Clients Should Push for Diversity at Law Firms, ABA Urges

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By Melissa Heelan Stanzione

Aug. 9 — Law firm clients are in a unique position to influence law firms' hiring practices and should use “the power of the purse” to move the needle on diversity, a panelist at an American Bar Association program said.

“There is zero doubt that diversity fuels improved performance,” Kim Rivera, another panelist at the program said Aug. 6 during the group's annual meeting in San Francisco.

Rivera is chief legal officer and general counsel of HP Inc.

Nevertheless, the legal profession “lags behind other professions” in diversity and inclusion efforts and corporations and law firms should collaborate to change this, an ABA report said.

The ABA passed a resolution at its House of Delegates meeting Aug. 8 that urges “all providers of legal services” to expand opportunities for diverse attorneys and urges clients “to direct a greater percentage of the legal services they purchase” to diverse attorneys.

Diversity Survey

Clients should use the ABA's model diversity survey, a free, uniform survey for law firms to fill out, “to make rational choices about what we're buying,” panelist Mark Roellig said, echoing a recommendation from an ABA report accompanying the resolution.

Roellig is executive vice president and general counsel of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company and honorary chair of the ABA's Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission.

To get firms to deliver, clients need to “collect specific data on the diversity and inclusion practices of firms they engage or are considering engaging; set clear expectations with law firms; and include diversity and inclusion performance as a criterion in their decisions on which firms they retain,” the report said.

The survey will capture “key data from law firms of all sizes on their diversity and inclusion practices,” and “will enable clients to measure the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion in the legal teams that they engage,” the ABA report says.

The survey differs from others and will become the “ ‘gold standard' ” because it will gather data from all law firms, not just big ones, the report said.

The survey will be free and will come with a toolkit to guide corporate clients on how best to use the tool to evaluate law firms' progress in diversity and to determine which law firms to retain, the report said.

“My hope is that we get other general counsel to voice their support [of the survey] and take action,” Roellig said.

General counsel can use the survey with existing law firm clients to see if they're making progress in increasing diversity, use it to gauge diversity efforts of potential new clients and, to the extent current clients aren't making progress, perhaps terminate that relationship, he said.

Tough Conversations

The panelists at the meeting have already put this into practice.

“You have to have tough conversations with firms,” Karen Roberts, executive vice president and general counsel of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., said.

Corporations should lay out their diversity expectations, she said.

Wal-Mart is “very deliberate,” about doing this and shifted $12 million worth of annual work away from a firm that wouldn't change, Roberts said.

Mass Mutual also fired a law firm working as outside counsel that didn't change the composition of its all-white, male partner group, Roellig said.

Challenges for GCs

The challenge in trying to drive progress on this front is that it requires “sustained, rigorous effort,” Rivera said.

Resolution 113 and the survey are tools “to move forward,” Rivera said.

With the survey data, companies can have the necessary conversations with firms and “take action to move the ball,” she said.

You need to have candor about diversity in the teams working for you, Rivera said.

“It's a tough talk to have, particularly with folks who are doing good work for you,” she said.

Another concern for general counsel is they “are putting their careers on the line when they say they want a diverse team” Art Chong, retired executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Broadcom Corporation, said.

This is because no matter what, they “need to deliver good work,” he said.

Fear v. Greed

The survey will be helpful in another way, Chong said.

It will initiate a race between fear and greed, he predicted.

The fear of losing business and the greed at the thought of getting more business will drive diversity efforts, Chong said.

Rivera agreed, saying firms should be incentivized with money and compensated on diversity.

“Firms have been immune until now from effects of not being diverse but the survey can change that,” he said.

Firms Have Work to Do

Firms with a diverse mix of attorneys need to take the important step of creating a more inclusive culture to keep those attorneys, the panel concluded.

“It can't just be a numbers game,” Roberts said.

Firms and corporations need to create an inclusive environment, she said.

Law firms “compete all the time on all sorts of things,” Rivera said.

For diversity purposes, however, they should think about how they might collaborate, she said.

They could share best practices and hold forums to discuss how to advance on the diversity front, Rivera said.

The legal industry needs “everyone's personal commitment to collaborate,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at mstanzione@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bna.com

For More Information

The ABA program was called “Fortune 500 General Counsel Sharing the 3Cs of Diversity & Inclusion Commitment, Candor and Collaboration.” The program brochure is at http://src.bna.com/hzx.

The ABA report accompanying the proposed resolution 113 can be downloaded at http://src.bna.com/hzB.

A list of the resolutions considered at the ABA annual conference can be found at http://src.bna.com/hzF.

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