If The Client Insists They Be Given A Chance, Minority Lawyers At Large Law Firms Do Succeed

Thursday, March 1, 2007 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Veta Richardson, Executive Director, Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA).

Editor: In his article in the North Carolina Law Review, Professor Richard Sander of UCLA Law School argues that minorities don't succeed in becoming partners at large law firms because law firms hire minorities with lower grade point averages. Tell us about a Survey conducted by MCCA entitled The Myth of the Meritocracy, which reaches different conclusions.

Richardson: At law firm and corporate retreats involving outside counsel, I constantly hear concerns from outside counsel that their firms cannot find enough qualified minorities. Whenever I followed up with them to get a sense of what they meant by "qualified," I received an inconsistent range of responses. This indicated to me that, although they had a desire to hire "qualified" minorities, they could not articulate what that meant.

At a meeting with Altria's law department and outside counsel, they suggested that it would be beneficial for MCCA to do a survey to determine what it means to be qualified to advance in a law firm and what separates those who move up the ladder from those who do not. We decided that we wanted to solicit the views of corporate counsel and of outside lawyers considered to be at the top of the profession to get a sense of the factors that distinguished a top lawyer. In addition, we gathered quantitative data by looking through the bios of about 1,833 partners of larger law firms to analyze where they attended law school and any honors or activities that might reflect a high grade point average in law school.

Editor: What were the results of the MCCA Survey?

Richardson: The Survey showed that the academic credentials that hiring committees associate with success were quite different from the characteristics listed in the bios of top lawyers at prestigious law firms. Their bios revealed that 48.2% attended a top-10 law school, whereas the MCCA Survey showed that 83.3% of minority partners had attended a top-10 law school, of which an impressive 70% had graduated from a top-5 law school. Professor Sander's assumption that lower grade point averages account for the lack of success of minorities is challenged by other results of the MCCA Survey. The 1,833 partners' bios reviewed as part of the Survey are inconsistent with the assumption that grades play a major role in the success of a lawyer. Of those features of a lawyer's background that are reflective of high grades, only 25.9% of the bios show that the lawyer graduated with honors, 20.2% law review, 13.9% judicial clerkship and 8.7% Order of the Coif.

Editor: What are the attributes of a successful partner?

Richardson: In the Survey, we asked general counsel about the characteristics they looked for in the outside attorneys they hired. No one mentioned the law school attended, grades received, federal clerkships, law review or serving on a moot court board in law school. They focused on skills such as the ability to prioritize, good judgment, interpersonal skills, good client service, and public speaking abilities.

Editor: Is there a double standard with respect to minority attorneys?

Richardson: As I mentioned, the MCCA Survey showed that far more minority partners attended top-10 law schools than did their white counterparts. A study of Fortune 500 companies conducted by MCCA a few years ago indicated that the women and minorities tended to have more elite credentials than their white male counterparts. Both studies tell me that success is not predicated upon where you go to law school or what your grades are. In my opinion, the research that MCCA has done proves that in the case of countless white attorneys, the fact that they attended a lesser-ranked school or did not have top grades has not prevented their advancement in the same way that it has for a significant number of minorities.

Editor: What do you believe accounts for the fact that so few partners at large law firms are minorities?

Richardson: There are a variety of reasons. The studies conducted by the ABA, MCCA, and other credible groups all confirm that the underlying reason for the relative lack of success of minorities in larger law firms is the different way they are treated as compared to their majority counterparts. Minorities have reported lack of access to the type of mentoring that allows their careers to flourish and can be of great assistance in terms of professional development. They also report being shut out of important client work. There is also a lack of minority leadership at these firms - people to whom minorities can look as role models.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to this experience. Part of the problem may be due to pushback within the firm from people who resent the diversity initiatives because they view them as something being forced on them by the top of the organization and some clients. That can create an environment that is not healthy or welcoming for minority lawyers.

Editor: What role can corporate counsel play in assuring that minorities get an equal chance to become law firm partners?

Richardson: It is clear that this will happen only if their clients demand that minorities get an equal opportunity to become partner; for this to happen they need to demand that minority associates get an opportunity to play an important role in handling their matters. DuPont's legal department has applied this approach for many years so that the results of that approach are now apparent when one looks at the diversity picture at its primary law firms - they not only have increased the number of their minority partners, but the results these firms have achieved attract new corporate clients that wish to hire diverse firms. I refer your readers to the interview with Tom Sager and Ramona Romero on the front cover of the February issue of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel and the interviews and articles from DuPont primary firms in this and the newpaper's February issue describing the diversity accomplishments at those firms. The success of the DuPont model is indisputable proof that Prof. Sander is wrong. With the support of corporate clients and a more inclusive and welcoming professional environment, minority attorneys in law firms can excel and contribute fully.

I also applaud the efforts of DuPont Legal to encourage diversity among suppliers of services other than law firms. An outstanding example that deserves recognition is the work underway at Eaton Corporation where the company turned to a network of minority-owned law firms to collectively handle a multimillion-dollar transaction. It's a clear example of innovative leadership by the general counsel, Mark McGuire, and the members of his staff - Lisa Sutton and others along with the company's supplier diversity director, Debbie Pickens.

Editor: Tell us about some of the other things that have been taking place that encourage corporate counsel to let their law firms know that they expect them to practice diversity.

Richardson: Back in 1999, a time when general counsel were generally not pushing diversity, Charles Morgan, who was then general counsel of BellSouth, circulated a Statement of Principle in which the signers agreed that they would not only promote diversity in their own departments, but also encourage their law firms to practice diversity. To date, over 500 general counsel have signed the Statement.

More recently Rick Palmore, general counsel of Sara Lee, has issued a Call To Action in which the general counsel who sign on make a commitment not only to encourage diversity among their outside counsel, but also to terminate those who do not show a meaningful interest in being diverse.

As a free service to general counsel and at Sara Lee's request, MCCA established and staffs a website, www.clocalltoaction.com, that lists general counsel who have signed on to the Call to Action. The site also lists diversity events being sponsored by bar associations throughout the country - MCCA and others.

Editor: What is MCCA doing to encourage corporate counsel to help their law firms become more diverse?

Richardson: As I mentioned, we are supporting Rick Patmore's Call to Action. Our Employer of Choice Award is given to companies that have an effective internal program promoting a diverse staff and an effective outside counsel and minority outreach program to help promote diversity in a broader way. MCCA collects best practices from leading law departments like DuPont, Shell Oil, Sara Lee, MetLife and others - including those that illustrate how legal departments can encourage law firms to be more diverse. We also make available collections of those best practices. The most recent is called Creating Pathways To Diversity : Best Practices In Corporate Law Departments.

Editor: We have discussed the efforts that are being made by DuPont, MCCA and people like Charles Morgan and Rick Palmore. Tell me about other law departments that are adopting comprehensive policies to influence their law firms to become more diverse.

Richardson: Wal-Mart shook up the legal profession in a good way by focusing on the diversity of its engagement partners at law firms it uses. The poor representation of minorities and women in this group had become apparent to Tom Mars, WalMart's general counsel, and Sam Reeves, who was then responsible for the company's outside counsel relationships. To address this, they took the unprecedented step of asking the firms to reevaluate their engagement partners and to submit a list of five potential candidates that would include at least one female and one minority partner. The firms got the message that if they could not come up with the names of a minority and a woman talented enough to head the engagement, it would be taken as an indication that the firm was not serous about helping its female and minority attorneys to develop professionally. It was also an enlightening experience for Wal-Mart because when Tom and Sam had a chance to review the lists and the individuals' qualifications, in many instances they decided that a woman and /or minority was the best choice as engagement partner - people who would have otherwise been overlooked.

Shell Oil under Cathy Lambolay has been doing a phenomenal job, particularly through the annual Symposia held with outside counsel to share good practices. TIAA-CREF's general counsel, George Madison, was the driving force behind a gathering of Wall Street law firms and their clients from the financial services and investment banking areas to discuss diversity in the profession. It is an effort that will continue and also involves the general counsel of Merrill-Lynch, Prudential, and Citigroup in leadership with TIAA CREF. Target, General Mills, Cargill and others are working together to increase diversity in their hometown of Minneapolis.

Laurie Shanahan from the Gap has also been a leader with respect to diversity initiatives in her legal department and external advocacy efforts. Michelle Mayes at Pitney Bowes has been doing an outstanding job. She has a very diverse law department, effective outside counsel outreach and clearly communicates the importance that Pitney Bowes places on having a diverse group of outside lawyers work on its matters.

In the airline industry, I point to Gary Kennedy, the general counsel of American Airlines. He has a diverse, energized staff. He is a leader with a top down commitment to diversity that includes encouraging outside counsel to become more diverse. Like many air carriers, American has faced challenges, but its commitment to diversity hasn't wavered.

Editor: How would you like to sum up?

Richardson: If more clients made diversity a priority in working with their outside counsel like the corporate counsel I mentioned, then law firms would increase their efforts to become more diverse.

MCCA is premised on the belief that corporate counsel must take a leadership role in focusing their outside counsel on the importance of diversity and following through so that firms that fail to take diversity seriously are replaced by those who are capable of doing a better job with respect to diversity and their work in general.

We hope The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel will continue its efforts to highlight the efforts of other corporations that, like DuPont, have instituted carefully thought out programs to encourage their outside counsel to become more diverse. These programs by reason of their proven success serve as models for other legal departments.