By Cliff Collins
Minority representation among members of Oregon law firms is becoming a focal point for firms — because it has to: More and more, both public- and private-sector clients want their lawyers to resemble the rest of the nation.
Minority-owned businesses and large corporations such as Nike Inc. and Adidas America, not just government entities, are demanding that their legal representation be diverse, because their own consumers are diverse. Industry needs are driving the trend. Clients are scrutinizing their firms or prospective firms about how many women they employ, how many minorities, what kind of work they are doing and more.
"Diversity is something all law firms need to be truly about. One reason is, our clients are starting to ask for or demand diverse attorneys," says Jill Valentine, attorney recruitment and personnel administrator for Bullivant Houser Bailey. "We’ve got several clients who want that, and want very detailed information. Each one asks for different information. All of the (requests for proposals) want this information."
The information some clients are asking for can be very specific, and goes beyond inquiring not only about a firm’s staff, but also those with whom the firm does business.
For example, last year, one big Portland firm received a letter from a large corporate client stating: "Beginning in 2006, we ask you to provide us with: the percentage of legal work performed on our account by women and minorities for the prior fiscal year; and the percentage of total dollars expended with minority- and women-owned businesses engaged by your firm to work on (our) matters, e.g., local counsel, court reporting, copy and delivery services, research assistants, exhibits and graphics firms, etc."
Partly as a result of such external pressure, large firms increasingly are adding diversity committees and, in firms such as Tonkon Torp, a diversity partner, Darcy M. Norville, who also serves as managing board member.
"The firm recognized that if you don’t have a person designated in charge … and accountable for the issues, it’s too easy to really not stay focused," she says. Large firms such as Tonkon are sending representatives to minority law-student job fairs and hiring first- and second-year associates. Such actions enable "us to recruit students from all over the country who would not have Oregon as their first or second choice," Norville says.
Stoel Rives recently appointed a partner, Pamela L. Jacklin, to head its minority hiring efforts. The diversity committee, chaired by Jacklin, focuses on recruitment and retention of all underrepresented groups in law, she says.
"We now realize there is a retention issue with women," she notes. Many younger female lawyers place value on work-life balance rather than heavy work schedules leading to a partner track, Jacklin explains. The firm also reinstituted campus visits to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and has committed to attending more minority law-student fairs.
Firm recruiters say the Northwest’s low number of racial minorities overall works against attracting minority students to relocate here. "In Washington and Oregon, there is just not as much diversity," says Bullivant’s Valentine. "So firms are competing for the same candidates." Laterals — three- and four-year associates and partners — are hard to find, she says. Bullivant’s firm-wide diversity committee, comprised of representatives from all six of the firm’s offices, took the step of hiring an outside consultant, who visited each office and put together a plan for 2006.
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt participates in the Oregon State Bar’s first-year internship program and hires one student as a first-year associate, says Karen Kervin, director of legal recruiting for Schwabe. "We’re seeing some success in recruitment. I’m thinking of our new associates this (past) fall: Two or three we originally interned as part of minority law fairs," she says. "We ask them to talk to other students who might be interested in our firm."
Offering a first-year diversity scholarship or fellowship is a "fairly new" idea the past two or three years, says Kervin, adding that Fall 2004 was the first time Schwabe offered a first-year scholarship.
Results of a national survey this year by Professional Development Quarterly "suggest that law office diversity programs are a recent phenomenon, and one that has been strongly influenced by client expectations. (These programs were) perhaps nudged into existence by the Statement of Principle on diversity that was signed by the chief legal officers of 500 major corporations in 1999."
Although diversity efforts often are framed as simply an attempt to do the right thing, "quite apart from that, there is the business case for diversity," wrote the survey report’s author, Evelyn Gaye Mara. "As a practical matter, the changing demographics of our population give us no choice. Either we do diversity well, or we can do it poorly."
Few would argue that law has done it well. The legal profession lags behind others such as medicine and accounting in its percentages of minorities. Minority representation among law students dropped from 20.6 percent in 2001-2002 to 20.3 percent in 2003-2004, the largest decrease since 1976-77, reported the third edition of "Miles to Go: Progress of Minorities in the Legal Profession," published by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession.
The study said fewer than 10 percent of the United States’ one million attorneys are from racial minorities, and only 3.7 percent of all partners are minorities.
In addition, the report found that minority law graduates are less likely than whites to join law firms, less likely to remain in firms after three years and are "grossly underrepresented" in top-level jobs such as partner or general counsel.
"A number of people have come here to practice and have left," said Gregory L. Gudger, a Portland lawyer and president of the Oregon chapter of the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers. When Gudger began practicing here in 1987, he recalls no more than 20 black attorneys practiced in the state. As of last year, that number had grown to only 93. Hispanic lawyers number about 171, 68 describe themselves as Native American, and 276 as Asian.
Fewer than a handful of black partners practice in Portland firms, and only one Asian judge serves in Oregon, according to Gudger and Stella K. Manabe, administrator of the OSB Affirmative Action Program. "And it’s not that they (others) are not qualified," Gudger says. "If one applies reasonable expectations, our representation as partners is not proportionate. One would expect it to be better than it is."
Of 12,444 total active OSB members, only 5 percent are from racial minorities, Manabe says, noting that 30 years ago, when the OSB’s affirmative action program began, that figure was 0.4 percent.
"Portland has a tough time" attracting minority lawyers," says Manabe. "We’re creating reasons they will want to stay." Accomplishing that task is a goal of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association, which tries to encourage minority law students and attorneys to build a strong network both inside and outside of the minority community, says Liani Jean Heh Reeves of the OMLA.
Most of the group’s activities and programs "revolve around providing economic and social support to attorneys and law students of color," she explains. The annual auction-raffle raises money for bar examination preparation scholarships that the association awards to racial and ethnic minorities who apply for OSB admission. In 2004, the association awarded scholarships for the summer and winter bar exams. The organization also works closely with the OSB’s affirmative action program.
These efforts, along with community-building and networking, job fairs and diversity partners and committees, may be starting to make a dent, but if Oregon firms can’t demonstrate concrete results, they may find themselves losing business.
A few giant corporations are taking the bold step not just of surveying and scrutinizing firms, but also of imposing requirements, stating that a firm must "have a certain percentage of minorities, or we won’t give you work," says Bullivant’s Valentine.
"With our law firm, we deal with big companies, organizations, insurers," says Valentine. "These are the people who can say, ‘Do this or else.’"
Many smaller law firms are also recognizing how diversity can impact their practice. Success in the business and practice of law requires identifying new clients, says George H. Guyer of Guyer Meisner Attorneys in Lake Oswego. "It makes good business sense to appreciate the state’s rapidly changing demographics," he said. "Diverse demographics means diverse clients with needs for legal services in our traditional practice areas. Our diverse employees add unique insights to our practice and provide our clients and referral sources with the comfort that we recognize their needs."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2006 Cliff Collins