Law firms serious about attracting and retaining minority lawyers are appointing special officers to help put a stamp of diversity on their firms for their clients, their employees and the world to see.

A diversity officer may be a lawyer or a nonlawyer staffer, and the job specifics vary from firm to firm. But their underlying goals are uniform: to recruit minorities and to create an environment in which they are retained and promoted.

“We’re setting benchmarks and standards, of course, but ultimately, we’re helping people to understand the cultures of other people,” says Lynn Baronas, the diversity officer at Day Pitney of Hartford, Conn., and Florham Park. “This brings innovation, different ideas and inspires creativity, which is good for everybody.”

Of 20 firms contacted in a random Law Journal survey, eight have diversity officers already and others are exploring hiring their own.

“It gets increasingly difficult to retain good, diverse lawyers,” says Lois Van Deusen, managing partner of McCarter & English in Newark. “We have a diversity committee that is there to make sure the firm is on track and retains a diverse work force, and we want to make sure that we maintain focus on that commitment.”

Hiring a diversity officer can be a more efficient approach than assigning diversity enhancement to a committee.

“Our meetings were getting bogged down with 10 partners and four associates on the diversity committee,” says Cynthia Borrelli, a partner and member of the executive committee at Bressler, Amery & Ross in Florham Park. “We need one person to handle these issues.”

Whether or not that person needs to be full time is each firm’s call. Among the surveyed firms, six of the eight diversity officers are lawyers and some still practice law. The remaining two are employment professionals without law degrees, who report to a high-ranking executive, such as the chief financial officer.

The move to hire diversity officers is largely corporate-client-driven.

“Corporations have made diversity a core component of their strategic plan, and law firms are following suit,” says Tyree Jones, Reed Smith’s director of diversity.

Lawyers say more and more clients are asking about the numbers of minorities involved in requests for proposals, and especially want to know the number of minority transactional lawyers.

In 1999, more than 500 corporations signed “A Call to Action — Diversity in the Workplace � A Statement of Principle,” which mandates diversity in the legal profession. The plan was spearheaded by Rick Palmore, legal counsel for Sara Lee, who pushed to have corporations agree to do business with diverse law firms.

Of the eight surveyed New Jersey firms with diversity officers, only two are based in the state: Lowenstein Sandler of Roseland and McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter of Morristown.

The other six are regional: Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll (Voorhees and Philadelphia); Blank Rome (Cherry Hill and Philadelphia); Day Pitney (Florham Park and Hartford, Conn.); Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge (Short Hills and Providence, R.I.); Reed Smith (Newark, Princeton and Pittsburgh); and Saul Ewing (Newark, Princeton and Philadelphia).

“New Jersey firms may not be getting the same pressure as say, a New York or Philadelphia firm to enforce diversity, but if we’re competing for the work, we may have to,” says Paulette Brown, Edwards Angell’s chief diversity officer, who is based at the firm’s Short Hills office.

Brown says a firm’s commitment to diversity can’t be just window dressing for corporate counsel. “It’s not just diverse attorneys looking at your firm; it’s lawyers who seek a diverse setting,” she says. “We want to ensure there is no isolation and minorities are incorporated into the fabric of a firm. We’re offering a setting where everyone may not look just like you, but that’s what makes the workplace so interesting.”

“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” says Stacy Hawkins, Ballard Spahr’s diversity officer. “That starts with credibility and ends with action.”

Another issue facing diversity officers is retention of minority lawyers. “You give them good work, quality assignments and the tools to do the job,” says Jones of Reed Smith. “[I]f you can offer them incentives and the right climate, they’ll stay.”

Other firms without full- or part-time diversity officers are attacking the recruitment-retention problem through diversity committees that create minority scholarships, build mentorship programs, set up diversity forums and training and get involved in law school programs to boost recruiting.

Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross of Newark has diversity committee breakfasts, with speakers such as U.S. Circuit Judge Julio Fuentes in Newark and corporate counsel Jennifer DaSilva of Schering-Plough Corp. in Kenilworth.

Other firms reach out in other ways. Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown has invited minority law students from Rutgers Law School-Newark to discuss how the firm can increase its number of minorities.

“We want to know what minority lawyers want so we ask them,” says Alison Walsh, the firm’s director of recruitment. “For retention, we’re mentoring, teaching writing skills and holding forums in networking to give minority attorneys professional development.” The programs are for nonminorities as well, she adds.