Companies are realizing “how nimble, effective and efficient” diverse firms can be, Brown said. He urged diverse firms to recognize that corporate counsel have a “certain comfort with older white gentlemen with a large law firm behind them” and diverse firms need to highlight that their lawyers “spent their careers at large law firms” before venturing out on their own and have ample experience.

Be Patient in Developing Genuine Relationships

The experts agreed that it takes time and patience to forge relationships with in-house counsel before your firm will be retained. As Brown noted:

“Understand that patience is a virtue. The culture has to be changed [and] it is not ever going to change swiftly. … Don’t expect a company that is awarded for diversity efforts for procurement to have a plan, policy or even thoughts about integrating diverse law firms in practice.”

Hewlett-Packard’s Stern emphasized that diverse firms can have an advantage over large firms if they recognize the value of relationships or “the fun factor.” People would rather work with lawyers who have a “good bedside manner.” Also, according to Stern, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket by just establishing a relationship with the general counsel or one lawyer at the client. Most business is given out below the GC level and if the GC or one person you know leaves, you are out of luck.”

Don’t Expect to Be Hired if Your Contact is Diverse

Diverse law firms are often disappointed when “people like them” do not retain them. They waste time targeting people who they feel should view them favorably because they share diverse traits in common. As Brown cautioned: “Often, diverse firms waste time believing they can make inroads with a certain general counsel, COO or CEO because they share certain demographics.” In fact, “women and minority law firms should not overestimate the commitment to hiring diverse law firms based on the diversity of the general counsel or senior leadership. The truth of the matter is that there are women and minorities who have the ability to make strong strides in diversity who do not have a commitment to do so,” Brown said. Stern seconded that: “White males have to be part of the diversity inclusion program and you don’t need a minority or woman to be the head of a program” for it to be effective.

Don’t Lead with Your Diverse Status

One common mistake diverse law firms make is leading their marketing pitch with the fact that the firm is certified as a woman- or minority-owned business and urging that the firm be hired principally for that reason. Rather than showcasing experience or expertise, some diverse firms do not sufficiently emphasize that they can “do the work as well as any other firm,” Nathan noted. Stern acknowledged that it is “a dilemma for women- and minority-owned firms as to how much to highlight the diversity of the firm.” Stern cautioned: “Do not lead with diversity, but it is an important part of the package you are presenting; it is a differentiator, but you need to present that you want the business because you are good and your firm gives value for the money.”

Although many advances have been made, especially during the 11 years since NAMWOLF was founded, the progress for diverse law firms in securing significant engagements from major corporations is slow and steady. Brown explained while “there are true visionary general counsel and deputy general counsel who are more open to looking at bringing in diverse counsel, women and minorities understand that they are approaching these relationships at a disadvantage [because] in-house counsel may feel they are taking a risk by hiring a newer, smaller diverse firm.”

Brown summed up the overall challenges diverse law firms face by stating: “Some in-house people believe that if you are a corporation the legal work is so important that you can only buy a Cadillac and the CEO won’t understand if you show up driving a car that is fuel-efficient and economical and has all the attributes of a Cadillac except the price tag. The in-house counsel fears that if something goes wrong, you can at least say to the CEO that you used a Cadillac.”

Advice from the forward-thinking, bridge-the-gap gentlemen who were interviewed for this article will serve diverse firms well. But there is one final statement that Obama urged the graduates that applies to diverse law firms as well: “My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere.” •

Francine Friedman Griesing, founder of Griesing Law, a WBENC-certified woman-owned firm, represents clients in complex business transactions, high stakes litigation and alternate dispute resolution matters. She can be reached at 215-618-3721 or fgriesing@griesinglaw.com.