Teresa Roseborough, GC of Home Depot, says businesses have found that Diversity makes us money.
Teresa Roseborough, GC of Home Depot, says businesses have found that Diversity makes us money. (File photo)

The first in a new series of conversations about diversity in the legal profession drew a crowd of about 200 to Emory University School of Law on Monday evening.

“All of these firms and in-house departments have been doing their own diversity efforts, and we thought a law school would be a good place to engage in a conversation on best practices,” said Melba Hughes, a partner at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa, who is organizing Emory Law’s Diversity Speaker Series.

Corporate law departments have made more progress in increasing diversity than firms, said the three high-profile general counsel and the former CEO of MetLife who participated in Monday’s panel discussion.

UPS’s chief legal officer, Teri McClure, moderated the panel, which was made up of Home Depot’s general counsel, Teresa Roseborough; DuPont’s general counsel, Thomas Sager; and the retired chairman, president and CEO of MetLife, C. Robert Henrikson.

“The GC suite is changing,” Sager said. “Our ability to attract women and minorities is at an all-time high.”

Dupont and other corporate law departments may not pay as much as private firms, he said, but they offer work-life balance instead of an “eat what you kill” mentality, a more inclusive environment and a chance to participate in the business’s strategy.

Sager said law firms’ myopic focus on profit impeded their efforts to promote diversity. “I think law firms are very short-term focused. At the end of the year, they see how they did and divide up the spoils.”

“Law firms need to understand that it’s more than how many more clients come in through the door because of their diversity efforts,” Sager said.

“And the commitment to diversity can evaporate overnight,” he cautioned.

The panelists agreed that the business case for diversity has already been established, citing changing demographics in the U.S. and U.S. corporations’ globalized and more diverse customer base.

“Diversity makes us money,” Roseborough said succinctly.

The increased mobility of lawyers moving from firm to firm may be another reason corporate legal departments are making more progress in promoting diversity than firms, McClure suggested. A law department doesn’t want to lose the investment it’s made in hiring someone by having them leave, she said. “You’ve got to invest in their success.”

Sager acknowledged that diversity gains in the legal profession have been gradual. “If you get hung up on the numbers, you’re going to get distracted improperly and even depressed,” he said.

“I see progress. You’ve got to convince the law firms,” Sager said, because it’s from firms that corporate legal departments draw their talent. “And they think short term.”

Most of the country’s lawyers do not work in large law firms used by Fortune 500 corporations, Roseborough added, “but that’s where the political and economic wealth is.”

To effect change, corporate law departments must require firms to demonstrate a commitment to diversity by reporting the numbers of diverse lawyers in their organizations in some way, Sager said.

“That’s where the dialogue begins. If you are not relentlessly doing assessment and giving feedback, they’re not going to take you seriously. We have the power of the purse,” Sager said.

Henrikson cautioned that metrics can be manipulated but agreed that they provide a starting point for conversation.

Roseborough said Home Depot’s law department was already diverse when she became general counsel two years ago and it requires outside firms to submit reports on their own diversity. She added that she’s interested in identifying additional minority and women-owned firms for Home Depot to use.

McClure asked the panelists if organizations risk a backlash from white employees by labeling efforts to recruit and retain non-white employees as a diversity program.

Sager said no. “People are not stupid. They understand if people have enough gas in the tank—the intellectual capacity and work ethic,” he said.

Roseborough noted that she was able to attend college at the University of Virginia because of a minority scholarship.

“I don’t mind that I get picked to do things because I’m an African-American woman,” she said. “I hope I’ve brought as much to those environments as I’ve gained from them.”

As an example of a different kind of affirmative action, Roseborough said, the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist only hired law clerks who could play tennis. “They had to prove they deserved the job once they got there,” she added.

Promoting diversity and inclusion is an ongoing effort, Henrikson said, and changing the status quo is like fighting crabgrass. “If you don’t keep at it, it will come back,” he said.

Roseborough noted that earlier this month the State Bar of Georgia drew criticism from its Board of Governors for the lack of diversity on a 12-member committee formed to identify a new executive director for the bar after Cliff Brashier’s death in December. Nine of the 12 committee members were white men, with only three women, one of whom is African-American.

As a result, two lawyers were added to the committee: State Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian, who is Asian-American, and Young Lawyer Division past president Derek White, an African-American lawyer in private practice.

“We continually need to have this dialogue,” McClure said.

Five firms—Alston & Bird, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Schiff Hardin, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and Taylor English Duma—sponsored the event at Emory’s law school. Dean Robert Schapiro said the firms contributed $25,000 to the law school’s diversity initiative, which includes minority scholarships.