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Corporations have made greater progress than law firms in championing diversity and promoting minorities to top-level legal positions, according to panelists speaking at a Pennsylvania Bar Association conference last week. The discussion, held at the Westin Philadelphia Hotel for the Minority Bar Conference and titled “Minorities in Business: Is the Glass Ceiling Cracked?” featured four speakers: John G. Chou, counsel for AmeriSource in Chesterbrook, Pa.; Pedro J. Rivera, counsel for PNC Bank; Karen Jackson Vaughn, assistant dean for career planning at Temple University Beasley School of Law; and Homer Floyd, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Chou and Rivera focused on diversity in corporations, which the panelists agreed are a step ahead of law firms in bringing about change. Chou said 65 corporations had signed on to an amicus curiae brief in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday. Meanwhile, no law firm has signed on to the brief. “The fact that 65 corporations were willing to submit an amicus brief in connection with a politically charged Supreme Court case shows businesses have moved forward in a way that the legal profession, particularly law schools and law firms, have not,” Chou said. Chou said diversity is now an accepted goal of corporations, and that’s progress. “No corporation wants to have in its annual report a picture of an all-white, all-male board of directors,” he said. However, that progress has been more on an individual level rather than on a widespread scale, Chou said. “When you look at programs we have tried to start on an institutional level that were intended to enhance opportunities for minorities in legal business, for law firms or for senior management positions in large legal departments, those seem to die on the vine,” he said. The apparent failure of Philadelphia law firms’ pledge to increase minority representation and retention stands in stark contrast to the progress seen in the corporate world, the panelists said. Almost a decade ago, the Philadelphia Bar Association secured a pledge from 40 leading law firms and corporate legal departments backing the association’s goals for greater hiring and retention of minority attorneys. According to Chou, the pledge, however well-intentioned, seems to have died from neglect. For instance, he noted that information on the pledge, included on the bar association’s Web site, doesn’t appear to have been updated since 1994. Chou said he is concerned because he sees such a small number of minority lawyers handling work such as corporate transactions or financing. The answer, according to him and other members of the panel, is to place more minorities in the position to focus on and achieve in those areas of the law. That can be done by having corporate partners in firms training younger associates and delegating corporate work to them and by encouraging students in law school, Chou said. Rivera picked up on Chou’s theme, saying that without support from “the people on top” it will be nearly impossible for more minority attorneys to rise up the ranks. “It’s a combination of legislation, tolerant employees and companies willing to take the risk,” Rivera said. Diversity committees in corporations can also make a big difference, he said. “My experience has been that diversity needs a systematic approach that includes strategy, consistent implementation, the means and a network,” Rivera said. The committees need to focus on issues such as recruitment, retention, mentoring and promoting minorities from within, Rivera said, and must have follow-up discussions with and support from those at the top of the corporation. Companies also need to look at whether they have a need for diversity training to make employees more sensitive, Rivera said. Vaughn spoke on another aspect of the pipeline problem: getting minority students into law schools. In 1996, she said, 25 percent of Temple’s incoming class was a member of a minority. In 2002, that number fell to 18 percent, she said. “It’s a very telling situation to me, a very disturbing situation to me. We have to move fast,” Vaughn said. Firms can help by encouraging students to go to college in the first place, providing exposure to the firm environment through internships, giving out scholarships and supporting mock trial events. “If firms really want to have an impact, there’s a lot of room to encourage minority students,” Vaughn said. Once minorities are in the firms, however, Vaughn said, mentoring is key. “There’s not enough we can say about mentoring,” she said. “The complaint I constantly hear is that folks do not get a chance to get connected with those key clients or work on the kinds of cases that will help put them on the partnership track.” Both Vaughn and Floyd mentioned that when the economy takes a hit, efforts toward diversification takes one as well. Floyd said that is a pipeline issue as well, since minorities, often working from the bottom up, are in the most expendable positions. “We’re in the staff positions, but we’re not in the lifeblood of the organization,” Floyd said. “So what happens when there’s an economic downturn? We’re out the door.” Floyd also spoke about equal opportunity and reverse discrimination. “We have lost the momentum on equal opportunity in this country. We’ve got white males who have a percent of everything that moves in this country saying they’re being the victims of discrimination,” he said. Floyd said he doesn’t see many examples of reverse discrimination in his daily life. “People say blacks are getting preferential treatment, and I walk out into the streets of Harrisburg and I say, Where, where? I go in to the corporations and I see one or two of my brothers and sisters and occasionally I see a Hispanic and I’m saying, ‘This is discrimination in reverse?’ “ It is important for minorities to focus on economic development if they want to make things happen, Floyd said. “We’ve got to recognize we’re not going to get very far working for somebody else. So we’ve got to put ourselves in a position to negotiate on equal footing,” Floyd said. On a positive note, Floyd said, progress has been made since the time he became an attorney. “Thirty years ago, we were talking about how to get African-Americans to pass the bar. If we had called a minority bar meeting then, we only would have had a handful of lawyers,” he said. “So it’s very encouraging to come and see you all here.”

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