Diversity Action Matters in the Business Law World

By December 15, 2015The WIN Column

In the diversity movement for the legal profession, just as in life, actions speak louder than words. So even though diversity and inclusion remains a hot topic in the business world, including for lawyers, it’s continually important to spark more – and more innovative – action. That’s the goal of a recent report issued by the California Minority Counsel Program – entitled Diversity Action Matters – Innovative Action to Improve Opportunities for Diverse Business Lawyers.

CMCP’s slogan declares that “Diversity Matters.” And through all it does, CMCP proves that diversity action matters. For over 25 years, the California Minority Counsel Program has been committed to action to improve diversity in the business law community. I was a long time Board member and former co-chair of CMCP. I know the organization is committed to providing attorneys of colors with access and opportunity for business and professional development, and supporting law firms, companies and public agencies with their diversity initiatives.

And I’ve taken a personal interest in CMCP’s mission. For 20 years, I’ve built a career in three of America’s “BigLaw” firms as an immigrant, Vietnamese American, gay lawyer. My path to success as a law firm partner has not always been easy and still remains challenging; I’m an outsider in a world still dominated by insiders. For younger generations coming up after me, I hope the path will become easier. Just like everyone else, diverse lawyers should be empowered to reach their full potential.

But figuring out new diversity action steps can be a challenge. So Marci Rubin, Executive Director Emeritus of CMCP, and I decided to gather ideas from the client community – whose opinions carry great weight because companies control legal budgets to spend on outside counsel. Last year, as CMCP celebrated its 25th anniversary, we surveyed General Counsels and other high-ranking in-house attorneys at major companies. We asked them to identify innovative, concrete actions that could measurably improve diversity in the business community over the next 5 years – if such actions were taken by relevant constituents (majority law firms, minority law firms, corporate and public agency law departments). We received responses from representatives of many leading companies: AXA Distributors/AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company; Chevron Corporation; Fox Group Legal (Fox Entertainment Group); Freddie Mac; Gap Inc.; Gateway One Lending & Finance; LEGO Systems, Inc.; Microsoft Corporation; Newegg Inc.; Southern California Edison; Toyota Financial Services; Univision Communications Inc.; and Viacom Inc.

We gathered the ideas into the report – which is publicly available on CMCP’s website for download or via an online readable version. Some of its ideas suggest new behaviors; others call for new ways to think. Some are timeless in their simplicity; others are more robust and complex. Here are some highlights:

Recruiting and retaining diverse talent is key, and a number of companies provided suggestions on that front:

  • Mary Francis, Corporate Secretary & Chief Governance Officer at Chevron and Gary Roberts, Executive Vice President at Fox Group Legal (for the Fox Entertainment Group) both tout partnering between companies and law firms through a summer clerk program. While chronicling the success of Fox’s Summer Fellowship Program, Roberts advised: “Corporate law departments can partner with law firms to institutionalize training and mentoring programs targeting diverse law students – such as a Summer Fellowship Program for 1st year law students.”
  • Michael Fricklas, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Viacom explained: “If you want your organization to be more diverse, make sure to recruit from a wide variety of sources and make special effort to seek out candidates from underrepresented groups.” One specific tip he offered was to “Cultivate people early – long before you’re ready to hire.”
  • Mary Snapp, Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft talked about a research study her company commissioned examining the diversity gap in law. “Within the findings, raising bar passage rates for Black and Hispanic test takers stood out as an opportunity where additional support could yield a significant impact” in helping increase the diversity of lawyers entering the profession after law school.

Professional development is also critical to help lawyers working both in-house and at law firms. Jennifer Ishiguro, Chief Legal Officer of Gateway One Lending & Finance emphasized the need to “Help minority business counsel improve their self-presentation and pitch skills. A key component of this is listening and understanding the needs of the potential or existing client and their business – not just doing a ‘hard-sell’.” She also saw value in hiring “leadership development coaches to help minority in-house counsel with professional development and advancement.”

Another important theme was the need to cultivate future leaders from today’s younger generation of lawyers:

  • Michelle Banks, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary & Chief Compliance Officer, Gap Inc., suggested that “Both law firms and companies can engage in robust leadership succession planning using diversity as one of the filters in the process . . . When we do our annual succession plans and talent reviews, we use a diversity focus as part of that process. We look at our talent and our bench to see how diverse it is from a gender, ethnicity and race, and other perspectives.”
  • It is also valuable to “[i]dentify diverse talent at the mid-career point and ‘team up’ on them” – by having companies and their outside law firms work together to develop upcoming lawyers.” That was one suggestion offered by Windy Lawrence, Chief Compliance Officer- AXA Distributors, LLC and Lead Director and Associate General Counsel – AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company.

Many recommendations focused on helping women lawyers and attorneys of color obtain client business, and ensuring accountability for diversity as a business practice.

  • Barry Parsons, Associate General Counsel, General Litigation & Investigations at Freddie Mac reinforced the need to “[p]rovide economic consequences to diversity issues” – such as having individual salaries be impacted by a lawyer’s diversity efforts.
  • To help companies track diversity progress of their outside law firms, Jay Grant, Senior Vice President, Associate General Counsel at Univision Communications, Inc., urged the adoption of a “standardized form for in-house legal departments to rate law firms on diversity efforts.” Or if a form questionnaire or form is not used, Grant recommends that in-house counsel “ask law firms to outline current diversity and inclusion as a question during every on-boarding of new law firms.”
  • Russell Swartz – Senior Vice President and General Counsel – and Jennifer Tsao Shigekawa – Assistant General Counsel – at Southern California Edison Company think of inviting outside law firms to attend a company’s Diversity Committee meetings. They explained “We are considering conducting such meetings, at which we could ask the law firms for action plans for increasing the diversity of the teams working on our Company’s matters, developing minority attorneys to be in a future position to receive origination credit for our matters, etc.”
  • To strengthen relationships between in-house counsel and outside law firms, Mark Tarango, Managing Counsel at Toyota Financial Services, suggested that “Companies can hold annual on-site events to educate diverse law firm participants about the companies’ business and cultivate relationships.” He explained: “Putting law firm attendees through the equivalent of the company’s ‘new hire training’ or something similar would give the outside lawyers a deeper understanding and relationship to do work down-the-line.”

Finally, two respondents suggested new ways to think about diversity.

  • Robin Smith, Vice President and General Counsel, Americas for LEGO Systems, Inc. advised: “To support development of women in the legal profession, implement a program series that focuses on what women do right rather than on what they supposedly lack.
  • Lee Cheng, Chief Legal Officer, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Corporate Secretary for Newegg Inc. encouraged us to “[e]xpand the definition of diversity to include people who have ideas different from your own.” He explained “[q]uite seriously, I think diversity could be increased most if white, male, heterosexuals could also be considered diverse based on the content of their characters, rather than their ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.”

I hope people take time to read the full report. While it focused on the legal world, its lessons can be used in all professions and industries. I also hope its suggestions spark even more ideas for tomorrow. . and more action for diversity to truly win.

 

Jimmy Nguyen is a partner in the national law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP – which sponsored CMCP’s Diversity Action Matters report. He previously served on the Board of Directors of the California Minority Counsel Program, and was the organization’s co-chair in 2010. In 2015, Jimmy was inducted into CMCP’s Diversity Leader Hall of Fame.