Laura J. Maechtlen, Seyfarth Shaw.
Laura J. Maechtlen, Seyfarth Shaw. (courtesy photo)

A few tweaks were required when the legal profession, anxious to improve diversity within its ranks, borrowed from the National Football League’s playbook and adopted the “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview minority candidates for all head coach openings.

At Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw, for example, executives do their hiring mindful of the “Rooney Presumption,” according to partner Laura Maechtlen, who spoke from San Francisco and is national vice chair of the labor and employment department and co-chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion action team.

“When we were discussing the program with some of our leaders, there were concerns voiced that it would limit our ability to make hires quickly if we had a sudden need, or maybe if an important client wanted us to bring someone on board that they’d been with for years,” she said. “We wanted to make clear that it didn’t mean quotas, and wouldn’t apply in each and every case,” she said.

By whatever name, the policy has been applied in enough cases that Seyfarth Shaw has scored an early touchdown in terms of diversity hiring.

Since the pilot program was put in place last year in the labor and employment department, Seyfarth’s largest department, the number of minority associate hires has nearly doubled, reaching 55. That success prompted leadership to expand the initiative across the firm in 2017 and so far this year, 38 of the 86 associate positions filled by Seyfarth Shaw have gone to minorities.

The NFL’s policy was drawn up by Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee, in response to the league’s abysmal numbers on hiring of minority head coaches. The legal industry record’s hasn’t been much better.

Minority representation among attorneys and partners nationwide inched up to 14.62 percent in 2016, while women accounted for 33.89 percent of that group, according to the National Association for Law Placement Inc. Since minorities make up 23.1 percent and women 50.8 percent of the U.S. population according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau figures, the legal profession is feeling heat to improve.

“We’re proud and lucky to have had leadership that has from the start supported diversity not only as the right thing to do, but also as a means of enabling the firm to do its best job,” said Maechtlen, referring to Seyfarth chairman emeritus J. Stephen Poor and chairman Peter C. Miller.

With diverse hires among associates having climbed to 44 percent, Seyfarth Shaw has already surpassed the 30 percent target for minority and women in leadership positions at law firms set earlier this year by Diversity Lab’s “Mansfield Rule,” which is modeled on the Rooney Rule and named for Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice law in the United States.

Seyfarth employs roughly 900 attorneys and is the largest of the 30 law firms participating in the program. Maechtlen would be glad to see her firm serve as an example of what can be achieved and offer some guidelines on what has worked and what hasn’t with Seyfarth’s implementation of a pilot and its “Rooney Presumption” program.

One thing Seyfarth Shaw recruiters have learned is how important sourcing is to the hiring process.

“In the past we’d post a position, put out the word and we’d get some very talented applicants, but they’d all be from traditional word-of-mouth sources,” she said. “Since intensely focusing on sourcing, we’ve suspended and reworked the process and procedures and we now look at job boards, associations, clubs, honor lists and others places that minorities and other diverse attorneys are involved with.”

The shift could prove prescient in the next few years. Though minority attendance is up, declining enrollment is an ongoing concern at law schools nationwide.

“Before, we might have wound up with two top candidates for a particular job. Now, because we’ve cast a much wider net in every one of our markets, we are getting more candidates that are equally qualified and talented,” she said. “We might wind up with five finalists for the position.”

The legal industry traditionally does not embrace change, but Maechtlen is encouraged by what she has observed.

“There is a lot of traction around the Diversity Lab programs and others like it,” she said. “I’m seeing firms paying attention and partnerships among organizations — law firms or corporations — coming together around diversity and inclusion. Maybe that collaboration and visibility can convince other firms that have considered participating in similar programs to take that big step,” she said.

How about the other firms, which despite the urgency of the situation, have chosen to stay on the sidelines?

“Maybe they’ll feel a little bit more pressure,” she said hopefully.