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Initiative builds diversity in law firms with data

The legal departments at Wal-Mart, Verizon and a growing number of other companies have launched an initiative to promote diversity by seeking out diverse lawyers to retain when they outsource projects.

Starting next January, the Engage Excellence program will track the amount of legal spending that goes to diverse lawyers at each of the participating companies. Joseph West, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said the project differs from other corporate diversity initiatives in one main respect: Accountability.

“There’s nothing else I know of that does this at the nexus of large corporate clients and large law firms,” West said. “A lot of programs out there focus on talent development and inclusiveness in corporate law departments. This program … actually incentivizes corporations to be purposeful about directing business to the control of diverse lawyers.”

Participating companies, which also include DuPont and General Mills, will require law firms to assign a diverse team to assigned projects, with the goal of helping junior attorneys get the skills and training necessary for advancement and facilitating mentorship.

MCCA will support Engage Excellence by gathering, compiling and reporting the spending data, West said, with the hope that law firms that are already working with participating companies will be motivated to help diverse attorneys develop their careers.

“There’s an old axiom, ‘That which gets measured gets done,’” West said. “The notion is, companies that profess to be serious about providing opportunities in the diversity and inclusion space can and should be willing to start tracking what their spending is in that space, and be purposeful about engaging a broader range of diverse lawyers.”

The program will target black, Latino, Asian and other ethnically diverse attorneys, as well as openly LBGT attorneys, with supervisory experience in a range of practice areas that includes environmental law, employment law and class action litigation.

A little more than 20 percent of law firm associates, and just 7.1 percent of partners, were members of racial minority groups in 2013, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s survey of more than 110,000 lawyers at 1,127 offices or law firms.

Although he’s not involved with the program, Neil Duke of Ober | Kaler in Baltimore, Maryland, agreed that the tracking and reporting requirements set Engage Excellence apart from other diversity initiatives.

“This is a little bit more detailed as to how they’re going to measure their success, and that’s always the challenge with these sort of initiatives,” Duke said. “It’s great to say you’re ensuring that you’re getting a proper reflective pool of talent, but it’s another challenge to admit to your outcomes and your measurables.”

West said he’s in the process of meeting with companies and law firms as part of a drive to expand the program beyond the four original corporations.

Benjamin Wilson, managing principal at Beveridge & Diamond P.C., a Washington, D.C.-based firm that focuses on environmental law and litigation, said he also hopes to encourage more businesses to commit to taking action on diversity.

“We plan to expose our clients and others to this program and ask them to consider either developing it themselves or doing something similar,” Wilson said.

Companies that participate are in a unique position to improve the career prospects of attorneys handling the corporation’s outside counsel work, said Duke, an employment lawyer who helped organize a symposium, “Embracing Diversity in the Legal Profession,” last month at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

“It enhances their potential book of business and makes them certainly more valuable,” Duke said. “Law firms gain the benefit of securing potential new relationships with corporations they may not have had in the past.”

The program could be a “game changer” and a means of jump-starting business development for many attorneys, Wilson said.

“I think it’s targeted to that mid-level partner in a law firm,” he said. “They may or may not be an equity partner yet, but what they’re trying to do is build a book of business, build their influence in the firm and build their reputation beyond one or two clients, and a program like this encourages that.”