Eleven of the country’s major corporations announced Thursday that they will collectively spend $30 million to hire minority- and women-owned law firms as outside counsel.

Thomas Sager, senior vice president and general counsel of DuPont, said in a press conference that the commitment, dubbed the Inclusion Initiative, was a way to “provide greater opportunities for diverse lawyers.” He said, “We have an opportunity as some of the largest companies in the country to make a difference in our profession.”

The announcement was made as part of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms’ semiannual business meeting in Washington.

Under the initiative, each corporation will set aside additional money for existing internal efforts designed to drive work to minority- and women-owned law firms. The total amount set aside for such programs comes to $30 million so far. The initiative’s organizers are challenging other companies to get involved. (Those that are interested can contact NAMWOLF.)

Sager said that hiring minority- and women-owned firms, which tend to be smaller than Big Law competitors, was also a way to cut costs at a time when many legal departments looking to trim budgets. “This makes moral sense, and it makes business sense. Many of these firms are noted for their creativity, resourcefulness and cost-effectiveness,” he said.

Moreover, Sager said, this initiative will go some way to making sure “that the economic downturn does not disproportionately affect minority- and women-owned law firms.”

Other companies that have joined the initiative include Accenture plc, American Airlines Inc., Comcast Corp., Exelon Corp., General Mills Inc., GlaxoSmithKline plc, Microsoft Corp. and Prudential Financial Inc.

Susan Blount, senior vice president and general counsel at Prudential, said that signing up companies that represent a variety of industries was important to the organizers. “We wanted to show that it doesn’t matter what business you’re in. You can benefit from the skills of minority- and women-owned law firms,” she said

Although garnering more support from major corporations has been one of NAMWOLF’s priorities since it was launched in 2001, Emery Harlan, chairman of the group’s board of directors and a name partner at Milwaukee’s Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan, said this initiative didn’t start to gain momentum until last fall. Sager and Blount approached NAMWOLF. “We were more than excited when we found out what they wanted to put together,” said Harlan.

Karen Giffen, a name partner at Cleveland’s Giffen & Kaminski who has represented Fortune 500 companies, looked to the big picture: “This initiative and ones like it could have a broader impact than people realize. It is about changing the practice of law in fundamental ways.”

This story originally appeared in The National Law Journal, a Corporate Counsel sibling publication.