Human Resources and Law

Law firms address challenge of achieving diversity

But first, they have to start hiring again.

December 8, 2012
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West Michigan law firms are aware they have a problem with a lack of diversity within their ranks. Despite many efforts by individual firms, they continue to struggle to attract and retain women and minority attorneys.

Earlier this year, managing partners from 13 area law firms and the Grand Rapids Bar Association committed to an action plan focusing on “achieving diversity and inclusion in the education, retention and promotion of Michigan’s attorneys.”

The five-year action plan came out of the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative, an effort that acknowledged area law firms could likely achieve greater success in increasing diversity in the West Michigan legal profession through working together rather than separately. To achieve the actions outlined in the plan, three committees were developed to focus on three key areas: pipeline development, recruitment of diverse candidates, and retention of female and minority attorneys.

“It’s a young effort right now, but I think a lot of things have gotten done in terms of the outreach and expanding the pool of candidates that the law firms will be able to consider,” said Rodney Martin, diversity partner at Warner Norcross and Judd.

Many of the initial steps already have been completed.

One of the first was development of a marketing subcommittee and enlisting SeyferthPR to work on a branding effort that will reach out to law students and young attorneys across the country.

“It is really designed to reach minorities and millennials who are outside the Grand Rapids area,” explained Joy Fossel, partner with Varnum and leader of the firm’s diversity and inclusion team. “It is focused on a logo that hits on two particular things: One is achievement and the other is balance. Those were two issues that resonated with the groups we are trying to reach. We have created a new logo, which was just approved by the managing partners on Nov. 13, and it will be rolled out at the beginning of the year.”

The marketing effort acknowledges that millennials’ first priority is figuring out where they want to live and then identifying job opportunities in that city.

“We want to be able to convince them to come and take a look at Grand Rapids,” Fossel said.

Martin agreed. “I think the people on the marketing committee have done a fantastic job of coming up with an approach that is going to say to those people outside of West Michigan that this is a place that I need to look at, this is something different; maybe this place needs a second look. That, I think, is going to pay off big-time.”

Selling Grand Rapids after 5 o’clock will be an important aspect of drawing women and minority attorneys to the city, as will identifying the right channels for gaining their attention.

The law firms are aware they are not the only profession looking to attract young, diverse professionals to the area, and are hoping that they can work with other organizations, such as Talent 2025 and Hello West Michigan, to leverage efforts.

It’s not enough to get attorneys of color and women here; the challenge then becomes keeping them.

“I think in part it’s because we’ve never really gotten to what I would call a critical mass where there is enough of a network where people are comfortable and connected to the community and want to stay,” Fossel said. “They might love their job … but unless they and their families feel comfortable in the community, then they look for other opportunities. I think that has been our biggest challenge and that is what we are trying to address.”

Martin said that although the participating firms have mentoring programs in place, not all of them address differences well.

“We are preparing a mentoring toolbox to assist mentors who are mentoring associates of a different gender or ethnicity,” said Martin. “We have been working on identifying some of the issues that women and attorneys of color face when they are new to a law firm in communicating with their mentors.”

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