The march toward diversity in the legal profession has been slow. While most acknowledge the need to improve diversity, initiating that change has been difficult. In fact, minorities make up less than 15 percent of all attorneys , and women account for just 16.8 percent of the partners in the nation's major law firms.
To accelerate improvement, a groundbreaking two-day summit took place on April 24-25, 2008 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Summit brought together approximately 40 general counsels and 100 managing partners from major U.S. corporations and the top law firms to continue the dialogue on diversity in the legal profession. During the two-day event, the general counsels and managing partners identified and candidly discussed many of the systemic issues facing the industry and agreed upon several next step action items aimed at improving diversity throughout the profession. The Call to Action Summit is a testament to the long-held belief that diversity must become a compelling priority for all attorneys.
This white paper outlines the activities of the event, provides an overview of how Call to Action evolved and how the actionable "next steps" from the Summit will aid in tackling the diversity issue moving forward.
The Legal Profession and Diversity
As U.S. culture has changed, so too has business and the business community. The corporate world has recognized the need for a more diverse workforce, one that represents the communities in which they operate and the customers they serve. The logic is simple: in order to best serve your constituents and compete in the global marketplace, you need to understand and reflect the people and communities with which you do business. To date, the legal profession has made limited advances in response to these business realities, a fact supported by statistics.
The current state of diversity in the legal profession, in general, indicates that:
- Less than 15 percent of attorneys are ethnic minorities.
- Less than 3 percent of all partners in the nation's law firms are minorities, and that number falls to less than 2 percent in the largest and most profitable firms. 
- The proportion of students of color enrolled in law schools has doubled since 1986; however, over the last five years, minority enrollment has been flat. 
- Of the 1,143,358 attorneys reported in 2007, 30.1 percent are women. 
There is a definite gap between the desired and actual diversity models within the legal profession. According to general counsels at some of the country's largest companies and managing partners at some of the industry's most prominent law firms, there have been several obstacles preventing progress in this area, including business practices and previous failed resolutions.
Legal Business Practices
While recognizing the need for change, many elements within the legal profession have been very slow to adapt to the evolving workforce and competitive non-legal business environment. Too often, there has been a preference on both the corporate and firm side to adhere to the traditional way of doing things. For instance, many firms employ the same business model used since their inception, which includes billable hour structures, habitual recruiting practices and the established associate/partner career track.
Similarly, corporate legal departments often continue to seek out many of the same firms and individuals for their outside counsel needs. The notion is that these firms and individuals are proven and offer comforting assurances when dealing with critical legal matters. And many corporate legal departments go to the same groups in the same firms to recruit their new hires. Yet, this tradition comes at a cost.
The traditional way of doing things does not necessarily lend itself to attracting and retaining diverse talent. Nor does it acknowledge the need for cultivating strong environments that support and nurture individual attorneys, offering opportunities for growth and advancement across all races and genders. The consequence is many people leaving the profession after a few years, which in turn results in a lack of minority, female and non-traditional mentors at the upper echelons of the profession, who could help guide younger lawyers through the course of their careers. A shift must be made in both mindset and practices if the profession is to succeed going forward.
Across most industries, workers have grown to expect a more diverse and flexible culture. The legal profession is feeling these pressures. Many firms, corporations and law schools have taken steps to try to improve the situation, including innovative recruiting techniques, diversity awareness campaigns, diversity report cards that demonstrate progress, flex-time agreements, enhanced mentoring programs, and other practices. People both inside and outside the profession have come to the conclusion that many of these tactics, while well-intentioned, have not been adopted broadly or effectively enough to address the systemic issues that contribute to the non-diversified environment.
To date, these aforementioned factors combined with many other issues have generally resulted in unsatisfactory progress in diversifying the legal profession. But, The Call to Action Summit took the necessary first step needed to address these factors and the participants have made a commitment to not only making diversity a priority in the legal profession — but taking action to ensure it's achieved.
The History of Call to Action
In 1999, nearly 500 major corporations signed a document entitled Diversity in the Workplace, A Statement of Principle, which showcased their commitment to increasing diversity within the legal profession. Several years later, Roderick ("Rick") Palmore — then executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of Sara Lee Corp. (currently executive vice president, general counsel and chief corporate & risk management officer of General Mills, Inc.) frustrated with the lack of progress — recognized the need in the legal profession for corporations and law firms to share in their commitment to diversity and so created a new Call to Action, urging signatories to take this commitment beyond the "disappointing plateau" that had been reached.
When signing this new Call to Action, signatories were asked to agree to:
- Take action consistent with the diversity statement
- Make an abiding commitment to diversity in their own departments
- Actively look for opportunities with law firms that distinguish themselves in diversity issues
- End or limit relationships with firms whose track records reflect a lack of meaningful interest in diversity
Since the launch of Call to Action, more than 100 general counsels have pledged their support and signed the original statement. The signatories created a sub-group devoted to metrics lead by James Diggs, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of PPG Industries, Inc., which provided the opportunity to work closely with Vault, a leading career research firm, and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) on their annual legal industry survey, which devotes a segment to diversity issues.
The Call to Action Summit
The recent focus for the Call to Action group was organizing the inaugural Summit. When the corporate chief legal officers initially endorsed the Call to Action in 2004, they affirmed their commitment to diversity in the legal profession as a whole — and recognized that to truly realize diversity, corporations and law firms would have to work together and share in their commitment to change the face of the legal profession.
It was with this understanding in mind that the Call to Action signatories decided to host the Call to Action Summit and initiate a dialogue about the state of diversity in the profession, and the ways in which firms and their corporate clients can work together to achieve diversity.
The group was lead by a seven-member general counsel organizing committee who worked to bring the idea of a Call to Action Summit from discussion to fruition. Members included:
- Rick Palmore, executive vice president, general counsel, chief compliance and risk management officer, General Mills, Inc.
- Dennis Broderick, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, Macy's, Inc.
- Timothy (Tim) Mayopolous, executive vice president and general counsel, Bank of America
- Steve Pickett, senior vice president and general counsel, Southern California Edison Co.
- Gary Kennedy, senior vice president and general counsel, American Airlines
- James (Jim) Diggs, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of PPG Industries, Inc.
- Bradford Smith, senior vice president and general counsel, Microsoft Corp.
The two-day event was a groundbreaking opportunity for general counsels and managing partners — the leading decision makers and influencers within the profession — to review diversity best practices, current benchmarks and standards within the profession and devise an agreed-upon plan of action for addressing diversity in corporate law departments and within major law firms.
The critical nature of diversity within the profession was underscored by retired Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher who spoke passionately about their experiences. Both emphasized the need — and the opportunity — to advance the profession by continually developing and mentoring young attorneys.
The participants believe that the Summit has created a strong sense of shared responsibility among general counsels and managing partners to improve diversity. The open and sincere discussions that took place enabled participants to establish a clear understanding about where diversity in the profession stands today, and the importance of improving diversity for the future.
Following the Summit, participants left with an established action plan, task forces and tangible goals which were established to effectively change the way the legal profession operates, recruits and retains talent — and ultimately, help to realize a truly diverse legal profession.
Continuing the Conversation and Taking Next Steps: Call to Action Summit Working Groups
During the Summit a host of key issues were acknowledged as the principal barriers to creating a more diverse legal profession. In order to combat these barriers, the following working groups were established to advance sustainable change in the legal profession (leaders of each working group are indicated below the descriptions):
Law Firm Call to Action: Creation of a Call to Action document similar to the existing General Counsel Call to Action, which encourages a commitment to diversity within the legal department and within the firms with which they work. The working group will also create a process to encourage managing partners to become signatories, thereby making a binding commitment to diversity within their firms.
Francis B. Burch, Jr., partner and joint chief executive officer, DLA Piper
Paula E. Boggs, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, Starbucks Corporation
Strategies for Law Firm and Corporate Partnerships: Identification of specific ways firms and their corporate clients can work together to advance diversity. The team will also create a detailed blueprint for partnerships that will inspire general counsels and managing partners to effectively create change.
Martin F. Evans, partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Geoffrey J. Kelly, senior vice president and general counsel, The Coca Cola Company
Goals to Measure Success: Identification of short and long-term goals to measure the progress of diversity advancement. The working group will act as an advisory board for ongoing evaluation of the data contained in the Vault/MCCA Diversity Survey, now searchable online and used as a benchmark for corporate and firm success.
Walfrido (Wally) Martinez, managing partner, Hunton & Williams
A.B. Cruz III, executive vice president and general counsel, The E.W. Scripps Company
Recruitment, Retention and Advancement: Creation of best practices that effectively recruit and retain diverse attorneys within firms. The group will publicize best practices that target known challenges and achieve results.
Gregory B. Jordan, global managing partner, Reed Smith LLP
Teri P. McClure, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, United Parcel Service, Inc.
These four working groups were designed not only to develop momentum, but to create a long-standing partnership between the general counsels and managing partners in their goal to increase diversity in the legal profession. To this end, each group is led by one Fortune 500 general counsel and a managing partner from one of the nation's top law firms. More than 2/3 of attendees committed to at least one working group prior to leaving the Summit.
Because business as usual has not, and will not, suffice in creating a more diverse legal profession, participants in The Call to Action Summit have signed on to take matters into their own hands. By participating in The Call to Action Summit, attendees affirmed their recognition that change can only occur through measured, sustainable and collaborative action. In addition to the work done within individual working groups, Summit participants are focused on:
- Maintaining a working partnership between corporations and law firms, and gaining a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by each group.
- Establishing benchmarks for measuring improvement in year-over-year recruitment and retention of diverse attorneys.
- Discussing ways to reshape the profession to make it more engaging to diverse populations and instituting additional actionable steps toward achieving this goal.
- Maintaining a recurring event (the April Summit was the inaugural event) to discuss diversity, update the group on the status of tangible, agreed-upon initiatives and ensure progress is continually moving forward.
In order for minorities and women to be fully engaged in the legal profession, they need to feel as if they are part of the system. Systemic change is a necessary part of the solution to the legal industry's diversity problem. And real change can only be achieved through action.
In the end, the goal of the Call to Action Summit was to prompt tangible change that creates greater diversity — and for a more diverse group of legal professionals to take the message back into the community so it can be heard and believed. Ultimately, at the conclusion of the event and with the creation of the working groups, the participants in the Summit took a large first step toward achieving and sustaining diversity in and beyond the legal community.
This white paper was reproduced with permission from the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity.
1 Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, Summer 2004.
2 The National Association of Law Placement, "Women and Attorneys of Color Continue to Make Small Gains at Large Law Firms," November 2003.
3, 4, 5 DiversityCentral.com, "Bar None: Report to the President of the United States on the Status of People of Color and Pro Bono Services in the Legal Profession," San Francisco: Lawyers for One America, 2000.
6 2007 National Lawyer Population by State, ABA