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Law firm diversity chiefs gain numbers - and influence

7 minute read

A UBS employee works in the UBS "fintech lab" at Canary Wharf in London, Britain, October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

  • Survey shows chief diversity officer role spreading among top firms since last summer
  • Resources, responsibilities vary - "some people do want to tick a box," says one diversity exec

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(Reuters) - As protests against racism swept across the United States last summer, big law firms were forced to reckon with inequality and diversity in their own ranks. In the year since, many of them revamped their management to increase focus on diversity, including by adding a once-rare role in the industry: chief diversity officer.

The job's power and purview varies, but more than one-fifth of the 100 highest grossing U.S. law firms now have a diversity-focused professional with “chief” in their title, according to a Reuters survey of those 100 firms and news reports.

Of the 45 firms that responded to the survey, more than 64% said they hired diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals in the past year, and 64% said they are hiring such professionals this year. In the past month, Milbank and Husch Blackwell both appointed their first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officers.

“There was starting to be a trend, I think, even before George Floyd's murder (in May 2020),” said Sylvia James, who was named chief diversity and inclusion officer at Winston & Strawn in October. “It's certainly hastened.”

Law firm CDO roles are proliferating amid pressure to accelerate change in an industry that has long been heavily white and male, particularly in its top ranks. But how the position is defined, and the freedom and resources the executives are given to make change, depends on the firm.

“Some people do want to tick a box,” said Paulette Brown, a senior partner and the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Locke Lord. But there are also firms that take DEI seriously, Brown and other CDOs said.

At those firms, top DEI leaders report to and regularly meet with the chair or managing partner, CDOs said.

More than 60% of respondents said their firm’s CDO or equivalent reports to their managing partner or chief executive. One firm said its CDO had no direct reporting line.

Once a month was the most commonly cited frequency for formal meetings with firm chairs or managing partners, while more than a quarter of respondents said such meetings happen once a quarter or less. Others meet once a week, or at every executive committee meeting, because their CDO is a member of that team.

RANGE OF RESPONSIBILITIES

CDOs said firms serious about change also ensure DEI leaders have resources – like staff.

DEI teams at top firms remain fairly small. Nearly 30% of respondents said their firm has just two dedicated DEI professionals, compared to hundreds of lawyers. Eleven firms had teams smaller than that. One firm had eight people total; another had 11.

“One of the things that I see that is concerning ... is that this person is just being hired in name only. And to me that is signaled by, they don't have support, they don't have a team,” said one CDO who asked to remain anonymous.

The help would be welcome: While still uneven, CDO’s responsibilities have grown dramatically since big firms began appointing diversity leaders a couple of decades ago.

Clients have upped pressure on firms to hire and promote women and people of color. Since 2019, hundreds of general counsel have threatened to pull spend from firms who don’t try to become more diverse.

All survey respondents said their CDO or equivalent professional’s responsibilities include discussing DEI goals and strategies with other firm leaders. More than 90% said their CDO also meets with firm clients; about the same proportion do career development work.

Just under 70% said their CDO creates diversity-related training sessions. Such programs used to be a central DEI role, said Anna Brown, Baker McKenzie’s chief inclusion and diversity officer, who was promoted to that role in January.

"In the early years that people would come (into DEI roles), it was very programmatic, like, 'Let's have a diversity reception,'" Brown said. "Programs are wonderful ... but they need to be connected to something, they need strategy."

Brown started at Baker McKenzie in 2017. Before that she spent more than 15 years leading diversity efforts at Shearman & Sterling, the New York firm where she’d previously worked as an associate.

More than 36% of respondents’ DEI leaders were lawyers at some point but don’t practice now. Nearly half of DEI leaders are partners now, some with active practices. That includes Katten Muchin Rosenman’s longtime chief diversity partner Leslie Minier, an M&A lawyer who said her experience as a partner helps in her DEI role.

Minier said "it was really difficult" to manage both her DEI and legal work early on. But it got easier as long-term clients became more focused on DEI, seeking their own strategies and wanting to understand their outside counsel's efforts.

"It's not like (the work is) separate, necessarily, especially when you've been practicing as long as I have, and you have those relationships with your clients," Minier said.

James, who started her career as an attorney at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, called having a background as a lawyer "a humongous plus.”

“Lawyers respect other lawyers, above all, so it gives you a bit of instant credibility,” she said.

Read more:

Law firms set steeper diversity goals, and give themselves a deadline

Milbank adds diversity chief from AmEx as more firms grow C-suites

Microsoft raises reward for outside law firms that promote Black and Latino lawyers

A year after general counsel letter pushed for diversity, slow change

Arriana McLymore reports on the business of law, including diversity in the profession, corporate practices, legal education and attorney career life cycles.

Caroline Spiezio covers legal industry news, with a focus on law firms and in-house counsel. She is based in New York. Reach her at Caroline.Spiezio@thomsonreuters.com.

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