Business people walking in modern lobby - GETTY
Law firm entry point: diversity tends to fade higher up the organisations © Getty

US law firm Paul Weiss’s announcement on LinkedIn late last year of its new partnership appointments — 11 mostly white men and one woman — touched a nerve in the legal community.

An informal group of female general counsel and senior in-house counsel shared the announcement with each other, and so began an email thread about diversity.

“The image of it was striking,” says group member Katherine Minarik, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Cleverbridge, the billing software company.

Amid the email exchange, one of the lawyers, Michelle Fang, chief legal officer of car-sharing company Turo, shared a link to a draft of an open letter she had written in response, calling on law firms to focus on diversity.

“Within a couple of minutes I had clicked on the link, and there were a lot of cursors moving around, a lot of people doing edits,” Ms Minarik recalls. “[Ms Fang’s] initial letter was phenomenal, so a lot of us put our names down to sign it, and the letter was refined by the group collectively within two days.”

The letter was published on LinkedIn in January 2019, signed by around 170 lawyers including Ms Minarik. It garnered significant attention and was written up in the legal press as well as The New York Times.

The group declared in the letter that it would “direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion”.

The incident was a mis-step by Paul Weiss, one of the more diverse firms in the US: three of the most well-known black lawyers in the country — Loretta Lynch, Ted Wells and Jeh Johnson — work for the law firm. It was ranked 16th for diversity by the American Lawyer, a trade publication, ranking in the top 25 US firms for the 15th consecutive year.

Nevertheless, the event shed light on wider efforts by in-house counsel to ensure that partner firms are promoting and maintaining diverse talent.

Law firms have long struggled with diversity. While many graduating law school classes are evenly split between genders, the ranks of those who reach partnership level are overwhelmingly male and white.

“We can take [the criticism] because we have a good record [on diversity],” says Brad Karp, chairman of Paul Weiss. “Our goal is to raise the standards for diversity and inclusion, not just among elite law firms, but across the entire business community.”

The letter-writing group, which has dubbed itself the General Counsel for Law Firm Diversity, has swelled to nearly 250 lawyers. They say they were “disappointed to see that many law firms continue to promote partner classes that in no way reflect the demographic composition of entering associate classes”.

They have called on firms to “consciously and personally invest in diversity and inclusion, and interview, hire, mentor, support, sponsor and promote talented attorneys who don’t always look like you or share your background”.

Robyn Grew, chief operating officer and general counsel of Man Group, a London-based alternative investment firm, has spent years encouraging diversity at the law firms she hires. “Man Group is incredibly focused on creating an inclusive, diverse environment where people belong,” she says. That includes working with law, accountancy and consulting firms that also have the same mindset, Ms Grew adds.

In recent years, she has seen a “real change” in the way the industry grapples with the challenge. “The conversations I’m having now with law firms are richer and more authentic than I have perhaps had in the past,” she says. “I think there is a true desire of the firms we work with to tackle this issue.”

Part of a firm’s role in encouraging diversity is to identify promising junior lawyers early in their careers and promote them.

“When we look at [the law firms we work with], we tend to create partnerships, and we tend to do that over a long period of time,” Ms Grew says. “It allows us to see how the law firms are recruiting and how they’re promoting. It also enables us to have a voice in supporting who we believe are the talented individuals coming up the ranks.”

Since the initial letter by the general counsel group was published (which Ms Grew was not involved in), the group has deliberated over how to maintain pressure on law firms.

In May, they published a set of strategies and tactics to press law firms to diversify their ranks, which includes tracking diversity data, partnering with firms to hire diverse law students, providing mentoring to under-represented groups as early as high school, and directly hiring diverse outside counsel.

Ms Minarik says that after she signed the letter, she was contacted by female partners at law firms to thank her.

She says the problem is not that law firms do not want women to do well. “The way that the institutions are built, the unconscious bias creeps in, and it can slow down women more,” she says. “Law firms are very hierarchical, there’s a year-by-year winnowing. Even if it has a little impact each year, it’s going to have a significant effect at the partnership level.

“If we eliminate or seriously curb unconscious bias at law firms, then we will do better at having the very best teams, and that means companies that hire them will get the best results.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article