After Arabella Mansfield took and passed the Iowa bar exam in 1869, she challenged the state law excluding her from practicing law, in the process becoming the first female lawyer in the U.S. Nearly 150 years later, Mansfield is lending her name to a new rule aimed at closing the gaps between women and minorities in leadership roles in Big Law.
Derived from the National Football League’s so-called Rooney Rule, which requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coach or general manager positions, the Mansfield Rule states that at least 30 percent of a law firms’ candidate pools for any leadership or governance position—including equity partnership promotions and lateral positions—must be comprised of women or minorities. Earlier this month, 30 large law firms signed on to pilot this new approach within the next year.
“These law firms have signed on [to] help us form the idea, put it into fruition, see what works, see what doesn’t work,” said Caren Ulrich Stacy, CEO of the Diversity Lab, which is working with the firms to develop the Mansfield Rule. “We’re going to stick with the firms and we’re going to help them measure and track and then [see] where the needle has moved over the course of the year so that its second iteration next year could be even better.”
The idea for the Mansfield Rule was initially proposed by Munger, Tolles & Olson partner Mark Helm and his group at last year’s pitch competition, an event organized by Stacy and the Diversity Lab called the Women in Law Hackathon.
Helm’s original idea called for firms to interview at least one woman for each leadership role in the firm. But, in the development of the pilot over the last year, Ulrich said research indicated that in order to create a tipping point, firms would need to consider two or more candidates for each position. The rule was later modified to also include minorities.
“It has been demonstrated again and again that diverse teams make better decisions. While we aspire to create those teams everywhere, including and especially in leadership, it is also well documented that unconscious bias clouds our best intentions,” said Fenwick & West managing partner Kathryn Fritz in a statement to The American Lawyer. “The Mansfield Rule helps us bring greater intention to our considerations and actions so that we can achieve our aspirational goal.”
Beginning this month, Ulrich and the Diversity Lab will work with firms to monitor their progress. Law firms that successfully pilot the Mansfield Rule over the next year will receive a distinct designation and have the opportunity to send their recently promoted diverse partners to a client forum in 2018 hosted by 45 in-house legal departments, including companies like Facebook Inc., HP Inc., Microsoft Corp. and PayPal Holdings Inc. ( Click here for a list of the participating law firms, which includes Canada’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.)
“If [this] moves the needle, and I expect that it will, even after a year, that would be ideal,” said Ulrich (pictured right). “But at a minimum, I just want folks to start thinking about the current pipeline of candidates.”
While efforts to mirror the Rooney Rule have had some success in other fields, such as the technology industry in Silicon Valley, not all are convinced that it is the solution for Big Law’s diversity problem.
Cyrus Mehri, a founding partner of Washington, D.C.’s Mehri & Skalet and co-author of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, also co-authored another study in 2011 looking at the issues of inclusion and diversity in the legal profession.
In the study, Mehri noted that while the Rooney Rule was met with success in the NFL, such results could not be replicated in the world of Big Law due to the “firms’ organizational structure and emphasis on progression up the hierarchy.”
Instead, Mehri opined that law firms could further their diversity efforts by requiring hiring committees to conduct in-person interviews with diverse candidates for summer associate and associate positions, as well as lateral hires.
Ulrich, however, sees the Mansfield Rule as an opportunity to directly confront Big Law’s gender and diversity issues.
“Law firms don’t typically try new things easily,” she said. “And I think we’re seeing a real shift in the legal field [where] folks are realizing that what we’re doing is not working. There’s a willingness to try new things and even to fail.”
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