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From Afterthought to Priority

March 18, 2009


From Afterthought to Priority

March 18, 2009

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From Afterthought to Priority
written by Nancy L. Stagg and Rhonda Grayson
Los Angeles Daily Journal

Today’s law firm is different than the law firm of the past. Even just a generation ago, most law firms were staffed almost exclusively with white, male attorneys, with women and minority attorneys typically delegated to support roles. The early career of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is frequently cited as an example of this disparity. O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School, yet upon graduation she was offered only a secretarial position in a law firm. Until recently, law firms did not actively strive for a diverse workforce. Instead, some firms would sponsor one or more of a handful of minority organizations on law firm campuses. Little thought or innovation went into outreach to diverse law students. As a result, most law firms were generic in terms of workforce. Diverse attorneys, to the extent any practiced in large law firms, were likely treated as novelties rather than peers.

What brought about the paradigm switch that has propelled diversity to the top of the priority list of many law firms throughout the United States? Multiple factors have contributed, starting with the creation of minority-based groups in the business community and on law school campuses. These groups spurred a realization that diversity had a place in law firms. The law firms that embraced diversity were soon viewed as progressive and attracted a unique group of attorneys and law students who wanted to practice law where others shared their values and appreciation of diversity.

Looking for ways to connect with a broader candidate pool, law firms began participating in minority job fairs. Law firms established consortiums with other firms in their regions to sponsor such events. In addition, minority law associations began expanding in the 1970s. The Hispanic National Bar Association was formed in the mid-1970s. In 1980, a Pan Asian American attorneys’ organization was formed by lawyers attending a diversity conference in Washington, D.C. (later becoming the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association). These new groups drew inspiration from the National Bar Association, which was created in 1925 by 12 African American attorneys seeking to promote civil rights and justice. The National Bar Association has become one of oldest and largest organizations of predominately African American lawyers and judges in the United States. The National Association of Women Lawyers is even older, founded in 1899 by a group of 18 women lawyers in New York.

Attorneys found such organizations a haven where they could share their concerns and experiences. From these attorneys sprang a passion for law firm diversity that they brought to their firms, inspiring the legal community to do more. This passion also extended into local legal communities, causing bar associations throughout the United States to form ethnic and gender-based sections and committees. The American Bar Association also took note and began to emphasize diversity as well.

San Diego is a great example of a local bar community with many active diversity bar organizations, including The Lawyers’ Club, The Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, the Tom Homann Law Association, La Raza Lawyer’s Association of San Diego and the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego, just to name a few.

Other groups with a focus on promoting diversity in hiring were formed, including the California Minority Counsel Program, and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. These groups contributed greatly to the realization by many that diversity had a broader role within the legal industry. With clients and potential clients involved in diversity organizations, including the well-publicized 2004 “Call to Action” initiative founded by Roderick “Rick” Palmore, general counsel of General Mills, law firms focused on the business development and visibility opportunities these organizations offered. The corporate members of these organizations contributed greatly in bringing diversity to the forefront. Law firms have to demonstrate that they not only talk the talk, but that they also walk the walk.

Law firms have begun to devote considerable resources to diversity efforts. These efforts have brought about the creation of a new administrative position within law firms: the diversity manager. Today many firms have an individual responsible for the development and implementation of a diversity plan. In fact, there is now an organization dedicated to the education and enrichment of these innovators, the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (

Law firm diversity continues to evolve. Today firms are concentrating on inclusion issues in addition to striving for a diverse workforce. Inclusion issues focus on making all attorneys groups feel welcomed and on advancing diverse attorneys to key leadership roles in law firms. By fostering an environment that welcomes diversity, law firms benefit tremendously. New ideas and experiences strengthen and improve legal services. Retention is heightened as attorneys are more likely to stay in a firm were diversity is welcomed and differences are encouraged.

“Affinity groups” within law firms are also becoming more common. Such groups bring diverse attorneys of similar backgrounds and interests together across offices and practice groups. The groups provide opportunities for informal mentoring, social networking and create a forum to voice concerns and seek solutions. Law firms must continue to find ways to promote diversity from within. Even though the hiring rate of diverse attorneys at major law firms is on the rise, keeping and promoting talented, diverse attorneys is still a major issue. While law firms are making strides in creating inclusive environments, microinequities (ways individual are either singled out, overlooked, ignored or otherwise discounted) create significant problems. Although a firm may publicly promote diversity, smaller, subtle actions may suggest differently. For example, not including diverse attorneys in business development opportunities, or in certain social events, not selecting them to work for significant firm clients or on “marquee” matters, are all examples of microinequities. Diverse attorneys who experience these exclusions often choose to leave their law firms, with many going in house or to government positions. Then, for law firms, the cycle of attracting a diverse attorney population starts all over again.

Nancy L. Stagg is the national chair of Fish & Richardson’s Diversity Initiative and a principal in its Southern California office, where she heads the firm’s Southern California business litigation practice. Rhonda Grayson is Fish & Richardson’s national manager of diversity, where she manages the firm’s diversity programs and activities related to recruitment, professional development, retention and outreach to the legal and business communities.