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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