Law firms are opening their doors to candidates of increasingly varied backgrounds—but the top tier of most law firms, specifically partners, remain mostly white males. Now, 170 in-house counsel have vowed not to spend money on firms that haven’t committed to diversity in concrete ways.
On January 27, more than 170 general counsel and corporate legal executives signed an open letter to big law firms expressing their disappointment that “many law firms continue to promote partner classes that in no way reflect the demographic composition of entering associate classes.” The letter states that the signatory companies will prioritize legal spend only on firms that commit to diversity and inclusion.
The letter continues: “We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation. We sincerely hope that you and your firm will be among those that demonstrate this commitment.”
Signed by chief legal officers across IP-intensive industries such as technology, retail, media, hospitality and financial services, the letter reiterates findings noted in a recent IPWatchdog webinar that indicate outside counsel need to do much better when it comes to fostering their corporate relationships. Companies including Google Fiber, Etsy, Heineken USA, Chobani Global Holdings, Waymo, Lyft, Vox Media, S&P Global Ratings and Booz Allen Hamilton are signatories.
Identifying the Problem
Virginie Eskenazi, General Counsel at PR Hacker, and Gail Stewart, partner at Baker Botts and Chair of the Baker Botts Diversity and Inclusion Committee, discussed the letter and the change they hope it inspires in the legal industry with IPWatchdog.com.
“Although law firm partners may have embraced the idea and importance of diversity, they don’t want to substantially change the firm itself,” explained Eskenazi. “As a result, associates with varied backgrounds are unable or unwilling to conform their lifestyles and values entirely to the firm’s culture, leading to the large-scale departure of nontraditional associates.
Eskenazi did acknowledge that the situation is improving at lower levels in many firms. In general, law firms are opening their doors to candidates of increasingly varied backgrounds—but the top tier of most law firms, specifically partners, remain mostly white males.
Stewart said that providing a diverse and inclusive environment is a high priority for all law firms today. Baker Botts has a variety of programs designed to increase the numbers of diverse lawyers and partners, as well as to retain and support them as they move through their careers. “Diversity brings valuable perspectives, experiences and talents to the firm, thereby allowing lawyers to be more creative, resourceful and effective in the practice of law and service to clients,” Stewart said.
Mentorship and the Mansfield Rule
So, with the increased focus on diversity, why have lawyers remained “largely male and largely white” over the years?
The traditional explanation is that the profession provides no work-life balance. “A greater percentage of women decide to opt out of this kind of lifestyle because it’s hard to have a good work/life balance in a big law firm when you need to work until 3:00 am to close a deal,” said Eskenazi.
But the letter highlights that another critical factor is the lack of mentorship opportunities inside law firms for people with varied backgrounds. When young lawyers see no minority partners at large firms, they often assume there is no future for them and decide to apply elsewhere.
At Baker Botts, they have adopted “the Mansfield Rule,” a method inspired by the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” and named after Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice law in the United States. The Mansfield Rule “measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30 percent diverse lawyers for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, and senior lateral positions,” explained Stewart. “The goal of the Mansfield Rule is to boost the representation of diverse lawyers in law firm leadership by broadening the pool of candidates considered for these opportunities.”
“[Companies] want the law firm they spend money on to represent their diversity and their culture,” explained Eskenazi. “When a company chooses a law firm, they share confidential information and work long hours together. Through this lens, it makes sense to want law firms that have similar values.”
Do This Now
Stewart added, “We think a letter like this is a timely and poignant reminder that we all have a responsibility to make diversity and inclusion a priority every day, in everything we do.”
Some firms have already established quotas of females to be on boards, networking opportunities for minorities, new mentorship programs, and more. New policies reflect more flex-time, giving employees a better work/life balance and a more family-friendly atmosphere.
According to Eskenazi, enhancing diversity is two-fold: First, get more candidates from more varied backgrounds (including from second tier law schools) into the law firm to begin with. Second, set-up a mentorship system for these people to grow within the firm and have the same opportunities to make partner.
“Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is not one thing; it is dozens of things across a firm,” said Stewart. “From recruitment, to retention, to professional development, to promotions and all the steps in between.”
So, who has the most diversity these days? Lawyers at mid-size law firms tend to have more diverse backgrounds. Eskenazi said that younger law firms or law firms that specialize in public service also typically have greater diversity.
Law firms are competing hard to get new business, so if startups and companies make it clear they want diversity, law firms will follow suit, said Eskenazi. The letter underscores this and will validate and encourage law firms that have already begun working toward this goal to do more.
“Change is already happening,” said Stewart. “The letter highlights the issues and I think that is a positive for all of us who are working for more inclusive and diverse environments. Inclusion and diversity bring valuable perspectives, experiences and talents to the legal industry, thereby allowing all firms to be more creative, effective and ultimately successful at representing the interests of their clients.”
Participate and Make Yourself Valuable
Stewart and Eskenazi shared some advice for women and minorities who are just beginning law careers or trying to climb the ladder.
“Virtually every major law firm has extensive diversity and inclusion programs and I would encourage all new lawyers to become in involved, participate and contribute to industry programs and initiatives focused on enhancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” said Stewart.
Eskenazi added, “Don’t be afraid of the ‘old boys club. The best way to be valued is to make yourself valuable.”
Image Source: Deposit Photos
Image ID: 63016893