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Coca-Cola, Microsoft join law firms in push for diversity

Top lawyers from Coca-Cola Co., Microsoft Corp. and 12 other Fortune 500 companies joined five top U.S. law firms to form a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting women and minorities in the legal profession.

The New York-based Leadership Council on Legal Diversity evolved from a 2008 meeting of 125 lawyers from Fortune 500 companies and law firms, according to a statement.

“It needs to be more than the business community telling law firms what they need to do,” Wally Martinez, managing partner of Richmond, Va.-based Hunton & Williams, said in an interview. “It should be a dialogue where you have senior-level people at companies and law firms come together and talk about how we can give minorities and women more opportunities to do substantive legal work.”

Minorities account for 6.6 percent of the partners at 252 of the largest or highest-grossing U.S. law firms, according to a 2009 survey by Minority Law Journal. Women account for 18.7 percent of partners at the major law firms, according to a 2008 survey by the Association for Legal Career Professionals.

The council will be chaired by General Mills General Counsel Rick Palmore, according to the statement. Martinez will serve as vice chairman.

Founding members of the group also include New York-based Debevoise & Plimpton, Chicago-based DLA Piper, Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers and Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith, according to the statement. All the founding firms were among the nation’s 40-biggest in 2008, measured in gross revenue, according to American Lawyer, a trade publication.

Seed funding came from several companies and an anonymous individual donor, Martinez said, declining to specify the donors or amounts. Founding members plan to sign up more law firms and companies and expect to generate operating revenue through member fees, according to Martinez. The group plans to hire an executive director, Martinez said.

“Our focus is to have the necessary administrative support, but to dedicate as much of our resources as possible to our working groups and working with other organizations to focus on diversity issues to effect the necessary change,” Martinez said.

The council’s goals include issuing a statement for general counsels and law firms to sign, committing to the goal of diversity; assessing programs such as diversity surveys already in use by general counsel and outside law firms; and reporting on best practices for the recruitment, retention and advancement of minorities, according to the statement.

The founding members on the corporate side also include American Airlines Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., UPS and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to the statement.