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In the realm of talk versus action, diversity retention within corporate legal departments ranks high in the “talk” area. Despite the best intentions from senior executives, corporate legal departments remain the worse offenders in terms of diversity, compared to other corporate departments nationwide. Increasing and retaining diverse in-house attorneys is not an enigma, however. How do we get there from here? If we look into some emerging best practices, we can see that there is hope for improving retention within corporate legal departments. Minority access to the corporate legal world begins at the front gates of our law schools. The Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholding race-based affirmative action in University of Michigan Law School admissions, supports increased access for minority groups to legal education. Despite this milestone, we are still seeing a 12-year low in the number of African-American law students (from a high of 7.4 over the last 12 years to 6.6 percent currently), according to the American Bar Association. The top 200 law firms base their hiring decisions on law school background. Corporate law departments then generally hire from top law firms or at least choose candidates with strong law firm backgrounds. Given these facts, moving toward a more representative and diverse corporate legal department under traditional comparative criteria remains a daunting challenge. As an executive search professional with more than a decade of legal practice experience, I’ve seen that an in-house attorney search for a corporate attorney with 10 years of experience translates into something like this: Get me someone from a top school with superior academics — for instance, someone from a top 20 law firm in the top 25 percent of his law school class. With African-Americans representing about 6.6 percent of law school students, and a portion of the top 25 percent of those students leaving the profession over the next 10 years, you end up with a nationwide pool of just 26 candidates. There are qualified minorities out there for corporate legal departments, but they can’t be found using traditional credential filters. In the 2000 U.S. Census, minorities made up 9.7 percent of all attorneys nationwide, up from 7.6 percent in 1990. African-Americans continue to be the largest minority group at 3.9 percent of attorneys. While their numbers have increased by 31.9 percent between 1990 and 2000, growth has been slower than the growth of Hispanics (a 53.8 percent increase) and Asian-Americans (an 88.1 percent increase) during the same period. That is not to say the winds of change aren’t blowing. In 2001, minority representation in corporate law departments was 12.5 percent versus 9 percent four years prior. The breakdown of these positions included 16.4 percent at a staff attorney level and 9.1 percent as general counsel. The most recent 2004 studies show minorities make up 5.2 percent of general counsel in the Fortune 500 and 4.3 percent in the Fortune 1000. Geographically, minority representation among corporate counsel is highest in the South Atlantic region (19.9 percent) and in the information industry (17.3 percent). It is the lowest in New England (less than 1 percent) and in the finance and insurance industry (0.7 percent). To effect change, we must keep an eye on these evolving statistics and implement proactive methods to address their root causes. GETTING AND KEEPING THE BEST Over the next 10 years, economists predict an increased need for a professional work force. Far more jobs are going to become available than there will be qualified available candidates to fill them. The talent war will get bloodier, more competitive, and more difficult among corporate legal departments. If a company succeeds in beating others to the best talent, it will be because it has created a more inclusive and better place to work. This company will be the place where people who have choices want to work. Given the finite universe of qualified diverse candidates, recruiting and retaining the best diverse talent requires foresight, planning, and a shift in company culture. Attracting diverse candidates is only the first step, however. Anyone with a bit of common sense knows that getting someone to say yes and keeping him around are two vastly different things. Thinking an increase in diversity ends at a successful candidate’s acceptance is a recipe for attrition. No matter how strong your brand and the sell on the front end, creating and maintaining an environment that facilitates job satisfaction and growth is the only real path to retention. Financial incentives aside, there is no substitute for developing best practices for diversity retention. FIXING THE SITUATION We need to recognize the wisdom of the famous quote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We can learn from the experiences of diverse attorneys to improve the culture of corporate legal departments. According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 91 percent of minorities within corporate legal departments report fewer opportunities than those offered to their nonminority counterparts. Sixty-one percent of these same minorities further report egregious discriminatory practices. How do we address these issues? Scott Terrillion, vice president and associate general counsel of the global pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, co-chaired a 2007 panel on diversity retention best practices in New York. Boehringer has been a leader in furthering its internal corporate diversity retention. It has established diversity councils that include a mixture of employees and managers to improve its diversity initiatives. Through purchasing and contracting practices, Boehringer also maintains supplier diversity, and it has set up multiple diversity networking groups for employees and others outside the company. Terrillion relays the following concepts: 1. Title and status is not the key; working in a good environment is. How much money would be enough for you to work in a bad environment you could barely stand each day? Most people with any seasoning realize it would be difficult to be paid enough in such a situation and that an exciting, open, and welcoming working environment is among the highest of priorities. 2. Senior management must be committed to the process. Creating a good work environment does not come from the bottom up. It comes from the top down. A cultural shift in the company towards respect and inclusion of all employees into the business practice requires senior management to believe in and commit to the process. The ideal situation is for the company to share the values and importance of maintaining an open, inclusive environment. How you do it on a daily basis is the relevant question. Terrillion notes it cannot be something you do in one project and then are done. Establishing corporate values must be a way of doing business across the board. 3. Do the basics right. A structured, uniform recruiting process is a prerequisite to diversity retention best practices. Know what good looks like. This means establishing ways of looking for people that will ensure you are looking in the places where diverse candidates can be found (e.g., job fairs, minority corporate counsel associations, experienced recruiters and firms, etc.). To begin and maintain a meaningful presence, Terrillion says senior management at the VP level and above should be attending such functions. This puts a face on diversity and sends a clear public message of a company’s commitment. Standardizing the interview process is the next step. Behavior-based interviewing has proven a very successful technique here. This involves establishing competencies that are important to success at the company, the people within it, the respective department, and the job itself. Then develop questions to test the identified competencies and interview for these qualities based on the concrete experiences of the candidates. Don’t forget to continuously improve the process by circling back after the interview process with the people you have just hired to assess what went well and what can be done better. Ensuring a broad panel of interviewers can help prevent personal biases from affecting the recruitment process. Technical ability is obviously important, but what allows people to really succeed and advance in companies has proven to be skills like communication, collaboration, and teamwork. Asking questions that are designed to elicit a candidate’s experiences (outside of law school) and are problem-oriented toward something the person will likely encounter on the job best fleshes out where a candidate stands and how likely it is that he has the nontechnical skills that will more likely create success in the position. 4. Make performance criteria and management transparent. The top issues most often reported by minority and nonminority employees alike include career development, opportunities for advancement, training, and the transparency of the performance management process. To be fair and equitable, all employees should be given clear, intuitively measurable performance criteria by which they will be evaluated. Through a standardized performance management process with regular reviews, each employee’s personal development will set out specific objectives. Having this in place is important to the strength of any diversity inclusion initiative. A development plan for each attorney should be made shortly after his hire, based upon reasonable career ladders that set out the behaviors an employee would need to exhibit to do better in his current position or advance to another. These career ladders should have very specific behavioral components attached and be tracked in regular intervals. All employees need to be given the opportunity to receive the “stretch” assignments that will help them develop and advance in their organization. Honest, timely, and useful feedback from senior attorneys and managers creates measured objectives in an environment where people can succeed regardless of the situation. 5. Have a plan. As diversity retention must be a true corporate cultural commitment at the highest levels (and a cultural shift in many cases), it is not something that will happen in small pieces with everyone in the organization, including senior management, hoping for the best. Like any good business plan, diversity retention requires that executives and managers sit down to figure out what is important to the company and how to move the ball forward. The plan needs to be measurable and contain procedures so this year’s project will become next year’s way of doing business. There is no magic to diversity retention. It simply requires senior management to believe and remain committed to the process until it becomes part of the corporate culture. When companies have a plan, do the basics right, and create a good work environment with meaningful inclusion, diversity retention can move from being a well-intentioned discussion to reality within corporate legal departments.
Daniel A. Panitz is a lawyer and vice president with legal search firm Empire Search Partners in New York City.

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