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Advancing Law Firm Diversity One Learning Lunch at a Time, Contributed by Judge Stephen C. Robinson, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, LLP

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

DIVERSITY EFFORTS IN THE LEGAL COMMUNITY

It is no secret that law firms have largely failed in creating and promoting truly diverse workforces at their senior and partnership levels. Despite the best intentions of law firms and some well-known and high profile initiatives led by Harry Pearce of General Motors in 1988, Charles Morgan of BellSouth in 1999 and Rick Palmore of Sara Lee in 2004, the New York City Bar Association’s 2010 Benchmarking Study suggests that at the current rate of change it would take more than 40 years for the representation of minority partners to equal the representation of minority attorneys currently in the profession (16.6 percent in 2010). More strikingly, at the current rate of change, the timeline for women partners to approximate their representation in the profession would require more than half a century.

Morgan’s Statement of Principle and Palmore’s subsequent Call to Action galvanized the corporate community to use a law firm’s demonstrated commitment to diversity as a significant factor in their hiring decisions. Over the last two decades law firms have created diversity committees and full-time administrative positions, increased the recruitment of diverse attorneys and formalized mentoring and other enrichment programs in order to address the “diversity divide” in their firms. In addition, organizations such as the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity and the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession have focused their attention on finding collaborative and actionable ways to drive meaningful and lasting change in law firms. Although these measures have been successful in focusing the attention of law firms on the need for diverse hiring and participation, there is a sense, supported by hard numbers, that these measures alone have not driven the kind of change the signatories to the Statement of Principle and the Call to Action envisioned.

In my view, the identification and cultivation of diverse talent is essential. The term “diverse” is used broadly here to include women, LGBT attorneys, disabled attorneys and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. In doing so, we must be careful that adopting a strategy to train, cultivate and ultimately promote diverse attorneys, in order to be broadly adopted and sustainable, is not overly burdensome. One avenue to tangible change is in the adoption of simple measures, or what I like to call “silver bullets,” that will meaningfully improve the experience of diverse law firm attorneys and ultimately assist in creating a pipeline of diverse talent for law firms (and others) to draw upon. The corporate community can play a pivotal role in deploying some of these “silver bullets.”

LEARNING LUNCHES HOSTED BY LAWS FIRM CLIENTS

One such “silver bullet” is the Learning Lunch―an informal lunch hosted by senior legal executives of a law firm’s corporate client. The event can help ensure that diverse associates are engaged and fully integrated on the matters to which they are assigned and provide an opportunity for diverse associates to receive some of the informal and indirect benefits that often elude them. At the outset of an engagement, the corporate general counsel,1 should have a conversation with the engagement partner where she indicates her desire for the matter to be staffed by a diverse team. In line with that desire, the general counsel will state that it is her intention to schedule two Learning Lunches during the course of the engagement. The first Learning Lunch will occur approximately halfway through the matter. The purpose of the first lunch is to provide an opportunity for the general counsel and/or her high-level invitees to meet with the diverse attorneys to discuss (a) the substance of the work the attorneys have performed on the matter; (b) the attorneys’ overall view of the matter (what is happening in the matter and their thoughts on the challenges and potential solutions to those challenges); and (c) the attorneys’ professional experiences and goals. The second lunch will occur at the end of the retention and include the entire team who worked on the matter. The purpose of the second lunch is to provide an opportunity for the general counsel and/or her high-level invitees to meet with the entire team regarding the substance of the work they performed and to take a retrospective look at the engagement as a whole.

These simple Learning Lunches can start a process that can address many of the practical challenges faced by diverse attorneys at law firms head on. First, the impending conversations will likely have the benefit of ensuring the assignment and full integration of diverse attorneys in the engagement. Anticipating that their diverse attorneys will be expected to participate in these lunches, the smart engagement partner will be inclusive in assigning attorneys to their team and provide diverse associates with meaningful work taking into account the needs of the matter and commensurate with the diverse team member’s level of experience. Partners should also be motivated to confirm that the diverse associates are fully included in discussions about the matter so that they will have a full 360 degree view of the matter and its challenges and potential solutions to those challenges. In addition, the partner will likely mentor the diverse associate through that particular engagement so that the associate is versed, thoughtful and articulate in their lunches with the general counsel.

If implemented, diverse attorneys stand to walk away from the Learning Lunches with an arsenal of helpful skills and interactions. In the best case scenario, at the conclusion of the matter, a diverse attorney will have had meaningful contact with a partner throughout the course of the assignment, meaningful work experience, and a sense of full engagement and support. At the very least, diverse attorneys will have had the opportunity to interact directly with a client and hone the presentation skills that are an essential part of successful client and professional development. Ultimately, Learning Lunches can set the stage for diverse associates to develop the work experiences, confidence, insights, ownership and relationships that are the hallmark of successful careers.

As is true for any new idea that pushes the status quo, implementing a Learning Lunch program will obviously involve a few judgment calls and more than a few creative solutions to practical challenges. It will be up to the general counsel to decide which engagements warrant a Learning Lunch. Some engagements may be too small or there may be multiple engagements with a firm which make a Learning Lunch for each engagement impractical. With the understanding that time is a limited resource for all parties, I leave it to the general counsel to determine the details of exactly when and where these lunches take place. The concept is simple and flexible and one that attempts to ensure that diverse attorneys receive meaningful work, specific case related mentoring and an opportunity to interface with clients so that they may further develop the hard and soft skills that will enhance their value to the firm and the firm’s intellectual capital.

Let me spend just a moment addressing some potential concerns. First, it is not the intent of the Learning Lunch to shield diverse associates from the sometimes unglamorous work associated with some matters. It is the goal, however, that the lunch would ensure that all of the diverse attorney’s time is not unjustifiably spent on routine work far from the center of the engagement. Second, the goal is not to encourage the assignment of work above the diverse associate’s level of experience but to encourage the thoughtful assignment of work that challenges the associate and is appropriate for the attorney’s capabilities and experience. Third, the Learning Lunch does not dictate that the benefits should accrue only to diverse associates (and makes provision for like benefits for non-diverse associates in the second Learning Lunch) but simply attempts to make sure that diverse associates receive some of the informal benefits that are often perceived to be lacking in their law firm careers. Fourth, the purpose of the lunch is not to provide a forum for associates to vent about life at a law firm but to talk concretely about their work on the particular matter.

A few additional quick “silver bullets” are worth mentioning here. First, the complementary call. If in the course of these Learning Lunches (or through other interactions) the general counsel encounters a diverse associate whose work, thoughtfulness and demeanor she thinks is exceptional and praiseworthy, she should call or write the engagement partner and make her opinion known and, if appropriate, suggest that the associate be assigned to future engagements for that general counsel. That brief recognition can have a dramatic effect in either elevating an associate’s visibility within their firm or confirming the already held views that the associate is one to watch. Either way the associate stands to reap great rewards from that simple gesture.

Second, the interested introduction. If, in the course of her interaction with a diverse senior associate (or partner for that matter), a general counsel grows to respect that lawyer’s knowledge, judgment and legal skill she should introduce them to a colleague who might be interested in meeting talented lawyers. That colleague can be someone internal to her organization, other members of her legal team or someone outside of her organization. The introduction can be accomplished informally―through the exchange of emails―or through some more formal plan. The potential benefits of such introductions and vouching are far ranging.

Third, the short summary. It probably goes without saying that the law firm world is populated by competitive lawyers. The general counsel can ask each firm who has worked on her matters to submit a brief year-end summary which consists of a listing of diverse associates who worked on her matters and a one paragraph description of the work they performed. She could state that those firms which provide high quality legal counsel and demonstrate a qualitative commitment to diversity will receive recognition. That pronouncement will activate the lawyer’s natural competitive instinct and push firms to be more conscious of the quantity of diverse associates that work on all her matters and the quality of the assignments they receive. I leave it to each general counsel to devise her own mechanism to recognize those firms which demonstrate a commitment to diversity.

CONCLUSION

The broader diversity overtures of the last two decades are undoubtedly important and have paved the way for law firms to achieve a number of successes to date. However, in order to continue to move the needle on diversity in a meaningful way and improve the experience of diverse attorneys in law firms, we need hand-to-hand interaction among those who are in a position to influence continued change. We need to move beyond aspirational goals and incorporate simple tangible actionable items that have the effect of improving the experience of attorneys in law firms while also raising the bar for improving diversity within our profession. While the “silver bullets” mentioned here are only part of a successful program of change and will not solve the complex problem of the “diversity divide” alone, they can be part of a process that can make a difference in the experience, cultivation and promotion of diverse attorneys in their law firms.

Stephen C. Robinson is a former federal judge for the Southern District of New York and is currently a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, LLP where he serves on the Diversity Committee. He is also Chair of the NY City Bar Association’s Committee to Enhance Diversity in the Profession.  

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