Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Responding to the Diversity Challenge

We are a diverse society. Diversity is an integral part of doing business anywhere, particularly in a global economy. Beyond statistics and definitions, diversity represents one fundamental way we, along with our clients, view and experience the world.

How is the challenge of diversity actually playing itself out in the legal profession? Is it just the latest buzzword? Or is it a necessary strategy for improving relations with clients, enhancing innovation and building future business? What are you and your firm or law department doing to encourage, increase, manage and maintain diversity in the legal community?

It is likely that diversity will increase, at least in law firms, because of these forces:

  • Inside counsel who are increasingly diverse will insist on it.
  • Competitive bidding will push it.
  • Partnering arrangements will reinforce it.


As more corporations hire or promote women and people of color into positions as corporate counsel, those lawyers are in turn putting greater pressure on law firms to hire lawyers from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. "The underlying power structure is changing incrementally as law firm clientele become more diverse at the top of the pyramid," comments Lorraine Weber, a former referee and consultant on Open Justice Issues to the State Bar of Michigan.

"A demonstrated commitment to diversity is smart marketing, especially to major corporations," according to Norm Clark, principal of Altman Weil, Inc. " If you compare the composition of the law departments of the Fortune 100 with the AmLaw 100 law firms, there is a substantially greater representation of women and minorities in leadership roles in the Fortune 100 companies."

According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) which conducted a joint survey with Chicago's Winston & Strawn, as of 1996, nine percent of the top corporate counsel positions were held by women. This figure reflects a 50 percent increase over the preceding three years, bringing the total number of women in general counsel positions in Fortune 500 companies to 44.

A 1995 survey of more than 800 randomly selected Chicago lawyers conducted by Heinz, Laumann, and Nelson and reported by the American Bar Foundation (ABF) found, "while women and men are equally likely to work currently in large law firms, they hold different positions. Of the men currently in large firms, 58 percent are partners. Of the women in this setting, 75 percent work as associates. Although the women in large firms are, on average, at an earlier stage in their careers, the pattern is not totally explained by professional seniority." According to a model developed by Robert Nelson and ABF Research Assistant, Kathleen Hull, "an average respondent who is male has a 40 percent probability of being a firm partner whereas an average respondent who is female has only a 16 percent probability."

The ABF also found that, "In 1995 the most pervasive under-representation of female lawyers, although of less magnitude than in 1980 and 1991, existed among partners in law firms. In spite of improvements over time, only 13 percent of law firm partners were women." In short, law firms are lagging, but there are signs of progress.

According to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York in a 1996 release, minorities comprise less than 3 percent of partners in law firms nationwide.

Robert Murphy, President of ASSIGNED COUNSEL in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, observes from his experience, "Identifying minority candidates is a challenge in the legal recruiting field, whether the need is for a permanent hire or a contract assignment. Minority candidates should understand that their resumes need not focus on being part of a minority group, but they cheat themselves if that fact is not made known. This includes resumes sent directly to potential employers." Robert Murphy is perhaps, the only minority who has substantial ownership in and is the chief operating officer of a multi-office, multimillion dollar legal staffing company.

The RFP Process

Competitive bidding for legal services or the "request for proposal" (RFP) process is fairly new to the legal profession, although common in corporate America. Government RFP's often insist on a "demonstrated" commitment to diversity as a requirement. It's often expressed as a requirement to use minority-owned or female-owned businesses for at least a stated minimum percentage of the work. Minority participation in government work is increasingly either a selection factor or a selection qualification. Law firms are not exempt from these requirements.

"If a law firm wants to do government work, it will have to be prepared to demonstrate, not just assert, a commitment to diversity. Any law firm that cannot demonstrate a commitment to diversity, either within its own organization or in its selection of subcontractors, is increasingly finding itself shut out of government work," observes Norm Clark.

The Business Law Section of the American Bar Association in its "Statement of Principle" encourages law departments to use law firms that promote diversity. It seems likely that we will see with greater frequency, corporate law departments requiring law firms to describe their commitment to diversity in the RFP process. "Most law firms that are seriously considered for corporate work are already high-quality firms where a better record on diversity and equal opportunity could be a tie breaker," noted Norm Clark.

Corporate law departments are being asked to consider whether the firms they're paying to represent their organizations have working policies about diversity and equal opportunity that are compatible. "Sometimes law firms are at a loss as to what to do," said Lorraine Weber, who gets contacted by lawyers in Michigan for assistance in responding to diversity requirements in the RFP process. "The expectation to create a culture where diversity is valued can't be managed at the drop of a hat." Sometimes when your client starts to talk about it, it may be too late to remain competitive.

"Partnering" Relationships

Beyond meeting government and corporate RFP requirements, "partnering" relationships are a way to share economic risk and respond to the diversity challenge. "Partnering" with law firms and corporate clients is the redefined relationship of clients and suppliers promoted by the work of Dr. W. Edward Deming. Elements of a partnering relationship can include shared staffing, assignment of client teams in law firms, joint training programs, development of annual legal plans, technology integration and knowledge management.

"Before effective partnering can occur, parties must work to establish an honest, relationship, with open communication within which initiatives can be pursued without concern for one party's attempting to overbear the other," writes Ward Bower, principal of Altman Weil, Inc. This type of collaboration applies to two-way internal and external client-supplier relationships and involves reciprocal, not gratuitous, benefits.

It becomes essential in partnering relationships to develop strategies that take into account the diverse cultural perspectives of both organizations. Lawyers have to be able to listen to and understand unspoken nuances during communication with one another in order to promote cooperative interactions, produce innovation, and to ultimately create a "win-win" situation through their alliance.

New Cultural Competencies

Effective "cross-cultural" communication requires a whole set of values, knowledge and skills. Clients who represent people of diverse cultures, races, ethnic groups, sexual orientations and disabilities expect large businesses and those businesses' partners to respond not just with awareness, but with cultural, emotional and behavioral competencies.

The term "cross-cultural" expertise is sometimes associated with "international" expertise. Although there is an expectation that cross-cultural compatibility and skills are required in providing services to clients in other countries, geographic borders are really arbitrary.

There are many situations where sensitivity to diversity and taking a cross-cultural leadership approach will lead to more successful outcomes. Mergers and acquisitions offer opportunities to gain a competitive advantage by dealing effectively with culture clashes, diverse management styles and the personalities of lawyers. Maintaining trust and communication can be challenging while you are trying to move a business plan forward in an environment with multiple office locations that have diverse group dynamics and cultures. Even effectively responding to the needs and expectations of "Generation X" associates requires cross-cultural savvy.

If members of the legal profession understand that business survival depends on operating in a complex, global community, they will take the initiative to develop tolerance. They will learn and apply cross-cultural knowledge and skills in the workplace. They will also encourage the recruitment, development, retention and promotion of women and persons of color.

Taking Action

People in the legal profession are taking action at the individual, organization and community levels to address diversity needs. Large and small law firms and law departments are getting training, setting recruitment and retention goals and encouraging role models among other things.

"We are not an accurate yardstick for our own biases," according to Lorraine Weber. For that reason, Altman Weil, Inc. finds that many organizations do seek outside help with cultural diversity training. A true commitment to diversity goes beyond awareness, though. Cultural competencies that promote collaboration and dialog at all levels are critical. Often the important factor is not what people know, but what they're willing to learn. The selection and development of leaders, conflict resolution, associate selection and development, feedback structures, the implementation of creative compensation plans and business development strategies and the sharing of knowledge and expertise all play an important role in responding to the challenge of diversity.

Robin Taylor Symons, a partner with the Miami Office of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, wanted to start early in addressing the continuing scarcity of minority partners. She began meeting regularly with young women in an urban Miami high school. "I encouraged them to think about careers in the legal profession and told them from my own life experiences what it takes to get into and to be successful in law school." She also provided them with a role model to emulate.

Law firms in Grand Rapids, Michigan worked together to decrease barriers to employment in the legal profession. According to Dale Ann Iverson, a partner with the Grand Rapids firm of Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, "Firms in the area found it difficult to identify and recruit minority lawyers as long as they approached it individually." In response, six firms initiated a clerkship program for first year law students based on the Columbus Ohio Bar Association program.

The firms collaborated with the city's Floyd Skinner Bar Association, the local minority bar group, so that clerks were interviewed, selected and randomly assigned to the participating firms by Floyd Skinner members. Additional firms and public sector employers have participated in the program since its inception over seven years ago. Corporate employers have also shared in the success of the program by hiring some of the clerks from the law firms with which they were originally employed.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association has further recognized the importance of collective efforts to address diversity by adopting its first Diversity Strategic Plan.

According to Dale Ann, "Bar leaders and staff will be accountable over the period of the plan to make definite progress on various plans intended to attract minority lawyers to Grand Rapids and to enhance diversity in Association hiring, procurement, and other activities." The plan focuses on activities which the legal employers in the area could not accomplish on their own, such as regional job fairs for law school and high school students.

Corporate law departments in organizations like DuPont and BellSouth are also involved in initiatives. There is a growing recognition in the legal community that paying attention to diversity isn't just an academic pursuit. It's a practical business strategy that reflects the shifting profile of our global community and our economic interdependence. Competitive bidding, "partnering" relationships, cultural competencies and specific, collaborative action by the legal community are all affirmative ways to address the challenges of diversity.

What are you and your firm or law department doing to encourage, increase, manage and maintain diversity in your legal community?

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard