Thought Leaders Series: Diversity Trends—The Individual as the Agent for Change

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In the Thought Leaders series, College Fellows address the challenges—and innovations—on the horizon for the profession. The future-focused essays originally appeared in the inaugural Inside Legal Thought Leader Digest. 

Many in law firm management know that having the goal of a diverse workforce is ‘the right thing to do’ and that it is good for business. However, those same leaders often struggle to affect meaningful change when it comes to diversity, and after years of trying with little success, ‘diversity fatigue’ begins to take hold. This is a typical scenario in law firms across the nation. The first step to jump start a diversity initiative and avoid ‘fatigue’ is realizing that the responsibility of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce is the responsibility of everyone in the organization and not just that of a law firm diversity committee.

Evolving demographics

The demographics of the United States are clearly changing. The most recent census, completed in 2010, found that almost half of infants born in the U.S. belong to racial and ethnic minorities. By 2042, nearly half of the total U.S. population will consist of people of color. The Washington Post recently reported that eight cities—Memphis, Tennessee; Modesto, California; Las Vegas, Nevada;Jackson, Mississippi; San Diego, California; Washington,D.C.; Oxnard, California and the NewYork City region – joined a list of 22 of the largest100 U.S. metropolitan regions that have more minority races in them than Caucasians.

Law firm clients, primarily large Fortune 500 corporations, are at the forefront of ensuring that law firm demographics reflect this new reality. These companies are using the economics of outside

counsel selection decisions to drive change. The chief legal officers in these corporations are ending or limiting relationships with firms whose performance,in their opinion, consistently evidences alack of meaningful interest and commitment to diversity.

Increasing diversity visibility

Today, the diversity track record of each law firm is requested in an overwhelming majority of requests for proposals and an increasing number of corporationsare surveying firms on their respective diversity initiatives. In some instance, corporations are using electronic billing to track the time and amount of work that diverse attorneys are working on their matters and highlighting where firms can improve. For those law firms that receive a failing grade in any of these diversity indicators, their continued working relationship with these companies is at jeopardy. In short, with clients pushing the diversity agenda, diversity (or the lack of it) can have a direct impact on a law firm’s bottom line financial performance. As the general population continues to diversify, the pressure on firms will only increase.

The essential question for most organizations including law firms is how to embrace this change,satisfy increasing client demands regarding diversity and ensure that they cultivate organizations that are inclusive. Of course, no one has the only answer and there is likely more than one solution to the problem, but what seems clear is that when each individual in the organization is given the tools and incentive to effect change, diversity can truly become a core value of the organization’s culture and a basis for change.

One example is Nixon Peabody’s Diversity Challenge, first launched in July 2010. It is based on a commitment from a broad cross-section of the firm’s personnel to take specific action in the interest

of promoting diversity. The program works to enhance the recruitment, development, and retention of diverse attorneys and staff and is believed tobe one of the first of its kind in the nation.

Under the Diversity Challenge, each Nixon Peabody attorney is ‘challenged’ to devote 40 hours (3.3 hours per month) annually to a diversity initiative, activity, or event. The 40 hours are tracked through time sheets and count towards the lawyer’s non-billable commitment to the firm. To help attorneys identify appropriate activities, on a periodic basis, the firm provides examples of the types of activities that qualify for Diversity Challenge credit. Examples of qualifying activities include:

  • Organizing or attending a diversity-oriented event, reception, or seminar
  • Mentoring a minority, LGBT or woman attorney
  • Working with Human Resources in the development of professional training and partnership coaching programs for diverse attorneys
  • Working with the recruiting manager to identify diverse candidates
  • Reaching out to current clients with affinity groups or diversity committees to create joint projects

The Diversity Challenge was implemented to re-establish the firm as a leader in law firm diversity.

While Nixon Peabody had made tremendous strides in diversity since the formation of its Diversity Action Committee (DAC) in the fall of 2004, the firm’s assessment of retention efforts revealed a variety of issues. As the firm’s diversity initiatives had matured, it became clear that it needed to energize the program and refocus its efforts. The firm needed to bolster its mentoring programs and look to promote minorities and women who had historically been underrepresented, especially in firm leadership roles. The Diversity Challenge provided a means to address these challenges. The promotion of diversity and inclusion is now a ‘top of mind’ issue for, and the responsibility of, every attorney in the firm.

Achieving diversity accountability

The issues surrounding diversity and inclusion are present on a daily basis at a typical law firm. Decisions are made every day with respect to who will receive a ‘plum’ assignment, who will be mentored, who will be invited to attend a pitch or client meeting or who will receive funding to attend a professional development seminar. Each morning at Nixon Peabody, when an attorney logs onto the firm’s network, each attorney’s FinancialDashboard illustrates their billable hours to date as well as the hours that they have billed to the Diversity Challenge. This is just one example of how the Diversity Challenge is intended to be a continual reminder that Nixon Peabody attorneys must challenge themselves to be a more inclusive firm and a firm that provides equal opportunities for everyone. It’s about engraining in everyone (and in the firm culture) that diversity issues are everyone’s responsibility and not just that of a chief diversity officer or a diversity committee.

Since its launch, more than 41% of the firm’s attorneys have participated in the Diversity Challenge, logging over 5,000 hours of non-billable time toward the initiative. Also, many attorneys participating in the Diversity Challenge had not previously been involved in the firm’s diversity initiatives. In a further effort to institutionalize diversity as a core value, each attorney was asked in their performance evaluation to describe the ways in which they support the firm’s diversity and inclusion policies.

In terms of the legal industry as a whole, the Diversity Challenge is an initiative that could be launched in various cities or regions. As noted in the February 25, 2011, issue of Canada’s Lawyers Weekly: “The genius of Nixon Peabody’s diversity program lies in its familiarity (lawyers understand hourly measures and they respond to targeted commitments) and universality (diversity is effectively communicated to be every lawyer’s responsibility). But best of all, it’s an approach that any law firm of any size can adopt.”

Kendal Tyre is a Partner at Nixon Peabody and counsels companies on international business transactions. He represents clients in mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and strategic alliances, licensing and franchise matters. He has extensive business law and transactional experience, advising on financings, entity formation and maintenance, corporate reorganizations and business divorces. Kendal is co-chair of the firm’s Diversity Action Committee. He can be reached at

This  article is reprinted with permission from the inaugural InsideLegal Thought Leaders Digest: COLPM Issue. View the entire publication at

Additional Thought Leader Series Essays

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