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October 13, 2010 4:33 PM

Diversity Conference Features Top Legal Brass

Posted by Ross Todd

Grey1 Last week more than 200 legal professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first annual conference of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. The subject was to discuss ways to advance--you guessed it--diversity. Setting this conference apart from other diversity efforts was the council's unique barrier to entry: In order for a company to participate, its general counsel had to be present. For law firms, the managing partner had to appear.

According to the organizers, more than 40 GCs and 60 law firm leaders showed up. (GCs and MPs were allowed to bring diversity professionals with them to the conference.)

On Tuesday The Am Law Daily spoke with Hunton & Williams partner Robert Grey, Jr., the executive director of LCLD, about the conference and four inaugural initiatives launched at the event. Here's what Grey (pictured here at the meeting) had to say. As always, the transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

What makes this effort at promoting diversity in the profession any different from previous efforts?

I think the most important difference is the membership of the organization. It is limited to managing partners and general counsel, so the leadership of those organizations, those that have the most influence on the profession, are the ones that can be members of this organization.

And so when this first annual meeting was called to order, it was made up of the general counsel and the managing partners sitting around the table. They couldn't send a substitute. They had to show up themselves. And the importance of that is the decision makers are at the table. If this agenda is going to receive the highest priority in our organizations, and if we are going to actually set an action agenda, it has to be done with the people who have the power to make that happen.

The group's first strategic initiative will be a yearlong fellowship program that is set to launch in February 2011. What details can you share about this initiative?

It is aimed at those lawyers of all backgrounds in our organizations who we believe can provide leadership, and who we can provide with additional exposure to the leaders in the profession. The idea is to accelerate their learning curve to put them in a position of influence sooner rather than later, and to give them what we call high-value touches within that one-year period. [They'll] be exposed to the way in which our organizations operate in a very practical and behind-the-scenes way—teaching the soft skills of succeeding in our organizations. Part of what we want to do is to remove as much of the mystique of succeeding in these institutions as we can, to lay bare the practical and political issues that you're going to confront in trying to succeed. Every member is going to be able to send somebody to this. The idea is to create a multiplier effect in terms of their education, and their ability to influence things once they get back home.

Can you walk me through the three other initiatives?

It is hard to not address the issue of the [legal career] pipeline...We're looking a little bit closer to college and law school as points along the pipeline where [we] might be more helpful. Where people have decided that they want to go to law school, LCLD is looking at ways that people of diverse backgrounds can be successful.

The other focus is partnerships--the collaborative efforts between the managing partners and the general counsel, and the institutions they represent. The idea there is that we can give more opportunities for exposure through programs like secondments where a lawyer is provided the opportunity of working in-house. That will allow them to get to know the way the organization thinks and processes information, so that when they come back to the law firm they can be of greater value in working on that particular client's matter and have a better chance of inheriting that client's work. We want to look at incentives that corporations and firms can provide for the development of diverse teams...[We talked about] adapting the [NFL's] "Rooney Rule." In looking for coaches, football teams had to select from a diverse pool, and if they didn't they were fined. We want to adapt something like the "Rooney Rule" for us to be more inclusive in the way we go about recruiting, promoting, and staffing.

Finally we have a benchmark committee. It wants to look behind the numbers...We want to talk about what really drives these organizations in the way they are financially successful. So for example, let's look at the top litigation matters in a law firm and let's see how diverse the teams are that worked on the matters that were most important to the firm. By the same token we want to ask questions on the corporation side: Who from the general counsel's office actually meets with the board of directors? How diverse are the lawyers in assigning work to outside counsel? And how diverse are the team of lawyers who are direct reports to the general counsel?

The Minority Law Journal's Diversity Scorecard showed that after almost a decade of steady growth, the percentage of minority lawyers at large firms dropped last year. And the legal industry's wave of recession-induced layoffs appears to have hit African American associates particularly hard. Does that make the timing of this venture better or worse?

I think it makes it more urgent. There were certainly some questions about whether this was the right time to do this. Without any hesitation this group said, "If not now, when? If not us, then who?"

It is probably more important for us to do this now than at any other time, recognizing the impact the recession has had and the way the numbers are shaping up, particularly for African Americans and Hispanic law students.

What do you say to people who are cynical about LCLD's ability to get results?

There's a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement at this moment, but the proof is in the pudding as they say. [We'll see] when we actually start to roll up our sleeves and start to implement these things we've been talking about. On paper, they are great. In reality, they have to be measured. I don't think anybody has any greater sensitivity to this than this group because they're measured every day in every way. And quite frankly, from my standpoint, I'd much rather be held to that level of accountability than to be asked, "Do we feel good today?" 

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