The Simple Solution to the Demand for Diversity in the Open Letter to Law Firm Partners (With Seven Practical Tips to Make It Happen)
Imagine that you are the CEO of a manufacturing company. One day, you direct the COO to hire a copy paper vendor with an office in the Midwest. You told the COO that this was a priority for the company. You even put out a public statement saying that you wanted to hire a copy paper vendor from the Midwest.
At the end of the year, the COO reports back to you: “Unfortunately, we didn’t hire a copy paper vendor with an office in the Midwest this year. We asked all our vendors if they would please open an office in the Midwest but they didn’t. So, we couldn’t find a copy paper vendor who fits that description.”
Now imagine that the COO has been telling you the same thing for 20 years.
Would you believe it? Or would you start thinking that maybe you need to expand the search a bit?
When it comes to diversity in law firm hiring, companies need to expand their search for diverse outside counsel.
Stop asking your existing firms to change (news flash: they aren’t changing) and instead find a new firm that fits your needs from the start.
In 1999, the chief legal officers of about 500 major corporations signed Diversity in the Workplace – A Statement of Principle. It explained how those corporations valued diversity and sought it from their outside counsel as well.
Twenty years later, in January 2019, the chief legal officers of over 170 companies signed an open letter to “Law Firm Partners.” The message was once again clear. These CLOs valued diversity and said that they would “as a group, direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusions, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation.” [link to letter or through this link.]
It’s been 20 years and not much has changed. Those big law firms from which the CLOs sternly demanded diversity in 1999 have made barely a dent in their numbers. They still show up to pitches with a room full of white, male partners. They staff the cases the same way. They still elevate classes of partners that pretty much look the same.
The solution is simple. There are plenty of highly-qualified and diverse small law firms if you are willing to step outside of the big firm bubble. There are small women- and minority-owned law firms all over the country, filled with lawyers who used to practice at the biggest law firms or were in-house counsel at the biggest companies in the country.
If you hire a small law firm that is owned by a woman or a person of color, you will get a diverse team. Period. That solves your 20-year problem. It’s such a simple solution and there are many top-notch firms of this type throughout the country.
We understand that it’s scary to hire a new small firm for the highest-stakes cases or bet-the-company litigation for companies. There’s a comfort level—and a CYA element—to hiring a big firm. If the case goes south, the GC can tell the board, “well, I hired Big Firm X.”
But run the numbers. A huge chunk of your company’s legal spend is likely on smaller matters, like lower-stakes litigation, employment matters and regulatory advice.
Start small. Take baby steps. Meet some diverse lawyers who work outside of big firms. Then hire one of them for a small matter. Test out the firm to see if it’s a good fit for your company. If it is, then gradually increase the size of matters over time.
Also, you have likely worked with a great big firm lawyer who moved to a smaller firm. “Jennifer” didn’t change, she just went to a smaller firm. Someone like “Jennifer” has the skill set you need, and already knows your company and its matters. There’s your diversity and comfort level, too.
If you are having a hard time finding diverse firms or lawyers, here are a few practical tips:
Ask your big firm relationship partner for referrals. Go to the relationship partner at your current outside counsel and tell him (and, let’s face it, we know it’s often a him) that you have a matter that you want to send to a diverse firm. Ask him for the 3 best diverse lawyers he knows—at his firm or smaller firms. Let your trusted outside counsel direct you to someone he knows. This plan will also reinforce your message because you are demonstrating your seriousness in sending matters to diverse firms.
Check out the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms and Women Owned Law. NAMWOLF maintains a list of diverse firms by practice area. Women Owned Law does not have a public directory of members, but you could contact them to find someone.
Ask your in-house colleagues and friends. Maybe another lawyer in your company or a good friend has worked with a great, diverse firm or lawyer. If that lawyer has done a good job in the past, then your company should reward her with more work.
Check with the broader in-house community. If you are part of a professional networking group or listserv, inquire there about diverse lawyers. Ask friends who work for other companies who they love to work with.
Demand that your industry groups feature small firm lawyers. Ask the Association of Corporate Counsel or other industry groups to reach out to small, diverse firms to present to your chapter or set up a “speed-dating” event so you can meet a lot of diverse lawyers. Unfortunately, the sponsorship fees for those groups are in the tens of thousands of dollars each year—thus effectively pricing out smaller firms. If you demand change, however, these groups will give you access to the lawyers you need.
Meet diverse lawyers, even if you aren’t ready to hire. Once you follow the steps above, reach out to meet these lawyers now. It’s too late to find diverse counsel after the complaint or subpoena lands on your desk. Begin planning now and develop a list of excellent, diverse lawyers. Then you have done your due diligence to hire them when the right matter hits.
Ask us! We are happy to help you find an excellent, diverse lawyer. For example, we have a networking group in DC made up of women-owned law firms. Our group has over 100 members who have practiced in a big firm. Plus, we each have networks of small firm owners across the country. We can help you identify a few lawyers to meet to grow your list of diverse firms.
Many of the 170 companies that signed the letter are successful start-ups, familiar with disrupting an industry and doing business a little bit differently. We urge you to continue to disrupt – this time in how you hire outside counsel. Think outside the big firm box.