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In January, when Venable announced that it was forming an alliance with Brown & Sheehan, it was the latest example of a revived diversity strategy: large law firms linking up with smaller, minority-owned firms. The pairing follows similar partnerships between Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and Molden Holley Fergusson Thompson & Heard as well as between Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and Pugh, Jones, Johnson & Quandt. As more and more corporate clients ask their outside counsel to staff matters with minority lawyers, Sonnenschein, Womble and Venable have adopted this strategy — pioneered by law firms in the late 1980s, but out of favor since — to meet their clients’ demands. By teaming up with minority-owned firms, these large, mostly white firms can tap into a pool of experienced lawyers of color, which makes their clients happy. The smaller firms, meanwhile, can get access to resources and clients that might otherwise be out of reach. The allied firms may also pitch for business together. It sounds like a win-win situation for everyone. But are the big firms simply outsourcing their diversity efforts? Sonnenschein was the first of the three large firms to try the arrangement. The Chicago-based firm has done better on the diversity front than most firms, with 13.1 percent of its lawyers belonging to a minority ethnic group. (The national average among large firms is 11.4 percent.) Even so, the difficulty of recruiting and keeping minority lawyers sent the firm searching for alternative ways to improve its diversity, particularly at the partner level, says partner James Klenk. Two years ago, Sonnenschein partners approached the lawyers at Chicago’s Pugh Jones about merging. “It’s the most prominent minority-owned firm in Chicago, in our view,” Klenk says. “Plus, several of my partners and myself knew the principals in Pugh Jones, and we knew they had the background and experience to be our partners.” The response from Pugh Jones: No, thanks. The smaller firm wanted to retain its autonomy. “To be a diverse partner in a majority firm can be very isolating, I can respect that,” says Klenk. Still, the firms wanted to find some way to work together. In July 2004 they formed an alliance. Winston-Salem, N.C.’s Womble Carlyle (only 7.6 percent minority) and Baltimore’s Venable (9 percent minority) made similar merger overtures toward Atlanta’s Molden Holley and Baltimore’s Brown & Sheehan, respectively. Like Sonnenschein, they were turned down because the other firms wanted to remain independent; they established alliances instead. (Venable’s announcement came after it lost minority partner Edmund Cooke Jr. to Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.) Phillip Wells, general counsel for food service and hospitality contractor Compass Group, The Americas Division, says that since Womble Carlyle lawyers introduced him and his staff to the lawyers at Molden Holley, he’s reached out directly to the minority firm on some assignments. “I see Womble as a conduit for them into businesses that they might not have a conduit into, and where necessary, they’ll use Womble skills and expertise,” he says. Some business has also gone to Womble Carlyle from Molden Holley clients — an Atlanta hospital recently needed lawyers specializing in health care law, and no one at Molden’s firm fit the bill. At Sonnenschein, Klenk says, Pugh Jones’ strong real estate practice has helped the larger firm land more real estate work from its existing clients. And early in the alliance, Pugh Jones became one of Aon Corp.’s preferred law firms, in part because of its relationship with Sonnenschein. Since Venable and Brown & Sheehan joined forces, the two have pursued state bond work together. While such arrangements can be a boost to minority firms, the danger is that they might allow large firms to paper over their own lack of diversity. “If the general counsel are going to say, �Well, they can staff our matters with minority lawyers because they’re in this alliance,’ does that take the pressure off integrating the firm itself?” asks diversity expert David Wilkins, director of Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession. “That’s a completely legitimate question.” Big firms that have entered into such alliances say that clients who care about diversity won’t accept such measures as a substitute for diversifying the majority-owned firm itself. On the other hand, Wilkins says, the alliances might allow minority firms to influence how diversity evolves at the larger firms. Klenk says he believes that the alliance with Pugh Jones has already helped Sonnenschein’s diversity efforts. “With an alliance like this, a majority firm has a pool of mentors that more-junior diverse associates can turn to for advice or to get hooked into the community,” Klenk says. “They can talk to those minority firm partners in a way that they can’t talk to me, a majority manager.”
Dimitra Kessenides is a staff writer for the Minority Law Journal , an ALM publication.

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