Lawyers Wrestle with Diversity Issue in Big Law

Source: BLOOMBERG BNA - SAN FRANCISCO - November 13, 2015

Last week, Big Law Business hosted an event in Bloomberg’s office at Pier 3 in San Francisco, which featured a number of legal industry leaders who shared insights and lessons about progress and stumbling blocks around diversity and inclusion.

The half-day event started off with an interview between Joseph West, the recent CEO of the Minority of Corporate Counsel Association, who is now with Duane Morris, and Mary Snapp, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel of Microsoft Corporation.

Below are key excerpts from the day's discussion. Some comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

Mary Snapp, Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Microsoft Corp., on the D&I initiative at Microsoft:

We have been on a journey with diversity and inclusion in a very focused way for 12 or 13 years or so. I think it’s important that you say that you’re on a journey and that you’re starting. It’s important to set goals and to work towards them. It’s great if people feel really good about something, but you have to set goals and you have to strive.

We thought it does not make sense for law departments to just pound on law firms, in large part because a lot of law departments weren’t that transparent themselves in the things they were asking law firms to do. We wanted to be transparent about what our own numbers were. This is an ecosystem and you can’t just have one part of it working. We thought it would be better to have a partnership. We developed a program where we decided we would offer our law firms a 2 percent bonus if they improved [diversity] demographics that worked on Microsoft matters.

We went to law firms and asked them what they thought of it. We sent out an anonymous survey. What they came back with was, ‘We want you to have some skin in the game. This is a partnership.’ So we looked at that and said, ‘Ok, let’s take it a step further. If most firms don’t achieve that goal, we were going to dock the personal bonuses of the leaders in [Microsoft’s] legal department.’

Joshua D. Wayser, Managing Partner, Los Angeles, Katten Muchin Rosenman, on what it takes to increase diversity:

It's about training with respect to relationships and understanding business. So you can have the most talented diverse associate come in the door. But they need to understand that the dominant culture’s values are business development, hours and working with the right people. Unless they have someone at each step of the way saying to them,'Are you doing these things': As a third year are you thinking about business? As a fifth year, are you starting to think about partnership? The metrics that law firms look at are, 'Is this person going to be a good partner? 'Are they going to be able to bring in work?' If they don't have that training, then by definition they're going to fail.

What I always say to my colleagues is 20 percent of in house counsel are diverse, 45 percent are women, so why would you go to market without the right team in place? So you have to look at that and say, ‘Alright. So it’s about changing the narrative. This is how the game is played.’ So if you don’t have someone teaching you how the game is played, you’re not going to know the rules so how could you succeed?

We have had a professor come to each of our offices [to educate employees on implicit bias]. Everyone says the same thing. ‘That was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.’ But it only gets you so far. For example we are doing a mentorship program and I had to go to one of the larger rainmakers to ask him to mentor so-and-so and he said, ‘I don’t want to mentor her. It will look like I’m favoring her.’ I said, ‘I need you to mentor her.’ It really was an implicit bias issue. It’s very easy to have that initial conversation and people think about it and walk out of the room. The next steps are the harder steps and those require quieter conversations.

Amy Weaver, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Salesforce, on why law firms struggle with gender balance:

You graduate from law school typically at age 25, 26, 27. Partnership track right now is running eight or nine years until — let’s say you’re 35, 36. This intersects almost perfectly with the key years most women are having children. And it’s just biology. And these are the key years where you need to be working your hardest, your most creatively and your most intensely. This happens in many professions but at law firms, there’s a unique challenge in that ultimately you’re graded by billable hours. And when billable hours matter that much you can’t really make up for that by working more efficiently, more effectively or by being smarter. All of those things matter, but you really do have this billable hour issue and I think it matters how this intersects.

We work with 250 law firms around the world. I don’t ask for diversity numbers, but I do notice it and it does matter. I try to have conversations with our key law firms to try to figure out where they are in this journey. One of the best conversations I had was with a partner at a law firm that had the worst numbers but I was so impressed by what they were thinking about. It was a very prominent New York law firm and over lunch I took the opportunity to ask the managing partner what they were doing around diversity and inclusion. And he just sighed and said, ‘Do you have a minute?’ He grabbed me and he grabbed the general counsel of another Fortune 500  company and pulled us to the table and said, ‘Can you help us? We are losing them and we are losing them at different stages.’ And he wanted to sit for about an hour and brainstorm with us. If I said, ‘You need to show up next week and you have to have half of your team supporting Salesforce with women, we couldn’t have worked together. But the fact that we had this conversation, we continued to work with them.

Elizabeth Sharrer, Firm Chair, Holland & Hart, on experience at her own firm:

Our firm has made progress in gender. We have many, many challenges still in that area but instead of the 17 percent most firms are talking about, we have 28 percent of our equity partnership as women. The past two years 60 percent of our management committee, which is elected and also sets comp, have been women. And that has been a wonderful, wonderful thing for our firm. But it is the culture that brought that up. We had to have a non-stigmatized reduced hours program. For the last 25 years we’ve had it. I used it the whole time my kids were growing up. My oldest is now 24. And you were able to do that and also be considered successful and also have a family.

You can look at it and say, ‘Oh good, we elected a female chair and now we’re done.’ That’s just not how it works. I will be really blunt here. I think our firm has been coasting on its laurels for far too long. We were one of the original signers for this pledge to diversity. We get awards and that’s all great. But the statistics are still pretty dismal. We are in the mountain west so we are in markets that are somewhat challenged to pull a diverse team from. We are finally taking the steps of looking at the pipeline and then looking at mentoring programs. One of our federal judges has started one with Hispanic population in Colorado that is working with high school students to try to convince kids to start thinking about law school.

Aaron Agenbroad, Partner-in-Charge, San Francisco Office, Jones Day, on the power structure:

A lot of it is this inertia and incumbency. So much of what we do, being smart and being creative, are sort of the price of admission, and after that a lot of it is relationship-based. And so if the folks who have had the relationships for 10 or 20 or 30 years gravitate towards people who remind them of themselves, or their mentors or their kids, it’s going to be a pretty narrow pool of who it is that progresses or who gets those work assignments.

It's an active endeavor. You have to translate the discussion to people taking action. My wife always tells me, ‘Love is not just feeling, it’s an action. You gotta show me things.’ It really translates. I don’t think there are people out there with bad intentions or have the intent to compromise or undermine anybody. But I just think there are a lot of people not paying attention to it. One of the reasons why I’m at Jones Day is when I was in law school there an African American partner in their D.C. office named Charles James who ultimately became the GC of Chevron who recruited me out of law school. And it was meaningful to me when I was considering where I wanted to land, not just that I liked the firm and the work would be good and the client base was good, but that there were people who looked like me who had succeeded there. But it can’t be limited to the Charles James’s of the world. When Charles left to go to the DOJ, I found other folks. Willis Goldsmith, a white Jewish guy from New York was my practice group leader and paid attention to me to make sure that I got the client experiences… I could go to meetings or trials and watch more senior lawyers work. That’s critical.

Caren Ulrich Stacy, Founder & CEO, Diversity Lab & OnRamp Fellowship:

I went inside Weil, Gotshal & Manges [decades ago], and at the time my entire job was to recruit lawyers. That was it. I was just supposed to get them in the door. But I got them in the door and I watched them flail about. If they found a great mentor, they did great and if they didn’t, they didn’t. And that seemed to be the only data I was getting by watching this happen.

Deborah Broyles, Partner and Director of Global Diversity & Inclusion, Reed Smith, on what it takes:

I've been out here doing this since 1993 when I came out here as an associate. Very early on in my career I got involved in diversity in the legal profession and I’m candidly disheartened but also pleased that we are still talking about the same stuff a decade later. It’s a little disheartening that we haven’t moved along a little further than we have.


When we go through associate evaluations, I make a point of knowing what’s going on with our diverse associates so I’m interjected in that process. Making sure you’re working with your HR people and all the people who are involved in that process not just to make them aware but say, ‘How does this play out?’ It’s interesting to me. We’re a global firm, we’re a huge firm and it absolutely takes that one or two people in there really trying to make consistent change in the organization for that to work.

Anjan Choudhury, Partner, Los Angeles, Munger, Tolles & Olson, on a new initiative at his firm:

We [find] 35 students who are looking to go to law school from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds. That’s been a big new effort — to build a cohort community pipeline program. It’s very different from the initiatives you find now where you sort of have the one or two diverse people who have perfect grades and are perfect in every way and all the law firms fight over them.
What we really see as the big benefit to our firm is that it really has created an awareness at our firm and to our clients that this is part of who we are, this is part of our fabric.

Katherine Adkins, Group Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Toyota Financial Services, on being pitched by non-diverse teams:

I would just encourage people to get to know the company. I’ve said this to firms that have come in and have made pitches and they’ve had a slate of all white men. I’m like, ‘Oh did you see who my direct reports were? Did you bother to look?’ Those kinds of things — don’t assume that they don’t matter. That’s my advice. They really, really do. We are making choices about who to retain, about who to hire. Make those connections. When you have people like me in positions like this, it will lift everybody’s boat.

Jeremy Roth, Co-President and Co-Managing Director, Littler Mendelson, on retention:

When you’re talking about retention of anyone, but certainly lawyers of color, who can feel more isolated… you really have to just figure out how to provide the experiential meaningfulness. It’s really not about the money. Money matters, of course. But really, you have to show that you’re doing this now as a lawyer, a practitioner, learning your craft, but you could be in a leadership position. You could be in knowledge management. You could be in the Innovation Council. You really have to show that, otherwise people jump off.

Brian Wong, Executive Partner for Diversity and Inclusion, Pillsbury Winthrop on finding out what works:

We have the same problem as every other law firm: If you look at the equity partnership, it’s 80 percent men, 20 percent women and it’s stuck there. We really need to move the ball. One of the things I realize is that … there’s a lot of pressure on that 20 percent to help others come up and it’s not fair. It’s not the way we should be working either. So what we’re doing is identifying senior male partner and junior female partner pairs where the male partner was a sponsor in the true sense of the word. Not a mentor but a sponsor who was invested in making sure the women made partner, introduces them to clients, advocates so they get the right experience so that when they’re in line for partner everything is in place. So we’re identifying two to three partner pairs in each office. [We] interview them and find out what worked out, what didn’t, so we can be training people in the background and see what can happen and how this can work, and what it means to be a sponsor.

Laura Stein, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, The Clorox Company on implicit bias:

We've had a number of trainings on implicit bias. It's real. When you look at some of the research coming out of Harvard, if you’ve taken the implicit association test from Harvard, we’ll find that even when we’re well-intentioned, we all are biased. The first step to addressing it is understanding it. When you see some of the studies that have been done about people’s resumes, just the name changes will change people’s perception about the strength of the candidate or the performance of the candidate. It’s crazy. Or when you look at studies of why women weren’t in key leadership roles in orchestras, so they started changing the process and just listened to the performance of the music and it actually lead to recognition that some of the best talent in orchestras was diverse. There’s so many studies I could speak to but it’s there. We try to understand it.

I'm a big fan of Joan Williams at U.C. Hastings [College of Law]. She’s done a lot of great work about once you understand it, what are bias interrupters — things you can do purposefully to try to not have the implicit bias be a factor. We try at my company to do things that will decrease its impact. We try to do that.


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