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August 22, 2012

Diversity Beyond Borders: What it Means, and How to Get There

A panel of diverse in-house counsel and other legal experts described personal experiences in the profession and offered advice on managing diversity issues with a global emphasis during “Dealing with Diversity Directives in a Global Environment.”  A commitment to diversity on multiple levels — from hiring to retention to relations with outside counsel — is needed, pointed out speakers at the Annual Meeting CLE Centre Showcase Program.

Among the aspects of diversity the speakers addressed were flexibility, inclusiveness and diversity of thought.  Diversity can come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the country.  Joseph West, previously with Wal-Mart and now president and CEO at the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, noted that diversity resonation in nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom is similar to the United States, but it may mean very different things in Latin America and other regions, where being diverse may not only indicate ethnic diversity but also class diversity, for example.

Laura Stein, senior vice president and general counsel with the Clorox Co., said that corporations that value diversity can help shape and encourage diversity efforts in other nations through leading by example — for instance, by showcasing the expertise of female managers within their companies.

The chief client officer with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto, John Rider, said that most requests about diversity practices still come from the United States, and he talked about some of the challenges in responding to questions posed in requests for proposals.  For example, in Canada, there are no African-Americans.  And “we don’t count” the number of diverse lawyers and can’t ask about diversity in many cases, unless it relates to job tasks, Rider said.  Thus, in making determinations about diversity abroad, a U.S.-based company needs to take a flexible approach.

Rider explained that his firm’s diversity efforts now include the presence of a resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals — a diversity effort that has support within the firm and that responds to client needs.  Stein added that Clorox also has employee resource groups for women, ethnic groups and the LGBT population.  The groups inspire product innovations and deepen understanding of a multicultural marketplace.

DuPont’s efforts, as Ernest Tuckett — general counsel at DuPont Canada — explained, center around not just metrics but also a real commitment to diversity as it relates to law firms, corporations and the profession as a whole.  DuPont Legal’s efforts — many of which are the brainchild of Thomas L. Sager, senior vice president and general counsel — serve as a model for the legal profession and industry, and raised the bar, along with Allstate Corp., for other companies.

During the discussion, the in-house counsel panelists responded to a question about how they work with outside counsel.  Tuckett said that DuPont issues an annual questionnaire to the law firms with which they work that includes a diversity section.  Stein explained that her company expects partners to reflect Clorox’s values, in terms not only of diversity but also pro bono efforts.  RFPs are issued for work of more than $50,000, Stein continued about her company’s practices, where value is an important consideration, but for which a host of factors are considered, including those of diversity and volunteerism.

Diversity of thought is also important, Rider explained, and West offered the example of a mock jury trial in which there was lock-step groupthink emanating from jurors with a common background.  West suggested that a firm or corporation might recruit by looking beyond traditional factors of grades and law review participation to, for example, blue-collar background and empathy guided by firsthand experience.

In order to retain a diverse representation in a firm or corporation, West said that law firms need to recognize and act on the fact that attrition is expensive.  To help maintain minority lawyers, “include, invest and intercede,” West said.  Spend political capital on behalf of minority lawyers, sponsor them, and make sure they get origination credit when it’s due. Be purposeful in retention efforts, Tuckett added.

Gretchen Bellamy, director of International Public Interest Programs with the University of Miami School of Law, moderated the Section of International Law-sponsored program.