In a pact brokered by the New York County Lawyers’ Association, more than 60 law firms have agreed to tell their corporate clients the composition of assigned legal teams by race, gender, ethnicity and sexual preference.
For several years, clients have asked law firms to sign statements in support of diversifying the legal profession. But with the formal agreement, firms have volunteered to put hard numbers behind their noble aspirations. According to the pact, “law firms should not object to requests by their corporate clients [to] report the number of hours devoted to the clients’ matters by minority lawyers.”
Supporting the effort are some 65 bar organizations, including major groups such as the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the New York State Bar Association and small specialty bars such as the Nigerian Lawyers Association and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Law Association.
In-house counsels at more than 20 businesses were also signatories, including large corporations such as the Bank of New York, the Coca-Cola Co., Merrill Lynch & Co., Prudential Securities and TIAA-CREF.
For law firms, failure to adequately diversify legal teams assigned to client matters could mean the difference between retaining business or being dropped in favor of more socially progressive shops, according to speakers at a press conference announcing the pact this week.
The agreement suggests that head counts on minority staffing might one day be publicized. Exactly when and how that would happen—whether corporate clients would publish a given law firm’s minority counsel statistics in annual reports, for instance, or release figures to the media—remains unclear.
“Years of silence and discomfort have taken their toll,” said Michele Coleman Mayes, senior vice president and general counsel for Pitney Bowes. She quoted Charles Barkley, author of “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?” and a former National Basketball Association star, by adding, “Prejudice just kills all of us little by little.”
Firm partners attending the press conference indicated that the agreement’s strength was in making use of the competitive nature of the legal industry. The numbers of minority lawyers on legal teams as a means of demonstrating commitment to diversity might well become a competitive marker in standard firm surveys, they said.
“And if your numbers don’t add up,” Mayes warned, “you’re history.”