It has been 20 years since “Diversity in the Workplace: A Statement of Principle” was signed by over 500 general counsels at Fortune 1000 companies. The Statement of Principle, an effort led by Charles Morgan, then-BellSouth general counsel, said: “In making our respective decisions concerning selection of outside counsel, we will give significant weight to a firm’s commitment and progress in this area.” This was followed up with the 2004 Call to Action that was developed by Roderick Palmore during his tenure as general counsel of Sara Lee. The Call to Action stated, in part, that general counsel “will make decisions regarding which law firms represent our companies based in significant part on the diversity performance of the firms.” Both of these were mighty efforts for an industry that has been slow with change and progress in areas where other industries routinely excel. Last year, I wrote about why just talking about diversity and inclusion was not enough to make an impact at law firms. My article focused on statements made about diversity and inclusion that end up being just that—words with no action. However, now it seems that words are turning into action as I know of several firms that have recently had clients say “show us your diversity or we find new counsel.”
Earlier this year, it was a slap in the industry’s face and a drawback to any progress thought to have been made when mega firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison shared a photo of its class of newly promoted partners. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and when the photo was released—showing 11 white male faces out of a class of just 12 partners—the announcement drew vast and fierce criticism. But while Paul Weiss has since been outspoken on realizing it must set better industry examples when it comes to diversity in the profession, the photo seems to have finally struck the cord needed to affect change. Shortly after its release, more than 170 general counsel and corporate legal officers signed an open letter to Big Law firms stating their companies will prioritize legal spend on those firms that commit to diversity and inclusion. The letter reads in part, “We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation. We sincerely hope that you and your firm will be among those that demonstrate this commitment.” If there were not already enough reasons to develop and sustain a diverse culture in the workplace, having clients take away business will probably (and sadly) be the main driving force behind law firms finally catching up with the times.