As one of U.S. News and World Report's top 100 colleges, Boston's Northeastern University attracts students from around the world, and the administration has been working to institute policies and practices that reflect this diverse population.
"Our view is that if we are going to send our students out into the world, our philosophy must embrace global attitudes," said general counsel and senior vice president Ralph Martin II, who has held the position since 2011. "This philosophy informs how the university does business."
Recruited by university president Joseph Aoun, Martin has been on a mission to expand the private school's diversity efforts. One of his first orders of business was "recalibrating" the Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion, which he oversees.
"I felt it needed some retooling, so we brought in a consulting firm in the fall of 2012," Martin said. "We shifted the control to the academic side because we felt that with a large educational institution such as ours, the office would have the greatest influence in the academic realm."
The change took effect in the spring with John Armendariz taking the reins as vice provost for institutional diversity and inclusion. "When the office is under the general counsel's control, there is a large perception that it is driven by regulatory and client concerns, and we wanted its reach to be much broader," Martin said.
The law department's eight attorneys are evenly split between men and women and, besides Martin himself, who is African American, includes one additional diverse attorney Jigisha Patel, who specializes in immigration.
"It is a very supportive atmosphere in which to work," said Patel, who joined the team in August 2007. "Everyone has a unique background, knowledge and skills — and we embrace that diversity, which I believe helps us to be a better office overall. As a woman who has two young daughters, the support I have received has allowed me to advance and grow."
In addition to the attorneys, there are three paralegals — one is African American and another Asian American. "We generally have two co-op law students and one intern, and when we interview for the positions, diversity is one factor that we look at," Patel said.
In his former incarnation as managing partner of the Boston office of international law firm Bingham McCutchen, Martin served as co-chairman of the firm's national diversity committee. Now that he's moved in-house, a law firm's commitment to diversity is an important consideration when he chooses outside counsel. "For us, it's not the billable hour that is key — we want to see that the firm's values reflect those of the university. We look at whether people of color and women are among the associates and partners."
As a result, he said, he spreads work to firms of sizes both large and small. One outside firm he uses is Littler Mendelson, which prides itself on its diversity policies.
"We are recognized for our diversity initiatives annually," Littler shareholder David Casey said. "Ralph is aware of our commitment and has worked with not only myself on matters but with our female attorneys and one lawyer of color at our firm. I would say there is no one more committed to this issue in the Boston legal community than Ralph."
According to Martin, one of the hindrances to diversity is attitudes about what qualities make a successful candidate. "There are too many firms and legal departments fishing in the same waters," he said. "They all want to recruit students from the top law schools who graduated at the top of their classes. To have a diverse workforce, recruiters have to look outside the traditional predictors of success to see what broader competencies candidates might possess."
In the case of Northeastern, one might say that Martin has a home court advantage, since he was a graduate of the law school.
"Coming back to Northeastern has been great," he said. "The institution is over 100 years old, and it is driven by change. At one time, it was a commuter college. But now our constituents come from around the globe, and we cannot afford to stagnate in any way."
Martin is the son of a first-generation Jamaican-American; he and his sister were raised by their father in Brooklyn, N.Y. He said he has never forgotten where he came from.
"I have never missed an opportunity to influence the hiring policies of any place that I have worked," he said. For example, when he began his tenure as Suffolk County, Mass., district attorney in 1992, the office was largely populated by white people.
"By the time I left, it was easily the most diverse prosecutor's office in New England," he said.
In the case of the law department at Northeastern, Martin said, the next frontier to be conquered is technology. "We have begun experimenting with case management software, which will help us track a lot of different variables."
While the office is making strides on diversity, Martin is not about to get complacent.
"The work is never really finished," he said. "Our success cannot be measured by whether I am comfortable, but whether people who do not hold the same title feel that way."
KEYS TO SUCCESS
• Doing good work by itself is not enough. I've seen too many people, especially women and people of color, make the assumption that doing good work will speak for itself, and that view is not broad enough.
• Take assignments that are out of your comfort zone. Some of the best opportunities have come to me when I asked for an assignment that required me to develop new skills.
• If you think you are doing a good job, ask for feedback. People forget that those who hand out assignments are really busy and may forget to offer it. Asking for feedback shows you are interested in your performance.
• If you never leave your office and work in isolation, it will take longer to advance. People must take an interest in you. Don't wait to be sought out.
— Ralph Martin II, general counsel