The Quest for Diverse Partners: With Retention as the Goal, One Firm has Some Success

22 January 2007 Publication
Authors: Maureen A. McGinnity

Legal Times

The legal profession’s lag behind other professions with respect to diversity is old news. The slow growth in the percentages of ethnically diverse and women partners in large law firms has been particularly disappointing. Improvements in the recruitment of diverse summer associates and new lawyers, though encouraging for the future, do not translate into immediate gains in diversity among the ranks of partners, suggesting the need for more dramatic measures.

At Foley, we are implementing a combination of strategies to accelerate the growth in diversity within our partner ranks, and we are seeing positive results. As of Dec. 31, 6 percent of Foley & Lardner’s partners were minorities compared to the national average of 5 percent, as reported by the National Association of Law Placement. Most recently, in the past two years Foley has promoted 53 attorneys to partner. Of those new partners, 28.3 percent are women, and 17 percent are ethnic minorities.

The firm has also won a number of awards for its diversity measures, including the 2006 Entrepreneurial Star Award from the Business Women’s Network and Diversity Best Practices. The award goes to organizations that demonstrate and sustain a commitment to diversity.

How we did it.

Here are some of the factors that we think have contributed to this success.

A diversity business department that works on retention.

Historically, large firms have experienced an “attrition gap” in which more women than men and more ethnically diverse attorneys than non-ethnically diverse attorneys leave the firm. Our diversity-business department is helping to close the attrition gap by working with our diverse attorneys to identify and support opportunities for their success on both an individual and a group basis. The professionals in our diversity-business department assist diverse attorneys with business planning and provide career-path coaching, augmenting the resources provided by mentors and practice group leaders. The department also cultivates relationships with outside organizations to provide writing and speaking engagements for our diverse attorneys to help build their credentials and visibility and create valuable networking opportunities.
Networks of peer groups across the firm.

As another retention strategy, we support peer-group or affinity-group networks for our African-American, Asian-Pacific, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, woman, and “flex-schedule” attorneys. These groups play a valuable role in connecting our diverse attorneys across the country, leading to informal mentoring relationships and opportunities to work collectively on business- and professional-development projects. The groups also actively participate in recruiting and bring to the surface issues of concern for management’s consideration, giving diverse attorneys an important role in improving the climate for diversity.
A meaningful flexible-schedule policy.

Our flexible-schedule policy permits attorneys (associates as well as partners) to work part time to accommodate family responsibilities such as child and elder care. Attorneys choose the percentage of full-time hours they wish to work and are compensated at that same percentage. Critically important to the impact of this policy on retention is that “flex” attorneys are not put on a “mommy track,” but remain eligible for promotion both on paper and in practice.

Courtenay Brinckerhoff in our D.C. office is representative of our many successful flex-schedule attorneys. Brinckerhoff has a demanding and diverse patent counseling practice that involves her in all aspects of obtaining, licensing, and enforcing patents, conducting freedom-to-operate and due-diligence investigations, and representing clients before the U.S. Patent Office, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Board of Appeals and Interferences, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. She has been working an 80 percent schedule since 2005 to give her more time to spend with her family. Her reduced schedule has not impaired her professional advancement. In fact, she has been promoted to partner, effective Feb. 1, and will continue to work a reduced schedule.

“We have many attorneys who work flexible hours, and there is no difference in the quality of our assignments. It’s a policy that Foley strongly supports,” Brinckerhoff says.
A focus on lateral hiring.

In addition to our retention initiatives, we are committed to accelerating diversity through strategic lateral hires. The firm recently appointed a national lateral-hiring partner and a national lateral-hiring manager to centralize and manage the process of identifying and recruiting nonpartner lateral candidates. Their responsibilities include the recruitment of diverse attorneys, and we are already seeing improvements in the diversity of our lateral hires.
Coordination with client initiatives.

Observing that the percentage of diverse attorneys in the legal profession had “reached a disappointing plateau,” in 2004 the American Corporate Counsel Association adopted its “call-to-action” initiative to encourage law firms to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. Almost 100 large companies have adopted the call to action, through which chief legal officers pledge that they “will make decisions regarding which law firms represent our companies based in significant part on the diversity performance of the firms.” For law firms already committed to diversity, the call to action provides an excellent opportunity to partner with clients to achieve greater diversity in the legal profession.

A leader in the call to action initiative is Foley client Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart made it clear from the start that it wanted to see greater diversity at all levels of its outside law firms, not just in overall attorney counts. When it first adopted its initiative, Wal-Mart asked all of its law firms to provide the names of potential relationship partners — including at least one woman and one ethnically diverse attorney — from which Wal-Mart selected its own relationship partners. Additionally, Wal-Mart closely monitors the overall diversity of its outside firms and, specifically, the attorneys who work on its matters, through periodic surveys and billing-format requirements. Its surveys have become increasingly more detailed and now include requests for information about diverse lateral hires and promotions.

Sharie Brown, a partner in the litigation department in Foley’s D.C. office and the relationship partner for Wal-Mart, had been the relationship partner before this initiative and has continued in that role since Wal-Mart signed on to the call-to-action pledge.

“As an African-American woman, I’m very supportive of this initiative,” says Brown. “I also feel good about the fact that Foley was ahead of the game, and I was already the designated relationship partner.”

The opportunity for more work from influential clients such as Wal-Mart creates an added incentive for law firms to pay close attention to diversity and adopt measures designed to attract, retain, and promote diverse attorneys. At the same time, client demands for greater diversity provide unique opportunities for diverse attorneys to work on challenging, cutting-edge work that enhances their professional development. This combination is bound to contribute to the retention and advancement of more diverse attorneys.

This article is reprinted with permission from the January 22, 2007 issue of Legal Times. 2007 ALM Properties Inc. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Authors

Maureen A. McGinnity

Retired Partner

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