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More Minority GC Than Ever, So Where Are the Minority Partners?

Vivia Chen

October 2, 2012

Joe_WestThis August, we reported that lawyers of color are gaining ground in the top corporations of America. But the cliff-hanger is whether that will make a real dent in the abysmal partnership rates of minorities in Big Law. Today, we are asking Joseph West (right), the president and CEO of Minority Corporate Counsel Association, that very question.

MCCA announced with some fanfare that the percentage of minority GC just hit 9.4 percent—an all-time high. Frankly, I expected that number to be in the double digits by now. Is 9.4 percent something to celebrate?
The trend is good. It's going up; it’s moving in the right direction and that's encouraging. And the number of minority women GC has doubled since 2008 [from eight in 2008 to 19 in 2011].

Okay, I admit minorities seem to be doing much better in corporations than law firms, where the partnership rate is still under 7 percent. Why are firms lagging so far behind?
There is a huge transparency differential. Diversity and hiring seem to be a mystery at firms. I can’t tell you how often I talk to high-achieving associates who have no idea how [partnership] decisions are made. Major publicly traded companies have regulatory bodies, board oversight, and a customer base that’s mindful of hiring policies. Large corporations pay more attention to diversity and inclusiveness. That message hasn’t gotten to law firms yet.

Now that there are more minority GC in big companies, do you think firms will get the message? Do you expect to see a rise in the number of minority partners as a result?
I do. Law firm behavior is driven by the client. In our survey about corporate law departments, we find that they expect their outside counsel to have diversity. They expect that as part of their annual evaluations.

How does that translate into anything meaningful? Everybody says they are for diversity, but how much are companies really pushing diversity with outside counsel?
It varies. Some companies are not that robust [about monitoring diversity]. Some do demographic surveys of their firms. Some take steps further and have conferences with their outside counsel, requiring them to come in to go over the numbers of diverse lawyers at the firm. Some moderate the utilization of diverse lawyers assigned to their matters.

So many ways for corporations to express their earnestness about diversity. But what do you think really works?
If you tie comp to diversity, that will get people’s attention. You do this by incentivizing internal counsel to utilize diverse lawyers in their outside counsel. At Microsoft, the direct reports to the GC all have benchmarks tied to their bonuses. That’s very bold and innovative. Wal-Mart does this too for all rank and file lawyers who use outside counsel.

Are companies tying diversity to compensation because nothing else has worked? Is this the solution of last resort? 
No, I don't think so. Some companies started doing this much earlier. Microsoft has been doing it for five or six years. And Wal-Mart has been doing it for four or five years.

Back to this historical high in minority GC. You said you expect firms to take notice of the client's priority. But what about the GC—is it fair to assume that minority GC will stick their neck out to push for more partners of color?
Good question—I don’t think you can assume. A lot depends on the company as a whole. It helps if there’s companywide support for diversity. The commitment from the GC level is important, but that's not the whole solution. What's important is the culture.  At Wal-Mart and Microsoft, there are a lot of white males who advocated for diversity. As a threshold matter, it might help if the GC is a diverse lawyer—but the inquiry doesn’t end there.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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