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In-house lawyers have some blunt advice for law firms that say they are trying to diversify their ranks by hiring more minority attorneys: Try harder. Although many firms vow that diversity is a top priority that involves management strategy sessions and cutthroat recruiting, few have identified the paltry number of minorities in law firms as a significant business problem, according to advocates of more aggressive minority hiring. “The progress has slowed, stopped, maybe even reversed,” says Roderick Palmore, general counsel at Sara Lee Corp. Last fall Palmore led a charge to get the country’s largest corporations to renew a “Call to Action,” a revised version of a 1999 proclamation calling for more diversity in law firms. While Palmore and other general counsel say they have seen improvement in diversity among their go-to firms, they add that the legal profession overall has made little progress. Minorities account for slightly fewer than 10 percent of the total number of attorneys in the nation’s largest firms, according to The National Law Journal’s most recent survey of the nation’s 250 largest firms, which was released last November. That figure represents only a tiny increase from 2003 — when minorities accounted for slightly less than 9.5 percent of attorneys among the top 250 firms — but it is still less than half of the number of minorities graduating from law schools. According to the National Association for Law Placement, minorities make up about 20 percent of all law school graduates. In addition, minority representation in the legal profession fares poorly compared to other professions. While the percentage of minority attorneys in the largest law firms has steadily remained under 10 percent in recent years, minorities account for nearly 25 percent of physicians and surgeons and nearly 21 percent of accountants and auditors, according to a recent report from the American Bar Association. Critics offer up such numbers as proof that the problem is more one of priority than it is of the availability of good minority candidates. In response, law firms maintain that they are attacking the problem — virtually every major law firm in the United States has proclaimed a “commitment to diversity” — but that the odds are against them when it comes to wooing and retaining minority lawyers. “It’s extremely competitive,” says Richard Raysman, chairman of New York’s Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner. Last year, minorities constituted less than 7 percent of the firm’s 236 attorneys, with no minority partners, according to information provided by the firm for The National Law Journal survey. Raysman says that the firm has upped its diversity numbers to 13 percent in recent months. But blaming the small number of minority attorneys working at larger law firms on a shortage of candidates is “not a legitimate excuse,” says Ramona Romero, a senior counsel at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. who leads the company’s minority counsel network, which promotes relationships with minority attorneys. “If we can find them, anyone who is really interested can find them,” she says. The situation at firms like Brown Raysman is echoed at larger law firms across the country. Minority attorneys account for less than 11 percent of the 1,540 attorneys who work at Latham & Watkins, a Los Angeles-based firm. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, based in New York, did better than many, with minorities making up 14 percent of its 1,592 U.S. lawyers. Kim Keenan, president of the National Bar Association, a group of black lawyers and judges, says she is tired of the argument that law firms are trying hard to increase the percentage of minority attorneys. “Many of the law firms are paying lip service to the notion of true diversity,” says Keenan. “What they really mean is that they want diversity if they can have the most perfect potential employee in the universe.” Keenan argues that law firms often demand higher standards from minority candidates than from other attorneys. Many law firms, she says, will only consider minority candidates if they have a high class ranking, come from a top school, made law review, succeeded in moot court and demonstrated valuable work experience. She believes that non-minority candidates typically are expected to meet fewer of those criteria. But law firms say they are widening their focus to include more minorities. Nam Paik, a partner at Baker & McKenzie, says his firm now recruits from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, which is categorized as a third-tier law school in U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings. In the latest National Law Journal survey, Baker & McKenzie employed 513 attorneys in the United States, including 78 minorities. Twenty of the firm’s partners were minority attorneys. Paik heads Baker’s equal employment opportunity program, which includes a law student scholarship program. The firm provides $5,000 scholarships to about 20 minority students each year. Recently, Baker & McKenzie has begun handing out $10,000 scholarships that are linked to employment with the firm, according to Paik. Real change at many firms, however, will require far greater efforts than those that are underway now, says Palmore. The updated “call to action” that he and hundreds of other GCs have endorsed states that they will select firms that demonstrate meaningful progress in diversity and reject firms that continue to fall short of the mark. The earlier call for diversity did not include such a pronouncement. Sara Lee currently has 10 outside firms that perform the “overwhelming majority” of the legal work for the baked goods giant, says Palmore. He says those firms have been chosen, at least in part, because they have demonstrated genuine inclusion of minorities. Two of those firms are Reed Smith, which reported that slightly fewer than 12 percent of its 871 U.S. lawyers were minorities, and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, where a similar percentage of its 1,317 attorneys were minorities. How Palmore measures marked progress and what many firms tout as such are often very different, he says. Diversity means much more than assigning one or two minority lawyers to a particular case or project to please a corporate client. Instead it means taking steps to change a firm’s entire culture so that a variety of perspectives, from minorities and others, contribute to how the firm functions. He faults law firms for looking for short-term ways to please their corporate clients while avoiding broader systemic changes within the firms when it comes to minority diversity. “They seem to be incapable of doing something other than one-to-one correlations,” says Palmore. “I’m not saying that I want to staff all my matters with an African-American. I’m interested in the diversity of the law firm, not just on one matter.” Shell Oil Co. has embraced a similar approach when it comes to diversity and its outside legal work. The company has whittled down its list of outside firms from hundreds to 27, based partly on diversity considerations. The company uses a diversity scorecard that tracks the number of minority attorneys in a law firm, the amount of Shell’s work those firms give to minority and women attorneys and the geographic and market factors in a given area. The firms on Shell’s shortened list of outside firms are “meeting the criteria,” says Kenetta Joseph, a Shell in-house attorney and manager of strategic partnerships. But while Joseph says she is encouraged by the diversity efforts of those firms, the legal industry as a whole is falling short. “I’m not satisfied at all,” she says. According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, one firm that is on the right track is Chicago’s Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which recently was honored by the group for its ongoing commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting minority attorneys. Palmore is a former partner at the 625-lawyer firm, which currently provides legal services to such companies as McDonald’s Corp., Monsanto Co. and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. Sonnenschein reported last year that more than 16 percent of its attorneys, including 21 partners, were minorities. “We have not come close to getting to where we want to get, but we think we’re going to,” says Duane Quaini, the firm’s chairman. Describing the number of minorities hired by top law firms as “embarrassing,” Quaini acknowledges that finding good minority lawyers to hire can be difficult. Even so, he says using that challenge as an excuse for the low minority numbers is a “cop-out.” Corporate law departments, he adds, have done a much better job of attracting and retaining minority lawyers. To boost diversity within its own ranks, Sonnenschein recently formed an alliance with Pugh, Jones, Johnson & Quandt, a minority-owned 21-lawyer firm in Chicago that focuses on trial work, public finance and tax matters. Sonnenschein also requires its vendors, including consultants, technical service providers and other suppliers, to demonstrate a commitment to diversity. Quaini says the firm’s internal diversity program also applies to its support staff. On a related front, a recent report from the American Bar Association indicates that minority law students are less likely than whites to win coveted judicial clerkships or go into private practice. The report, titled “Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession,” also found that minority attorneys are more likely to begin their careers in government or public interest jobs. Prepared by Elizabeth Chambliss, a professor at New York Law School, the ABA report urges law firms to add diversity goals to their business plans and to make sure that people in authority be given the job of increasing diversity within their firms. The report also suggests that compensation for those people be tied to their effectiveness at achieving diversity. One way to attract more minority lawyers to private law firms is to recruit more aggressively from the pool of attorneys working at government agencies, says Romero, the in-house lawyer at du Pont. “They have tons of trial experience,” she says, adding that law firms often complain that many of their younger attorneys have a difficult time acquiring trial skills. But the most effective way to increase minority ranks, says Palmore, is by having firms approach the shortage the way they would any other business problem. “This is not easy stuff,” he says. “It takes commitment from the top. It takes a devotion of thought and resources to it.” Leigh Jones is a reporter at The National Law Journal, which is affiliated with GC California magazine. National Law Journal reporters Lindsay Fortado and Jason Boog contributed to this report.

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