Major GR law firms collaborate on minority recruitment

September 2, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The managing partners of a dozen major Grand Rapids law firms have signed a pledge, making a formal commitment with the Grand Rapids Bar Association to promote and achieve greater diversity and inclusion in the West Michigan legal community.

The Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative is now working on developing a five-year action plan for implementation Jan. 1. The action plan will focus on three initial challenges:

  • Increasing the number of attorneys of color;

  • Improving retention and advancement of female attorneys and attorneys of color;

  • Expanding the pipeline of persons of color entering law school and the profession.

The 12 major Grand Rapids law firms include, in alphabetical order: Barnes & Thornberg, Clark Hill, Dickinson Wright, Dykema Gosset, Foster Swift Collins & Smith, Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, Miller Johnson, Price Heneveld, Rhodes McKee, Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, Varnum, and Warner Norcross & Judd.

“The bar association, through its Diversity Committee, has worked long and hard on diversity over the years, and we look forward to this additional boost to our efforts,” said Grand Rapids Bar Association President Mark Smith.

Sub-groups have been working with the bar staff over the summer to explore each of the three areas in detail and will report their findings and recommendations to the entire group in September for discussion and modification, according to Smith.

Smith added that the involvement of the managing partners of the participating firms “creates the real possibility of more than just incremental gains in achieving our goal of a more inclusive legal community.”

“The exciting thing about this collaborative is that the focus is on what the firms can do collectively to make a difference,” said Smith, who is employed at Nantz, Litowich, Smith, Girard & Hamilton PC. “While the work of the bar association’s diversity committee and their own efforts have given the firms the tools and training to work on diversity within their individual firms, they have often found themselves in competition with each other for the same limited pool of diverse candidates looking for a legal career in West Michigan. The collaborative sets competition aside so that the focus is on enlarging the pool of candidates for the benefit of all.”

Joy Fossel, a partner at Varnum and that firm’s designated Diversity and Inclusion Counsel, said that at Varnum, “we are looking to expand what I call the outside world’s view of the Grand Rapids legal community, because we are perceived as a fairly homogenous, conservative community. And yet, when you get to know us, if you haven’t been here before, you discover that there really is a rich culture of diversity here in terms of all sorts of cultures that make up Grand Rapids. And for some reason, that perception has not been communicated.”

Fossel said that outside perception “is one of the reasons we have difficulty attracting and retaining top legal diverse talent in this community. We bring people here, but very often they don’t stay because there’s no critical mass within the legal community itself. That’s what we are trying to correct.”

Fossel said that “critical mass” should include the legal profession at all levels — not just at law firms but also in the courts and prosecutors’ offices.

“We would love to see more diverse individuals rise in the ranks, both in the law firms and judiciary here,” she added.

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