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Law firm diversity is ongoing goal

Lesley Wynes (left) and Ronald Norwood

Lesley Wynes (left) and Ronald Norwood

When Amanda Garcia-Williams is asked whether diversity is just a buzzword for some law firms, she quickly mentions three groups.

“Some firms don’t even use the buzzword,” she said. “Some you can only get the buzzword out of. And then some are really putting their money where their mouth is.”

She feels that Husch Blackwell, the organization where she began serving as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer when the position was created last June, is working hard to fall into that last category. It is a common story as large firms, both in Missouri and nationwide, look for better methods to broaden their personnel in a way that reflects society at large.

Garcia-Williams said “pipelining work” is the first step.

“How do we get young people interested in the legal field and how do we make sure that they have access to law schools and they are getting admitted, getting trained in the right ways and are successfully applying to opportunities at law firms?” she said.

After that, the task becomes creating a culture and work environment where young, diverse lawyers can count on mentoring, training and career development. That last component is proving particularly important for retention, which is vital to transition attorneys from associate to partner and, ultimately, to firm leadership.

There is also “lateral recruiting”, bringing in lawyers from other firms, in-house positions or non-profits to diversify the ranks.

“I think any good DEI strategy really has to think about all of those different pieces in building their programs,” she said.

Christopher Pickett, chief diversity officer at Greensfelder, feels that the pipeline itself isn’t the problem. Diverse candidates are coming out of law school but firms may have a focus on traditional metrics that might not always tell the full story of how much potential a graduate could have, especially for a first-generation law school attendee who may not yet be familiar with the intricacies of the field.

“Law firms often make their decisions very early in the game,” he said. “It is easy to get pigeonholed as somebody who isn’t going to succeed after three or four months of school. Law firms can be rigid as it relates to hiring and oftentimes don’t take a sufficient look at context to explain why results might be what they are. As a result, that impacts the ability, at times, to hire students of color.”

That problem may be exacerbated as learning has become more virtual which could pose disproportionate obstacles for some students. Pandemic life may also interfere with individuals’ chances at success even after they attain a position at a firm.

“It has created challenges because law firms, I think, can’t decide where they want to be,” Pickett said. “Are we in the office? Are we not in the office? But the reality is if you choose not to be in the office, there might be consequences of that which have become somewhat unwritten and we know that those sorts of unwritten rules can have a significantly greater negative impact on attorneys of color.”

Pickett says he believes things have improved and firms are “having conversations now that we may not have been having historically.” But he still sees a lot of room for continued advancement.

“It is better,” he noted of the overall climate. “It is certainly not where it needs to be as it relates to the depth of those conversations.”

Ronald Norwood, who has chaired the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at Lewis Rice since 2014, said law firms often find themselves rushing to recruit the same small group of top candidates in classes.

“Everyone is after them so it makes it challenging to hire individuals everyone is grabbing at the same time,” he said.

He sees promise in Missouri Bar mentorship programs that will help candidates to put their best foot forward.

“The hope is that through that effort, individuals would be guided to a path of success in law school which would translate to success when and if they join a large law firm,” he said.

Norwood also said other Bar efforts include initiatives that let firms pledge to attract and retain attorneys of color and encourage judges to diversify the ranks of their law clerks.

“That’s a program we feel could be important because it gives them access and experience with the internal workings of the court which then translates into being more productive lawyers once they leave the court system,” he said.

Lesley Wynes, chief legal talent officer of Thompson Coburn, said casting a broad net for recruitment is a priority for professionals at her firm, particularly when it comes to lawyers.

“Diversity is something we’ve been focusing on across all of our attorney ranks from summer associate hiring to lateral associate and lateral partner hiring,” she said, noting that Thompson Coburn has been certified under Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule for the past three years.

According to Diversity Lab’s website, the Mansfield Rule stipulates that an organization has “affirmatively considered at least 30 percent women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions.”

“Thought leadership is more productive when it is driven by different points of view,” Wynes notes. “You are able to solve clients’ problems more creatively.”

Pickett said there is data to back that up.

“Over and over again, what is clear is that diverse teams just perform better,” he noted. “Revenue is higher than industry averages. Innovation is higher than industry average. Efficiency is better than industry average. Diverse teams are more effective teams.”

Wynes said the trend toward non-physical office work may have actually had some useful side effects on the firm’s diversity efforts by allowing more interchange through interviews outside a given geographic market.

“I think one of the ways that the pandemic has impacted recruiting positively, which has a trickle effect on diversity, is that we can be more inclusive in who we include in the recruitment process because the interviews are generally still happening virtually,” she noted.

Despite the dampening effect on in-person campus recruiting events, Garcia-Williams noted a similar phenomenon at Husch where “The Link,” a virtual office project has allowed for greater flexibility in outreach and communications.

“The Link, in a lot of ways, has been great for diverse recruiting and diverse hiring,” she said. “We just have to be very intentional about making sure the support networks are in place.”

Firms aren’t just focused on racial composition either. Thompson Coburn participates in a “reentry platform” fellowship program associated with Diversity Lab that focuses on bringing females back into the office after a hiatus.

“This program gives them a chance to demonstrate their skills and their value in the marketplace while also getting more skills and opportunities and gives mentorship and professional development support to women as they return to the workforce,” Wynes said.

Half of Thompson Coburn’s management committee is female, and women make up more than 50 percent of managing partners. In 2020, three-quarters of the firm’s lateral hires were diverse based on gender, race, ethnicity, LGBTQ, veteran or disability status. That number rose to 86 percent last year.

At Lewis Rice, Norwood said that there is a particular forum geared to helping women with business development or growth in the organization.

“We feel that that forum has been a great success in terms of active participation within the firm and active involvement with outside general counsel that might be women or women business owners,” he said.

Garcia-Williams said that firms are likely doing better on promoting female leadership than racial diversity in the boardroom. There is still work to do on making equity partnerships and chairpersons reflect the larger community.

Like Wynes, she feels that diverse groups make better decisions. But she also notes clients are beginning to feel that way too.

“Many of them are asking for metrics,” she said. “They understand that diverse teams solve complex problems in a better, more efficient, more creative way. They want their law firms to be diverse and to bring diverse perspectives to their complex legal issues.”

At Greensfelder, Pickett said the firm  sometimes sees such questions pop up in RFPs.

“How is leadership organized? How many women and attorneys of color are on the important committees in the law firm?” he said. “There is significant external pressure from larger companies and smaller companies, frankly, to ensure that law firms and the legal industry is living up to what it outwardly says about the importance of diversity within firms.”

Unfortunately, while Pickett believes that many firms are genuinely looking to broaden their horizons in terms of personnel, they aren’t necessarily the most skilled organizations when it comes to training. Unlike major corporations, which prioritize managing and mentoring, law firms often select practice group leaders for their talent as attorneys, something which doesn’t always translate into creating the best managers. Sometimes, that disconnect can leave hiring practices and professional development to suffer which could negatively impact inclusion efforts.

“I think law firms are committed,” he said of efforts to diversify and train the next generation of attorneys. “[But] I think law firms are uniquely ill-qualified to try and figure it out.”