Legal community pursuing diversity

April 26, 2010
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Diversity is about more than what boxes a person checked on the census form. Diversity in the work force is rooted in bringing together people with dissimilar backgrounds.

“When we’re talking about diversity, a key part of it is race and gender, but the whole part of it is, you look for people who come from different experiences, who bring different skill sets and perspectives to the practice,” said Rodney Martin, partner and head of diversity at Warner, Norcross & Judd.

“If you do all that, you end up with a more powerful group of people.”

Local firms Warner Norcross & Judd and Varnum have been making strides in the area of diversity and inclusion. Both agree that the Grand Rapids legal community, though it still has a ways to go, has been growing in diversity and inclusion. A lot of that growth has been prompted by the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the Institute for Healing Racism, which is run by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The firm and the legal community in Grand Rapids have been concerned about diversity for almost 20 years, going back to 1991 when the major law firms in town and the Grand Rapids Bar Association started their diversity clerkship program for first-year law students,” said Martin.

“(Warner, Norcross & Judd) really became engaged in diversity about 10 years ago when we started sending people to the Institute for Healing Racism. That really focused the interest and understanding of the issue for us. Over the course of the last 10 years we have worked to become a more inclusive and diverse organization.”

Warner employees began attending the Institute after then-managing partner John Tully had a profound experience in the program. He began encouraging others to attend and decided to put more focus on inclusion in the firm.

“You don’t suddenly become diverse and inclusive overnight. It takes an intentional effort to get there,” said Martin.

The firm recently released its fourth annual diversity and inclusion report.

There is a strong effort by many law firms to attract young lawyers who are female or of different ethnicities. Martin pointed out, however, that it takes seven years to grow a partner, and there has been a push to bring in more lateral hires of veteran lawyers in those groups, as well.

Law firms across the country have been able to attract young minority and women lawyers, but have had difficulty with retention. Jennifer J. Stocker, partner at Varnum and chair of the firm’s Diversity Team, pointed out a surprising statistic: 100 percent of African-American female attorneys leave their jobs.

“There is a perception out there that this is a closed or one-dimensional community. Even folks as close as the other side of the state look at us that way,” said Stocker.

“There are certainly things we can do to help people feel more welcome here. It’s not just doing things to keep your employees happy, but doing things to engage their family so they feel more of a connection, as well. They might like it (at work) just fine, but then they go home with nothing to do all weekend.”

Stocker said that it’s not only the legal community that faces this problem, nor is it just in Grand Rapids and Michigan. The economy has made attraction and retention more difficult, but she said she has been encouraged by how Grand Rapids is growing.

“We have all been heartened, not just in the legal community, by things like the vitality of the health sciences, ArtPrize — which appealed to people from all cultures and had a theme that promoted public access (and) discussion, the new Goei Center,” she said. “All of those things dispel that we are a one-dimensional city.”

Varnum, specifically, Stocker said, has taken an out-of-the-firm approach to making diversity and inclusion a reality. It instituted an external Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council in 2007, which is comprised of minorities, women and members of the Grand Rapids community with diverse backgrounds. The council is completely replaced every two years and has just enlisted its second class of council members. The council is charged with evaluating the firm’s actions toward diversity and inclusion, areas of weakness and opportunities for growth.

“It’s not uncommon for any employer to experience these peaks and valleys of attracting talent and then seeing folks go to Washington or Chicago — and it got frustrating. We had to find a way to harness the perspectives of somebody outside the firm who might have some insights that would help guide us,” Stocker said.

“They sensitized us to ‘micro-abrasions,’ those subtle, innocuous things that erode moral and put people on the defensive. They looked at our marketing communications, Web site, and some of our policies with an eye toward recognizing some of those things. That was fascinating for us, and so instructional.”

The firm also set up a panel through The Grand Rapids Times and BL²END to discuss the hurdles that people of color face when they come to Grand Rapids, and how to dispel those hurdles.

By focusing on diversity and inclusion, firms have found benefits for all employees and the company. Warner Norcross & Judd, for example, has experienced better work/life balance solutions.

“As the profession has become more open to women lawyers, it has recognized the need to become more flexible in scheduling. That’s really been a benefit to all of us in how things get done. There has been a greater emphasis on getting work done rather than face time,” said Martin. “It’s great to be able to have that flexibility. Whether it’s being responsible to drop your kids off at day care or if you have a sick child and need to stay home, it just worked out for all of us.”

Martin said the Grand Rapids Bar Association has been very attentive to the issue of diversity. Recently, the organization brought in a national speaker to address attraction and retention for diverse attorneys. The speaker was impressed with Grand Rapids’ efforts, and the word spread. Not long after, Boston’s bar association looked to Grand Rapids for ways to improve.

“My personal opinion is that we have a long way to go,” said Stocker. “But we are doing some exciting things in the right direction.”

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