May 16, 2007

While most corporate legal departments strive to achieve greater demographic diversity, many run into recruiting and retention roadblocks that can undercut those efforts, noted the panelists for today’s InsideCounsel SuperConference session entitled, “The Diversity Challenge.”

The session on the best practices for recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce was moderated by Jenner & Block Partner Susan J. Kohlmann and included commentary from Laurie N. Robinson, Assistant General Counsel, Labor & Employment Division Director, CBS Training & Development, CBS Broadcasting Inc.; W. Scott Nehs, Vice President, Legal & Chief Compliance Officer, Pepsicola General Bottlers, Inc.; and Mike Evers, Principal, Evers Legal Search.

The lack of diversity in the legal profession is daunting, the panelists agreed. Ms. Robinson, for instance, noted that governement labor statistics show minority representation to be lowest among lawyers at 9.7 percent, when compared to other professions. She added that the 2006 MCCA Diversity in the Bar survey indicated only 28 minority General Counsels among the Fortune 500-1000.

“The LSAT is a huge barrier for getting minorities into the practice of law,” said Ms. Robinson. Minorities who do succeed in graduating and passing a bar exam, she said, face significant challenges in terms of training and development or glass ceiling considerations. "People begin to feel underemployed or marginalized and move on," Ms. Robinson added. "We are making progress, but the progress is really slow.”

Legal departments can obtain a diverse staff if they follow the right game plan, said Mr. Evers, especially one that includes hiring a recruiting firm to help search for the most diverse talent and to deliver the right messages. “Be sure your recruiters know the careers paths and the culture of your company and at the same time demonstrate your sincerity on the issue by attending and supporting minority bar conferences,” he advised.

“Retention to me is really internal recruiting and making sure minorities in your organization have a reason to stay,” said Mr. Nehs. “Give people a voice and opportunity to express themselves, and reward efforts that promote the inclusive behavior you value. Walk the talk and let law firms know what your expectations are.”

The “accountability wheel” was also addressed by the panelists, who said individual leadership at all levels of a given organization may be the most important factor in fostering diversity in the profession.

“This is America, the land of opportunity,” concluded Ms. Robinson. “People want opportunities. We all need to figure out a way to move things forward and making individuals feel more accountable.”