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170 GCs Sign Open Letter to Law Firms: A ‘Bottom Line’ Incentive to Improve on Diversity

On January 27th, 170 general counsel and corporate legal officers, from companies like Lyft, Heineken USA, and Etsy, penned an open letter to law firms stating that their companies will prioritize their legal spending on firms that commit to diversity and inclusion. Supporters of the letter told Law360 earlier this week that the letter represents an ultimatum to law firms that have not focused on improving diversity: improve diversity or risk losing their in-house clients’ business.

Michelle Fang, chief legal officer at car-sharing company Turo, spearheaded the letter after a large network of general counsel began discussing firms that had diverse promotion classes and those that didn’t. Fang has said, with respect to firm diversity: “It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s not an extra. It’s part of how you operate a law firm.”

The Open Letter from GC’s for Law Firm Diversity to Law Firm Partners publicizes and highlights the need for improved representation of women and minorities at law firms around the country, but it also goes further, to identify specific longer-term investments in diversity that law firms need to make, beyond recruitment. “It is not enough to commit your firm to diversity during the recruiting process or to hire a diversity and inclusion officer and expect that person can effect change without the full commitment of each member of the firm. Instead, the reality is that you must 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,” the letter said.

The letter is a result of the discussion in the legal community which began last month after Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison (named in the letter) and other law firms appeared to promote few female and minority attorneys to partner in their recent round of promotions. A photograph of the twelve Paul Weiss attorneys promoted to partner posted in December, which has since been removed, sparked outrage in the legal community. Paul Weiss Chairman Brad Karp indicated in a statement to ALM that he regretted the gender and racial imbalance in the newly elected partnership class, and indicated it was critical that Paul Weiss maintain its historical diversity values, noting that one-third of the firm’s partnership are diverse and the firms current first year class is 55% women and 47% racially diverse.

Earlier last month, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP  and Proskauer Rose LLP announced new programs intended to strengthen their efforts to recruit and mentor women and minority law students. Skadden is improving its 1L Scholars Program, allowing participants who return as summer associates the following year to design their own experience and offering them a paid externship during the academic year. This summer, Proskauer will launch the “Proskauer Prep” bootcamp, inviting 30 women who are about to start law school for a week of instruction and tips on how to succeed in law school.

Bravo to this group of GCs who are willing to stand up and demand long-term institutional support for women and minority attorneys from law firms – and not be placated with the appearance or semblance of diversity – to retain their business.

It’s this kind of effort from clients that can affect real change. Clients have the power to drive change when firms understand their business depends on it. Unfortunately, when firms are left to their own devices the statistics often remain stagnant. Hopefully, other clients and companies will take notice of the open letter from GC’s for Law Firm Diversity to Law Firm Partners and we will see further movement within the industry.

Like the GC’s for Law Firm Diversity, we applaud the firms that are committed to improving promotion and retention of women and minority attorneys. The highest degree of quality representation and commitment to diversity and inclusion go hand in hand.

— Written by Cristina Laramee Souto, with additional commentary by Susan Bozorgi


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