Read the cover story on improving diversity in your legal department.

Sometimes ensuring a diverse legal department can be downright easy–a little extra effort, like a phone call or scan of a database can go a long way to recruiting a diverse staff. But in some fields, the recruiting base is thin even before you put diversity on the table. The patent group at Microsoft faced this problem as they added to their roster of specialized lawyers, who need a technical degree on top of their J.D.

“The vast majority of people out of law school don’t have that, but we’re at a company that has lots of people with technical degrees,” says Danielle Johnston Holmes, a senior attorney in the patent group.

So the patent group reached into the reserves. With an eye on having a diverse slate of candidates, about five years ago the group began recruiting from within the Microsoft gates–plucking up developers with computer engineering degrees and other technical specialists and introducing them to the IP department, where they receive training in the field and support through law school.

Dividing and conquering can be a good strategy for a massive company like Microsoft that has lawyers around the globe.

“When in a large department like ours, it’s been very important that we’ve had support from the general counsel,” Johnston Holmes says. “But day-to-day, it’s the individual managers who need to support and implement the diversity programs.”

The technical field also presents another challenge for diverse recruitment. In the computer science field, the gender gap is not only wide but also growing. A study by the Computing Research Association showed that 28 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees went to women in 2001-2002. By 2004-2005, the number had fallen to 22 percent.

The IP department offers flex- and part-time schedules to its lawyers, which can be a big draw for women, who–whether we like it or not–still tend to bear more than their share of parenting duties. Johnston Holmes is among the Microsoft attorneys to take advantage of the program and prove that success and value are possible outside a traditional work schedule.

The opportunity, along with the childcare services Microsoft offers, is an important part of retaining and attracting a diverse group of lawyers. “It’s certainly been a big factor in why I’m at Microsoft and still so satisfied with my career here,” Johnston Holmes says.