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Corporate legal departments are overwhelmingly white and male — even in the Washington area, a region that attracts the best and brightest from all ethnic backgrounds. But does that really matter? After all, in-house lawyers write contracts. They advise on intellectual property. They write the small print. It is usually impossible to tell the impact of race or ethnicity on such documents. And if there’s no difference in the product, some question the push to diversify the legal ranks. Of course, there are social policy reasons for promoting diversity — basic fairness, equal opportunity, and the deep-seated belief among many lawyers that the profession should reflect the society it purports to serve and be a vehicle for social justice. But recruiters, consultants, and corporate lawyers of all backgrounds say there are tangible benefits to diversifying in-house counsel. Smart, talented lawyers want to work in a meritocracy. A legal department composed exclusively of white men in golf shirts may be a meritocracy, but it doesn’t look like one. And a company or legal department that is committed to hiring the absolute best lawyers will recruit in places other than the general counsel’s former firm — and inevitably find a sterling minority candidate. “Anybody that truly wants [diversity] and makes it a priority can get it,” says Weldon Latham, a D.C.-based attorney who is in the process of moving his diversity counseling practice from Shaw Pittman to the D.C. office of Holland & Knight. SMALL IN NUMBER Still, only 14 general counsel positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by lawyers from ethnic minority backgrounds. That’s 2.8 percent. Of those 14, 11 were named in the past three years. According to a recent survey done by the American Corporate Counsel Association, minority corporate counsel increased from 4 percent to 9 percent between 1995 and 1998. And the percentage of women in corporate counsel positions increased from 24 to 37. Mary Adelman, president of Firm Advice Inc., a D.C.-based legal recruiting company that places lawyers in permanent corporate counsel positions, says that people doing the hiring for in-house spots — often the general counsel — don’t seek out minority candidates because they see no “hard and fast evidence that it adds to the bottom line.” In her five years of recruiting, not a single male employer has requested interviews with a diverse mix of candidates, Adelman says. Peggy Delinois, general counsel at City First Bank of D.C., believes such an approach is short-sighted. A diverse group of lawyers can produce better results for its corporate client, she says. And that affects the bottom line. “The law is not written in the abstract. It is a conglomeration of views,” she says. “There are legal principles that are written in law books and in the statutes, but the principles are always interpreted by the reader and they affect an audience. “In a corporate environment, where the lawyer’s job is to provide a good result to the client — not only the corporation but also the customers of the corporation — it’s important that legal opinions are complete and thoughtful and thorough,” Delinois adds. “To make sure that you are complete and thoughtful and thorough, it’s important to have everyone’s voice at the table.” Just as a diverse group of marketing executives can spot the parts of an advertising campaign that might backfire and offend the targeted community, “a diverse legal force may be helpful in seeing issues that may be sensitive,” Delinois says. Employment law, a primary focus in many corporate legal departments, is one major area where having a diverse legal staff can be a boon to the corporation and beneficial to the bottom line. “I think that it could make a difference,” says Paul Cappuccio, general counsel at America Online Inc., “when you’re reviewing how certain actions may have been perceived by an employee — whether it’s harassment, discrimination, or something similar.” In other words, a woman or minority lawyer might pick up on something a white male lawyer might not. On the other hand, Cappuccio adds, “I would not say that a lawyer with an Asian background brings a different perspective to an antitrust law matter than a lawyer with an Italian background.” Some general counsel, about 300 so far, find diversity such an important issue that they sent a letter to their outside firms informing them that their own efforts to increase diversity will factor heavily in whether they land corporate work. The letter is the brainchild of Charles Morgan, general counsel at the BellSouth Corp. in Atlanta. The law firms tend to respond by saying, ” ‘We just love diversity. We want diversity. But it’s just so darned hard. It’s so hard to get lawyers of color, and then getting them to stay is just so awfully difficult,’ ” says Morgan, who is white. “ We’re trying to use the power of the purse to say to the law firms, ‘We want to see a lot more activity on your part. Not that we’re so great, but we’re the ones who pay the bill.’ “ The reasoning behind the project — officially unnamed but thought of by Morgan as “Diversity Beyond the Rhetoric” — is primarily that he and the other GCs consider diversity “good social policy.” But he adds that “a diverse firm is probably going to be better. A more homogeneous firm is going to be less flexible,” he says. And a multiethnic legal department, Morgan says, is “stronger if you have the diversity of viewpoints. You’re going to know better how the customer or how the judge thinks. And for most of us, it’s just a lot more interesting.” Moreover, many people feel more comfortable when they work with at least some people who look like them. But the legal profession has remained predominantly white and male, alienating many stellar candidates from nontraditional backgrounds. “Most people don’t like being the only one,” says Delinois of City First Bank. “The numbers can often weigh in the balance of whether you go there or not.” Besides, Delinois adds, not all lawyers want to be part of a large institution — whether it’s a corporation or a law firm. “Women and minority lawyers exist,” she says. “They just exist in places other than large corporations and law firms.” HOLDING ON Achieving a critical mass in terms of diversity not only affects recruitment, but also plays into whether lawyers stay or move on. To illustrate, Latham uses his own experience as an African-American attorney, moving from a firm where there are four black partners to one where there will be 18. “I’ve been practicing for 30 years with some of the finest law firms in the country,” Latham says. “After 30 years, if I elect to pick a law firm where there are a number of people who look like me, that’s just normal human nature.” One of the primary reasons corporate counsel give for promoting diversity is that legal departments are part of the corporations they serve. They may have a unique role and a unique office culture, but many of the corporation’s workplace concerns are also the legal department’s concerns. At AOL, “the legal department is one of the growing grounds for managers,” says GC Cappuccio. “We’re in a consumer business. And if you want to maximize your success with your consumers, you need to have management that resembles your consumers.” And as a unit of an overarching corporation, the legal department is prey to two major corporate interests: shareholders and public relations. Shareholders, BellSouth’s Morgan points out, pay for in-house lawyers’ salaries. “There is no issue that I can think about that is more clear and unambiguous than that diversity is good for business,” he says. A legal department in a company with a reputation for being an old boy’s club or especially one facing discrimination class actions isn’t likely to attract or retain talented attorneys from any background. Meanwhile, the number of minority lawyers is increasing. In 1990, minorities made up 11 percent of total law school graduates, while women represented 43 percent of the total. Last year, women constituted 45 percent of the graduating class, and minorities 20 percent. But most in-house positions require at least five years of experience in the field, disqualifying many of the most recent graduates for current in-house openings. “You can’t get more senior lawyers just by snapping your fingers,” BellSouth’s Morgan says. “It takes time.”

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