Five years ago this month this headline was blasted from The Washington Post: “Law is the least diverse profession in the nation. And lawyers aren’t doing enough to change that.” That article also went on to say that “the legal profession supplies presidents, governors, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, general counsels and heads of corporations. Its membership needs to be as inclusive as the populations it serves.” But five years later, research still shows us what many of us already know—despite an increase in women and diverse law students, law firm statistics still do not proportionately reflect that. New figures from the National Association for Law Placement show that in 2019, just one in five equity partners were women (or 20.3%) and only 7.6% were racial/ethnic minorities. Because of this, recent efforts such as the Move the Needle Fund were started. For those of you not familiar, Move the Needle is the first collaborative effort to test innovative initiatives to create a more diverse and inclusive legal profession. What makes this new initiative promising is that the five AmLaw100 founding law firms have all agreed to publicly share their firms’ successes—and failures. This is important as we often see many firms talking the talk but not really walking the walk. But what happens to all these initiatives and efforts now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic? With so many other pressing issues facing our law firms ranging from furloughed or laid off staff and salary reductions to financial decline resulting from clients being unable to afford legal expenditures, now is the time more than ever to stay full speed ahead and remain focused on our firms’ inclusive, diversity and equity issues.
Recognizing that unfortunately many firms still only respond to bottom line impact, I decided to go to the source to hear from corporate clients on what they continue to expect from outside counsel during this pandemic and beyond. Steve McManus, State Farm Insurance Co.’s senior vice president and general counsel, tells me “During times of crisis, we focus on responding to the immediate needs of our employees and customers, but we cannot lose sight of all of our long term objectives, including the State Farm law department leadership responsibility to influence law firm diversity through regular dialogue with existing retained counsel, and to demonstrate our commitment with a broad approach to the selection of counsel on new matters. Included within our approach is connecting with and exploring ways to engage diverse owned law firms, such as through our interactions with NAMWOLF firms and our Rising Star Academy, designed to help to prepare diverse up-and-coming law firm leaders for increased responsibilities.” I heard the same messaging from Jason L. Brown, vice president, general counsel, GE Appliances, who told me: “We are in unchartered waters and these are the times that, as business leaders, you need a myriad of perspectives to help you tackle the emerging issues the company will face. Those companies that continue to drive impactful inclusion and diversity efforts throughout their organizations will perform better coming out of this crisis. The legal department should play a vital role in leading by example in developing diverse talent, retaining diverse outside counsel and firms and fostering an inclusive environment. When times are challenging, as they are now, companies must maintain focus on the core values and initiatives that will help spark a quick recovery and sustainable growth for the business. Make no mistake about it, inclusion, diversity and equity should be a part of those core values and initiatives.”
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