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What makes law firms excel in diversity? It’s a question that firms themselves, no less than legal job-seekers, need to address as the global economy has made diversity a business imperative. As more companies tailor bottom-line business objectives to match the varied colors of that global marketplace, they’re demanding that law firms follow suit. Law firms eager to feature their best efforts to clients will seize on almost any activity, from charitable contributions to social programs, advertising campaigns and pro bono programs, for evidence of their commitment to diversity. Law school graduates, lateral hires, Fortune 500 companies, potential clients and legal profession pundits need greater clarity, however. Diversity performance standards extend beyond work force head counts, associate numbers and quantitative groupings showcasing ranking data. There need to be qualitative, not just quantitative, standards-and law firm clients as well as minority and women lawyers know it. Diversity initiatives require the same meticulous planning, execution and implementation as any other business plan. Without well thought-out details and a plan of execution, even the best-intended diversity effort can appear random, ineffective and sometimes contradictory. As part of such business planning, a detailed assessment of a firm’s diversity activities will provide a measurable benchmark of the level of actual inclusiveness, not just head counts, within a firm’s culture. To evaluate diversity, we can begin by asking: Does the firm demonstrate significant representation of ethnic minorities and other traditionally underrepresented groups in executive leadership, opportunity, partnership equity, service providers and total work force? What progress has been made in the recruitment, hiring, retention and business development of women and attorneys of color? Is anyone held accountable for results? Most importantly, is diversity part of the firm’s overall business strategy used to advance the firm’s competitive edge? Much has changed for minorities and women in the legal progression. Decades after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned employment discrimination based on race, attorneys of color certainly have made progress. At the same time, the numbers show much room for improvement. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the representation of minorities in the legal profession has increased dramatically since 1975. Women grew from 14.4% of the profession in 1975 to 40.3% in 2002; African-Americans from 2.3% to 4.4%; Hispanics from 0.7% to 2.9%: and Asian-Americans from 0.5% to 5.3%. See www.eeoc.gov/stats/reports/diversitylaw/ index.html. But recent research from NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement, provides a more dismal picture of the level of progress. Attorneys of color account for only 4.6% of the partners in the nation’s major law firms and women account for nearly 17.3%. See www.nalp.org/press/details.php?id=57. Many law firms have demonstrated a sincere commitment to the recruitment of women and attorneys of color. Current data reveal that women and attorneys of color are better represented in associate and summer associate ranks than in the past. Women hold about 44% of associate or staff/senior attorney positions, and attorneys of color hold 15.6% of these positions, according to NALP. See www.nalp.org/press/details.php?id=57. To be sure, more organizations in the legal profession are making inclusiveness a priority. Firms have implemented myriad programs to attract and retain women and attorneys of color. A number of firms have instituted affinity groups to support women, minorities, openly gay people and people with disabilities to better meet the needs of a diverse work force. Persistent challenges Where, then, is the problem? The challenges lie in the area of professional development and advancement. “To make the same sort of progress with respect to advancement and promotion as the organization has made in recruitment, [it] needs to take a hard look at what unique challenges minorities may face in their workplace,” said Veta T. Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), a nonprofit organization geared to expand the hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys. “Most people like to believe that, in their organization, there is a true meritocracy where everyone who is smart and willing to work hard will succeed,” Richardson said in a recent e-mail exchange. “The truth is that, although this is a terrific ideal for a workplace, in most workplaces other intangible factors greatly influence the opportunities that may come someone’s way. You will want to make sure that underrepresented groups in the firm are not disproportionately excluded from those opportunities.” Lateral law firm recruits of all backgrounds face unique challenges in business development, integration and resources. “My recommendation . . . would be to go in to the lateral marketplace with realistic expectations,” said William Walker Jr., managing director of the legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, during an interview. “Expectations can definitely be better shaped following a conversation with someone who understands the depth and breadth of the marketplace and the employers in that marketplace. To that end, the potential employers of diverse lateral candidates also need to have realistic expectations of who they may want to hire.” Integration of minority laterals and their business development are arguably the most challenging issues. “The challenges I hear from this demographic largely center around client development issues and a poorly designed plan for how to integrate the new lateral partner into the law firm culture and build relationships with his or her new partners, so that, in addition to the business the lateral partner may bring to the fold, the lateral partner will also receive a steady stream of institutional client work,” Richardson said. Communications tools Another critical challenge is communication and the disconnect between firm management and its work force. “Diversity issues are a topic of interest and discussion at most law firms and corporations, but the interest is often perceived to be superficial and has created more cynicism among diverse attorneys and their majority counterparts,” Walker said. With diversity, the medium is often the message-and success in communications can directly enable success in actual fact. For some law firms, such success has meant communicating their strategic direction for diversity through the formation of program committees as well as through internal communications mechanisms such as intranets and employee newsletters that support an environment of inclusiveness, encourage teamwork and, most importantly, provide equal access to the best opportunities for advancement and professional development. Internal communication will not only address morale; it also will provide an ideal stabilizer for outfits, like law firms, that have a flat organizational structure. In other words, effective internal communications makes collective efforts possible. Firms also have found success by building external awareness and raising the profile of their entire work forces to mass audiences or specific segments of a key audience. Here, law firms can leverage resources in their marketing or business development initiatives. Are the firm’s diverse attorneys participating in professional speaking opportunities at client industry or trade association events? Are they appearing in the media? Developing relationships? Firms build brand equity in the diversity market when their diverse lawyers build professional equity for themselves through all the traditional marketing venues. Wider scope At many law firms, managers rely on women and minority partners and administrators to promote diversity efforts and mentor younger women and minority-group associates and staff. A fresher approach is to acknowledge that an inclusive environment calls for participation by all ranks, especially nonminorities. Law firms can meet challenges by tapping their most respected leaders-not just managers, but rainmakers as well-to fully engage partners, associates and staff. Practices that engage the entire firm are much more likely to succeed than less integrated activities. There is no dearth of resources for law firms and lawyers to draw upon. The MCCA, for example, has launched a best-practices project, “Creating Pathways to Diversity,” to identify a core set of recommended practices by which firms can recruit and retain women and attorneys of color. It declares that the most important driver to an active commitment to diversity is a strong business case. It also provides insight on the value of senior partner involvement, accountability for successes and failures in recruitment and retention, and mechanisms for effective mentoring. Law firms can glean invaluable insight by talking to peers and sparking a meaningful dialogue on the obstacles to diversity, to identify lessons learned. For example, a group of minority associates in Washington organized the D.C. Minority Attorney Networking Series to address issues facing attorneys of color. This is a series of forums, scheduled quarterly, by prominent speakers from diverse legal backgrounds. At last count, 31 major law firms in the Washington area participate in the project. See www.mcca.com/site/data/researchprograms/lfbestpractices/pathwaysII/pathwaysIItoc.shtml. Look beyond the numbers. Fine-tune the communications effort internally and externally. Those shades of difference are invaluable assets. Derede McAlpin is an assistant director in the Washington office of Levick Strategic Communications, a public relations and legal consulting firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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