Diversity in Big Law — An Ultimatum from Corporate America

A very large group of general counsels (170 to be exact) posted a letter and signatures on a LinkedIn group page this week in support of diversity of women and minorities in law firms.  The letter was a direct result of discussion after the Paul Wise law firm announced a new class of partners in December, complete with photos of them all.  That would be all white males and one white female.

The reaction to the lack of diversity was harsh throughout the profession and in the media, and the LinkedIn effort soon was launched by Michelle Fang, chief legal officer of car-sharing company Turo.  It has since been reported that many general counsel, who signed the letter, also intend to send copies to the firms they work with and ask that it be shared with all the partners in those law firms.

“We applaud those firms,” the letter stated, “that have worked hard to hire, retain, and promote to partnership this year outstanding and highly accomplished lawyers who are diverse in race, color, age, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, and without regard to disabilities.”

“At the same time, we are disappointed to see that many law firms continue to promote partner classes that in no way reflect the demographic composition of entering associate classes.  Partnership classes remain largely male and largely white.”

What this represents is an ultimatum to law firms to hire, retain and promote diversity within their ranks or suffer the financial consequences.

It is deja vu.  As recently as 2006, large US companies like Dupont, General Motors, Sara Lee, Shell Oil and Wal-Mart announced that they had undertaken a multifaceted initiative to increase inclusion of minority-owned law firms among those serving corporate America.  The five companies made a pledge to place at least $16 million dollars of business with minority-owned law firms during calendar year 2006.  The initiative was targeted to increasing the presence of minority lawyers in law firms, and the participating companies were putting their money where their mouths were.

Similarly, the current effort is designed to be a change agent to promote greater diversity in law firms.  Hopefully, by calling out feeble attempts at diversity, this new effort will be more successful than the effort in 2006.  That effort did not bring about the change that many had hoped for, and it is very likely that the recession of 2008 had the unfortunate effect of chilling efforts by the change agents.  It is commonly recognized that, during economic downturn, businesses often turn to issues of survival rather than issues of social significance.

So, I hope for healthy economic times ahead and greater attention to these issues of diversity this time around.  The time certainly has come for this kind of pressure on firms.

The lesson from Paul Weiss is that the diversity challenge has not been overcome — even for those firms with a reasonable track record on diversity.  There is still a long way to go.

Whatever happens, I am anticipating fewer new partner classes being featured in photos on social media.  Really.  Lawyers did that?

For more on the Paul Weiss fallout, see this New York Times article.






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What Do Tom Brady and Effective Law Firm Leaders Have in Common?

Not a powerful arm!  I think we can agree on that.  After watching Tom Brady march the New England Patriots down the field last weekend to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime and assure yet another Super Bowl appearance, it surely is not the arm.  Brady has it.  Law firm leaders do not.  Most law firm leaders are large part couch potato and small part athlete.  To hear them tell it, there is just not enough time in the day to increase PPP and work out, too, and that sounds very plausible.

As it turns out, the similarities between Tom Brady and effective law firm leaders have little to do with football and a lot more to do with leadership skills.  If you are thinking that someone in a stratosphere like Brady’s has little concern for juniors, you would be wrong.   And if you think that having reached 41 years of age, Tom has no time for the youth of the game, you would be even more wrong.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, Brady really works at leadership, and that is why he is so successful at the helm of a national championship team.  It appears that he takes nothing for granted.  He seeks out young teammates and introduces himself to them — yes, the great Tom Brady introduces himself to rookie players.  And those rookies are typically 20 years his junior and could so easily be ignored by someone of his caliber.

Brady reportedly not only engages his juniors in conversation, he learns their names and talks to them in their own language and about things that matter to them.  He “builds team chemistry and does not allow the stature he has to distance himself from everybody.”

Wow!  What a refreshing concept.  It seems to me that it would work well at law firms.

Many of the junior players in Brady’s life are millennials.  I write a lot about millennials as lawyers, and I know how important recognition and acknowledgement are to them. Generational differences in the workplace can be real impediments to esprit de corps — unless we don’t let them be.

So Brady has learned something that many law firm leaders have yet to master.  Do not disregard and isolate the juniors.  Engage them in conversation and really listen to their thoughts.  Treat them with respect.  Let them know that they are important to the future of your organization.

And how about Brady ignoring the question in the post game interview to thank all the people who support him every day and help make him great — from his wife and kids to team owners to fans?  It was classic and very classy.  Remember who brought you along.

We all have seen this in other sports leaders, of course.  The list is long, but one of my favorites is Tony Bennett, coach of the University of Virginia Cavaliers basketball team.  I am a little partial because I love UVA as the undergraduate alma mater of my kids and also because Bennett’s dad, Dick Bennett, coached the University of Wisconsin basketball team for years — and I am a proud UW Badger fan.  I have loved watching the father teach the son and pass on wisdom through sport.

One moment stands out for me.  Several years ago, I was watching the sideline huddle between Tony Bennett and his UVA players when something amazing happened.  One of the players made a comment, and Bennett stopped what he was saying and motioned for the player to continue speaking — to explain himself.  To take center stage because the player had something important to contribute.  To take over for the coach because it is not all about who gets the credit.  It is about being a team and playing the best game possible.

As usual, sports has a lot to teach us about life.  I hope that law firm leaders are listening and learning.





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What Is Up with All the Lawyers in Congress?

The US Congress is made up of 535 members, and a lot of them are lawyers.  So, it seems to me that these lawyers are forgetting how to do their jobs.  They have forgotten the basic principles of the art of compromise. 

The government shutdown is in its fourth week (26 days so far), the longest government shutdown in the history of this country, and people are suffering without paychecks and government services.  Surely, all of those lawyers should be able to strike a deal, especially under circumstances this dire, even without cooperation from the White House.  Looks to me like an end run like that is the only way to get things done.

This is not intended to be a political statement, so, don’t get your political dander up.  Frankly, I am upset with both sides of the aisle.   And a lot of other people are, too.

I have seen many negotiations go south because both sides wanted a whole loaf.  No half a loaf for those folks.  All or nothing was the only acceptable outcome.  Ironically, most of those failed deals were when I was in public service, and politics played a role.  Getting everything you ask for, of course, is absurd — both in politics and in life.  Unless, I guess, you are a member of Congress, who prizes getting reelected and hubris over what is in the best interests of THE PEOPLE.

It particularly rankles me when the obstructionists are lawyers.  They should know better.  It makes me wonder whether we should keep sending them to do the people’s business.  Maybe it would be better to send elected officials, who know nothing about lawmaking, negotiations and compromise, so that we would not have high expectations and would not be so disappointed in the outcomes.  At least disappointment would be predictable that way.

The families of Coast Guard members in Massachusetts are now going to food banks because they cannot afford groceries on NO PAY.  Other furloughed government employees are having to choose between necessary counseling and therapy for family members and paying the mortgage because of NO PAY.  Still others are playing Russian roulette with a variety of other financial obligations while they wait to see when Uncle Sam sends the next paycheck because of NO PAY.  And the money the government owes many people in the form of tax refunds, a basic government service, is on back log because of limited government.

This is a disgrace.  That is not the way we treat people in America.  This is what we criticize foreign governments for.

So, I ask again.  Where are the lawyers?  And do we want them taking up space in Congress?


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