The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity was launched three years ago on the premise that getting law firm managing partners and general counsel into the same room to tackle diversity in the legal profession — or the lack thereof — would energize the legal diversity movement.

Membership in the organization has grown from 19 founding law firms and legal departments to 209, and the council has launched a number of initiatives geared toward helping minority lawyers and law students gain leadership skills.

Its LCLD Fellows Program, which pairs promising young attorneys with mentors and offers conferences and other leadership training, has had 250 participants in two years. The council’s law student mentoring program has attracted 1,420 participants in 25 cities. A more intensive program that pairs 1Ls with mentors and helps them form networks of their peers has tripled in size during the past year.

General Mills Inc. General Counsel Roderick Palmore has been a driving force behind the council, but will step down as its chairman this week during the council’s annual meeting; succeeding him will be Hunton & Williams managing partner Wally Martinez. The National Law Journal spoke with Palmore about the council’s work. His answers have been edited for length.

The National Law Journal: Why are you stepping down as chairman?

Rick Palmore: I just think it’s time. I’ve been chair since the founding of the organization. I want this organization to have legs well beyond me, obviously. We’ve got the leadership, so I just think it’s time.

NLJ: What do see as the council’s biggest accomplishments thus far?

RP: First of all, I think one of our accomplishments has been getting the leaders of the profession — the managing partners and the general counsel — together in one room to collaborate and work together on this issue. I think, historically, that firms and companies have pointed the finger at each other, and I don’t think that’s been the most productive way to approach the issue.

Second, we’re talking about diversity in a different way. We are focusing on the fact that this is a critical part of the talent imperative that each one of our organizations has. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a new way of looking at diversity, but all too often diversity has been thought of a one-off — something that’s nice to have. In tough times, people think we can afford to overlook it, when in reality it’s a central part of the talent challenges that we all face. We’ve got to have the best talent available of all stripes for our organizations to thrive in what is a hypercompetitive world.

Third, we are developing substantive programs together that we think will drive this imperative in a substantive way. The best example is our LCLD Fellows program, in which we take top talent, high-potential people from our organizations, and bring them together not to teach them to be good lawyers — because they’ve already been identified as high-level practitioners — but to give them experiences that will facilitate their careers. Help them navigate their organizations and the profession.

NLJ: The council has seen a lot of growth over the past three years.

RP: Yes, that’s been gratifying. I take that to mean that people are recognizing that we’re here trying to do things that are substantive and worthwhile. They see the value in that. It’s a tough time economically, obviously, and it’s a cynical time in just about every way. For people to see yet another diversity organization and decide that they should sign on in significant numbers is gratifying.

NLJ: What do you think your LCLD fellows and law students are getting out of their experience with the council?

RP: This is the kind of experience that I think they have thirsted for. It’s different, and it gives them a level of exposure within their organizations and outside their organizations that they have not had before. It’s been great to see.

NLJ: Do you think the council’s work has had an impact on the profession as a whole yet?

RP: The short answer is no. It would have been presumptuous to think that in three years we would get there. This is going to be a slog. That’s the reality. We didn’t get here in a minute; we’re not going to resolve this in a minute. If this issue was easy to solve in a short period of time, it would have been solved many years ago. We have to be committed and tenacious about this.

Do I think we’re making progress and having an impact? Absolutely. Have we turned around the profession? Absolutely not. What we’re trying to do is set it up so in the years to come, we can say we made a difference and there was a step change in how the profession was performing and how we’re thinking about talent.

NLJ: What do you see as the biggest challenges for diversity efforts going forward?

RP: There are a couple of things. One is that the individuals and organizations that get it recognize the centrality of this to the business enterprise. In a lot of cases, that’s a huge challenge — getting folks to recognize that this is about getting our organization in the best competitive posture and utilizing our talent in a way that’s smarter. If we can get more efficient about it — by that I mean we optimally utilize the talent that comes into our organizations — we’ll be much better off. To be crass about it, we’ll make more money.

The second challenge is what I call diversity fatigue. This is a decades-long struggle, and people are tired. I get that. That’s why it’s important for this effort to be different and try a different approach. The third is — how do I put this? — the “if it’s good for you, it must be bad for me” syndrome, in which we’re all pitted against each other. Honestly, that’s just not the way it works.