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I read with interest an e-mail sent to me by a friend who is head of litigation at a corporation out West. The e-mail was a reflection on leadership and the impact role models have on the answer to the question we have all asked ourselves at one time or another: “Can I see myself there one day?”

As chair of the Defense Research Institute diversity committee and a member of my firm’s national diversity committee, I am often told that the biggest impediments to more racially and ethnically diverse law firms are a dearth of quality candidates and the failure of those who are qualified to stay. While the question of whether these obstacles do in fact exist is the subject of another article, I will assume arguendo that they are present for the sake of getting to the heart of this article. Assuming these observations are true, they beg a follow-up question: How do we increase the supply of these diverse candidates and retain those already in our charge? Short answer: We need “Tigers” with whom people of color can identify.

I have my friend’s permission to share his e-mail:

“I was at the Masters Tournament in 1997 when Tiger [Woods] won his first major by 12 strokes – the equivalent of lapping the field in other sports. The sense of pride and accomplishment was palpable amongst the few Blacks in attendance and the Black Folks working concessions and security. We all knowingly exchanged smiles, glances and nods at each other but respectfully did not exult openly. After all, golf was still THE White Man’s game and we were in his Temple.

A lot has transpired in those 11 years and Tiger has proven that his victory was not a fluke. He is the #1 golfer in the world with 13 major tournament trophies (so far) in his possession. He recently surpassed Arnold Palmer with 62 victories in his career. The complexion of the galleries at golf tournaments is no longer homogeneous nor is the complexion of those amateurs playing the game and the idea of a Black golf champion is no longer unimaginable (indeed, the unimaginable is if Tiger does not win). Before Tiger’s ascendance, golf was the bastion of the privileged, moneyed, White Male and Blacks, at best, carried the bags, served the tea, shined the shoes and raked the bunkers. Now, a multi-racial Black Man is setting the agenda. Tiger continues on his quest to become the best golfer in history.

So what is the Tiger Effect . . .? My hypothesis is that Tiger Woods’ complete dominance over [the] game of golf seminally transposed concepts of the possible in [ethnically and racially diverse] Americans.”

The message in this e-mail is simple and holds true for everyone, no matter what your race or ethnicity. When we see someone achieving who appears to look like us, we can identify with them and, therefore, feel it is more likely that we can achieve the same. Attorneys are not exempt.

Unless there is a shift in thinking among the leadership of law firms, these firms will continue to feel the lack of supply of “qualified” students of color because those students will seek out other positions (or even professions) that are recognized as more accepting of a diverse work force and are more likely to enable their rise to the top. Firms will also continue to lose the talent they already have because lawyers of color will continue to feel the pressure of trying to be “the first.”

For example, how many diverse attorneys can call themselves the managing partners of one of the NLJ top 100 law firms? Two hundred law firms? Three hundred law firms? How many racially and ethnically diverse attorneys are on the executive committees of these firms? How many racially and ethnically diverse attorneys are the managing partners of offices within these firms? When racially and ethnically diverse attorneys look at the leadership of these firms, do they see someone who appears to look like them?

There are, of course, no guarantees that the overall composition of law firms will necessarily change as a result of more attorneys of color assuming leadership positions, but we have everything to gain by testing this theory. I wonder if we in the legal world have any Tigers among us and, if so, will our current leadership be brave enough to allow them to play?

Raymond Williams is a partner in the product liability and toxic tort practice group of DLA Piper. Williams focuses his practice on complex product liability litigation, with an emphasis on pharmaceutical and medical device matters. He is a member of his firm’s national diversity committee and chairman of the DRI diversity committee.

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