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Emery Harlan knows just how hard it is for a small, minority-owned firm to survive these days. First it has to fend off cherry-picking by big firms looking to diversify their own ranks; then it has to fight for work at corporations trying to trim their outside hiring. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve received RFPs [requests for proposals] from companies that are consolidating their legal work,” says Harlan, of Milwaukee-based Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan. “And if you’re in a small practice, you’re at a competitive disadvantage.” But he believes that the new trade association he and several colleagues started last fall will help attorneys of color who work on their own. The National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, Harlan explains, will give its members an edge in the fight for clients by establishing itself as a reliable resource for companies looking to employ diverse outside counsel. Changes in corporate policies have had a major impact on minority firms. “In the early eighties, companies made a concerted effort to find minority attorneys, to mix up their outside counsel lineup,” Harlan says. “In the nineties, the focus started to change away from using minority- and women-owned law firms, to using majority firms that put minority and women associates on their matters.” After talking with other attorneys of color, Harlan decided that existing organizations for minority attorneys weren’t doing enough to address the problem. So he began to plan NAMWOLF. Harlan pulled together a board of directors that, besides himself as chair, includes his law firm partner Jerry Gonzalez; Chuck Chionuma of Chionuma & Associates in Kansas City, Missouri; Lynn Luker of Luker, Sibal & McMurtray in New Orleans; and Patrice Borders of Prevention Strategies, Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting firm. The group has written a business plan, set up a Web site at www.namwolf.org, and will hire an executive director by the end of the year. This spring it will send out a mailing to approximately 300 minority- and women-owned law firms. To join, firms will have to go through the group’s screening process. Harlan explains that a selective membership is crucial to NAMWOLF’s success. “We’ve heard from other in-house lawyers that have tried to hire minority and women attorneys in the past, that they’ve gotten resumes from people who clearly don’t have a background in doing corporate work,” he says. “The firms that will be part of our program will have a demonstrated track record of representing major corporations for some time. It won’t be open to private-injury firms.” Potential members will have to submit references from three corporate clients. Vermont-based SRI World Group and Kinder Lyndenberg Domini & Company of Boston, mutual fund companies with a social-activist bent, have signed on as affiliates of the new group. Plus, Harlan has been able to recruit Microsoft Corporation, PepsiCo, and E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company as corporate sponsors. The companies are providing the financial support that will enable the group to hire its first full-time staff person. Harlan got to know outgoing PepsiCo general counsel Robert Sharpe, Jr., and incoming Microsoft Corporation GC Brad Smith as clients, and both were quick to sign on as backers. “We see this as a step that will encourage greater diversity in the profession,” says Microsoft’s Smith. “There has not been an easy way to identify minority-owned law firms.” NAMWOLF, he says, will be “a vehicle that can help us do that.” The organization’s screening process will make it a more useful resource for corporations, says Sharpe. In his conversations with Harlan, the PepsiCo GC says, “I expressed some of my frustrations about finding minority firms that were qualified for corporate work — securities work in particular.” Sharpe says that companies will be able to use NAMWOLF as a minority-specific version of Martindale-Hubbell, to find counsel in a specific city. Sharpe and Smith agree that outside counsel consolidation is a very real corporate trend, but they both stress that diversity must be an even higher priority for companies. “The commitment to support minority firms has to transcend budgetary and convenience concerns,” maintains Sharpe. “If you believe in it, you’ve got to make it happen.” And NAMWOLF is one way to make it happen. According to Microsoft’s Smith, “For small firms to continue to be successful, they need to think about how they can compete with larger institutions and their economies of scale.” A trade association like NAMWOLF, he explains, will help firms compete better by sharing information and strategies. Both its leaders and backers agree on what NAMWOLF can do in the short term, but they diverge on their long-term visions. Harlan thinks that the association will be a matchmaker that pairs members not only with clients, but with each other. Some firms may decide to ride the merger wave themselves, he says, and form a large minority- or women-owned firm. Microsoft’s Smith, meanwhile, says that in working with more minority law firms, he hopes to find more minority lawyers to bring in-house. “You tend to hire a significant number of people from the law firms that are doing work for you,” he explains. NAMWOLF “may introduce us to talented people who may one day join us as employees,” Smith says. If that happens, minority firms will face yet another challenge to their survival.

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