General counsel have some advice for law firms that say they are trying to diversify their ranks by hiring minorities: Try harder.

Although many firms vow that diversity is a top priority demanding committee meetings, management strategy sessions and cut-throat recruiting, few are attacking the paltry number of minorities in law firms as a business problem, critics say.

“The progress had slowed, stopped, maybe even reversed,” asserted Sara Lee Corp. General Counsel Roderick Palmore.

In October, Palmore led a charge to get the country’s biggest corporations to renew a “Call to Action,” a revised version of a 1999 proclamation calling for more diversity in law firms. While Palmore and other general counsel said they have seen improvement in diversity among their go-to firms, they say the industry as a whole still is sorely lacking.

Minority attorneys make up just 9.64% of the total number of attorneys in the nation’s largest firms, according to The National Law Journal‘s most recent survey of the nation’s 250 largest firms, which came out in November 2004. That figure represents a slight increase from 2003, when minorities comprised 9.42% of attorneys among the NLJ 250, but it is still less than half of the number of minorities graduating from law schools. That number is now 20%, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

In addition, minority representation in the legal profession fares poorly compared to other professions. The percentage of minority attorneys in the NLJ 250 has averaged 9.63% for the last five years, but minorities compose about 24.6% of physicians and surgeons, and 20.8% of accountants and auditors, according to a report released last month by the American Bar Association.

Matter of priority

The poor showing for diversity in law firms, therefore, is not a matter of availability but one of priority, critics charge. Law firms, however, maintain that they are attacking the problem-virtually every major law firm in the country has proclaimed a “commitment to diversity”-but that the odds are against them in wooing and retaining minority lawyers.

“It’s extremely competitive,” said Richard Raysman, chairman of Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner. Last year, minorities constituted only 6.8% of the New York firm’s 236 attorneys, and it had no minority partners, according to information the firm provided for the NLJ 250 survey. Raysman said that, in recent months, the firm has upped its diversity numbers to 13%.

But blaming the small number of minority attorneys working at larger law firms on a shortage of candidates is “not a legitimate excuse,” said Ramona Romero, senior counsel at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. She is chairwoman of DuPont’s minority counsel network, which promotes relationships with attorneys of color.

“If we can find them, anyone who is really interested can find them,” she said.

The situation at Brown Raysman is echoed at even larger law firms across the country. While firms in the South and Midwest generally employ fewer minority attorneys than those on the coasts, the numbers there continue to lag as well. At White & Case, whose largest office is in New York, 13.5% of its 1,857 U.S. attorneys are minorities, according to the 2004 NLJ 250 survey.

Latham & Watkins, which has its biggest office in Los Angeles, reported that 10.9% of its 1,540 U.S. attorneys were minorities. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, based in New York, did better than many, with minorities making up 14.3% of its 1,592 U.S. lawyers.

As with other firms its size, Brown Raysman has difficulties recruiting and retaining minority attorneys, Raysman said. The firm must compete against larger New York firms, which more readily attract those candidates.

“It’s not for a lack of trying,” he said.

But Kim Keenan, president of the National Bar Association, a nationwide group of black lawyers and judges, said she is tired of that argument.

“Many of the law firms are paying lip service to the notion of true diversity,” she said. “What they really mean is that they want diversity if they can have the most perfect potential employee in the universe.”

Keenan argues that law firms often demand higher standards from minority candidates than they do from other attorneys. Many law firms, she said, will only consider minority candidates if they have a high class ranking, come from a top school, made law review, succeeded in moot court and demonstrated valuable work experience. Nonminority candidates, she maintained, need to meet fewer of those criteria.

But law firms say they are widening their focus to include more minorities. Baker & McKenzie partner Nam Paik said his firm now recruits from Howard University, a third-tier law school, according to U.S. News & World Report‘s law school ranking. Brown Raysman also recruits from Howard, Raysman said.

In the latest NLJ 250 survey, Baker & McKenzie had 513 U.S. attorneys, 78 of whom were minorities. Twenty of the firm’s partners were minority attorneys.

Paik heads Baker & McKenzie’s equal employment opportunity program, under whose auspices the firm runs the law student scholarship program. It gives $5,000 scholarships to about 20 minority students each year. Recently, the firm has begun giving some $10,000 scholarships that are linked to employment with the firm, Paik said.

A crackdown?

Real change in most firms, however, will take more than what they are now doing, said Palmore, with Sara Lee. The “Call to Action” that he and hundreds of other general counsel signed states that they will select firms that demonstrate meaningful progress in diversity and reject firms that continue to fall short of the mark. The previous call did not include such a pronouncement.

Sara Lee now has 10 firms that perform the “overwhelming majority” of the legal work for the baked goods giant, which had $19.5 billion in sales last year. Those firms, Palmore said, are chosen, in part, because they have demonstrated true inclusion of minorities. Two of those firms are Reed Smith, which reported that 11.6% of its 871 U.S. lawyers were minorities, and Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, where 11.8% of its 1,317 attorneys were minorities.

What Palmore perceives as marked progress and what many firms tout as such are often very different, he said. Diversity, he said, is not about putting one or two minorities on a particular case or project to please a client. Instead, it means including minorities in a firm, not just to win favor from a potential client, but to change a firm’s culture so that input from a variety of perspectives drives how a firm functions. Outside firms tend to focus on gaining short-term approval for diversity efforts from general counsel based on specific cases or projects without internalizing the need for diversity and making systemic changes in their organizations, he said.

“They seem to be incapable of doing something other than one-to-one correlations,” Palmore said. “I’m not saying that I want to man all my matters with an African-American. I’m interested in the diversity of the law firm, not just on one matter.”

Shell Oil Co. has taken a similar tack. It has winnowed its list of outside firms from hundreds to 27, based partly on diversity. The company uses a diversity scorecard that tracks the number of minority attorneys in a law firm, the amount of Shell’s work those firms give to minority and women attorneys and the geographic and market factors in a given area.

The firms on Shell’s list of 27 are “meeting the criteria,” said Kenetta Joseph, an in-house attorney for Shell and manager of strategic partnerships. While Joseph said she is encouraged by the diversity efforts of those firms, the legal industry as a whole is falling short.

“I’m not satisfied at all,” she said.

‘Embarrassing’ totals

One firm apparently on the right track, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCAA), is Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. Earlier this month, the 625-attorney firm won an award from the MCCA given to law firms that show a sustained commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting minority attorneys. Palmore, Sara Lee’s general counsel, previously was a partner at Sonnenschein. The firm serves as outside counsel to McDonald’s Corp., Monsanto Co., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and many others.

Sonnenschein, which has its largest office in Chicago, reported last year that 16.3% of its attorneys, including 21 partners, were minorities.

“We have not come close to getting to where we want to get, but we think we’re going to,” said Duane Quaini, chairman of Sonnenschein. He called the number of minorities hired by top law firms “embarrassing.” He added that finding minorities to hire is difficult, but that using the challenge as an excuse for the low minority numbers is a “cop-out.” In-house counsel departments have done a much better job of attracting and retaining minority lawyers, he said, and have picked off many qualified attorneys.

To boost diversity, Sonnenschein formed an alliance with minority-owned Pugh, Jones, Johnson & Quandt in Chicago. Pugh Jones, with 21 attorneys, focuses on trial work, public finance and tax. Announcing the alliance in July, Sonnenschein said that the deal would enable it to provide more diverse legal teams for its clients.

Sonnenschein also is requiring its vendors, which include consulting services, technical services and suppliers, to demonstrate diversity as well, Quaini said. In addition, it is applying its diversity program to support staff.

Prompting the latest “Call to Action” signed by Shell, Sara Lee and others nearly a half year ago, is the little progress that diversity has made in top law firms since the companies signed the initial call six years ago. In 2000, minorities made up 9.73% of all NLJ 250 lawyers. The number rose in 2001 to 10.23%, but since then has slipped back below 10%.

In addition, minorities are less likely than whites to win judicial clerkships or to go into private practice, according to the ABA report, entitled “Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession.” It also found that minority attorneys are more likely to begin their careers in government or public interest jobs.

Prepared by New York Law School Professor Elizabeth Chambliss, the report urged law firms to add diversity goals to their business plans and to assign the job of increasing diversity to people with authority within their firms. The report further suggested that law firms tie those leaders’ compensation to their effectiveness at achieving diversity in their firms.

One way to attract more minority lawyers to private law firms is to recruit through lateral hires from the pool of those attorneys working at government agencies, said Romero, with DuPont.

“They have tons of trial experience,” she said, adding that law firms often complain that many of their younger attorneys are unable to acquire those skills.

But the most effective way to build minority ranks, Palmore said, is for firms to approach the shortage the way they would any other business problem. “This is not easy stuff,” he said. “It takes commitment from the top. It takes a devotion of thought and resources to it.”

-Staff reporters Lindsay Fortado and Jason Boog contributed to this report.