Law firms agree to collaborate on diversity

March 26, 2012
Text Size:

The Grand Rapids Bar Association and 13 regional law firms have linked arms to make a concerted effort to increase, retain and promote attorneys from diverse backgrounds — and the initiative isn’t limited to women and people of color.

The Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative is a five-year action plan that addresses a changing demographic within Greater Grand Rapids that’s essential to better serving a client base that no longer is monolithic in gender or race. A plus to the plan is that it averts the tendency to compete for the same pool of talent, said Grand Rapids Bar Association President Mark Smith.

The critical elements of the agreement include:

  • Increasing the number of attorneys of color in West Michigan law firms within five years.

  • Improving the rates of retention and advancement of female attorneys.

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

But the diversity collaborative agreement goes beyond race and gender, added Smith, to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, nationality, language, age, disability, marital and parental status, geographic origin and socioeconomic background.

“It enables us to better serve our clients because our clients aren’t all 60-year-old white males,” said Smith. “They’re from all walks of life and they need to see themselves reflected in the profession that serves them.”

On one level, the collaborative also recognizes that Greater Grand Rapids is no longer a provincial city comprised of European enclaves, said Larry Murphy, managing partner of Varnum Law LLP.

That’s why, in addition to the local bar association and Varnum, other firms — including Warner, Norcross & Judd LLP; Barnes & Thornburg LLP; Clark Hill PLC; Dykema PC; Dickinson Wright PLLC; Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC; Miller Canfield; Miller Johnson; Price Heneveld LLP; Rhoades McKee PC; Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge; and Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones PLC — have agreed to work together to cull a diverse base of legal talent instead of competing against one another, said Murphy.

“All the firms that are a part of this initiative have shared their experiences with the challenge and frustration of retaining lawyers of color,” said Murphy. “In our experience — and I think that’s shared by the other firms — that is a reflection, historically, of the lack of diversity in the community. While the attorneys themselves like the firms they work for, it’s the challenge they have away from the workplace that has oftentimes made them decide to move to communities where they have a greater presence in terms of number of professionals of color.”

Murphy said he was unsure if that was an indication Grand Rapids has more to do to shed its past.

“It’s tough for me to speak to that,” Murphy said. “The encouraging sign is there are various minority communities that are emerging — the emergence of the Hispanic community as well as the Asian community — that at least suggests that they don’t think there is, as you call it, pockets of resistance. At least there’s less and less of that, so we’re encouraged.”

While the initiative involves 13 of the larger law firms in the area, Doug Wagner, managing partner at Warner Norcross, said he expects the action plan to eventually benefit smaller firms.

“The collaborative didn’t seek to exclude anyone, really; it’s just the larger firms that have a consistent year-in-and-year-out recruiting effort,” said Wagner.

“Many of the smaller firms aren’t commonly engaged in recruiting, while these other firms are in a better position to participate in this type of effort when it comes to pipeline activity. These firms have more resources — both financial and in terms of time commitment — to assist the high school and college levels, in terms of improving the pipelines. We really do want this to be an effort to involve the entire bar association and we look at the five-year action plan as a way to try to come up with ideas smaller firms can participate in on a level that includes them.”

Fulfilling the initiative’s five-year goal will require not only collaboration from the law firms but also requires business, educational and community service organizations to interact with high school and college students. That leg of the plan, based on more than 10 months of hammering out a strategy, includes:

  • Working with area high school guidance counselors and college pre-law advisors to position the collaborative firms and the Grand Rapids Bar Association as a resource.

  • Developing a mentorship program model for high school and college students to encourage law as a career.

  • Recruiting attorneys and staff to participate in Schools of Hope tutoring programs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and other programs.

  • Pooling resources to provide financial assistance to students of color through scholarship or support in taking LSAT prep courses.

  • Expanding opportunities for the Minority Clerkship Program, including development of judicial internships.

  • Facilitating introductions of lateral candidates to member firms of the collaborative and developing a mechanism to share information.

  • Developing a mentorship program for lateral associates of color to facilitate a connection to the community.

  • Ensuring that work environments and work-related social activities are hospitable and inclusive.

  • Developing a strategy to increase the number of female attorneys and attorneys of color in leadership positions.

  • Instituting an annual training program on diversity and inclusion, sponsored by the Grand Rapids Bar Association and collaborative member firms.

  • Developing an annual conference that focuses on business development and leadership development for female attorneys and attorneys of color.

  • Developing social media strategies to provide information and resources.

This plan says, in essence, that there’s strength in numbers, said Smith.

“Our firms locally and at the Grand Rapids Bar Association have struggled for years to increase diversity in the Grand Rapids legal community,” said Smith. “We’ve reached a point where we’re not there individually, so what can we do collectively to enhance our prospects of achieving diversity? Through this action plan, we’ve analyzed where the issues are and took on plans to address them.”

The action plan includes casting a wider recruitment net throughout the Midwest, which may include marketing strategies that tout Grand Rapids’ quality of life.

“Part of this initiative is to go beyond Grand Rapids, go to other places in the Midwest, perhaps Chicago and beyond, with a concerted effort to attract attorneys of color and women to come and live in the Grand Rapids area,” said Murphy.

“The significant piece of the initiative, I think, is the collaborative is better for us to collectively attract talent, attorneys of color and women attorneys — regardless of which firm they join — in a collective sense, rather than try to compete with each other trying to get that same talent. We’re representing the legal community in Grand Rapids to say this is a great place to live as opposed to each firm to do that on its own without the support or critical mass of others.”

Smith said it’s fine if the action plan also increases diversity in support staff jobs, as well.

“The focus is on attorneys, but clearly we hope we can pull along into each element of the legal profession a diverse population,” said Smith.

“We’ll be in the high schools teaching civics education as part of the pipeline development. It’s an ancillary topic not taught in high school because it’s not part of No Child Left Behind. Our hope is, students who never thought about a career in law and interacted with a lawyer will think maybe this is a position for me as an executive or paralegal.”

“I would hope (in five years) we would have been a success to market Grand Rapids and I hope the retention rates would have improved among the bar in West Michigan,” added Wagner.

“I don’t think that is a definition of ultimate success, but if we can make that success in five years, I think it will be a time for us to sit down and measure the ultimate goal, which would be a bar association that truly reflects the diversity within our community, one that is more culturally diverse and where we see real equality in terms of practice opportunities between the genders.”

Recent Articles by Paul Kopenkoskey

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus