Rikleen Institute LLC

Transforming the Legal Profession - Giving Voice to the Power of In-House Counsel

March 1, 2011

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear the General Counsel of a large corporation speak to a group of lawyers. The purpose of his address was to share insights from the GC perspective that would help lawyers advance in their careers. His presentation also offered important advice about how to be effective at attracting and retaining business from in-house counsel. He covered a wide variety of topics that would be important to lawyers interested in understanding what matters to their clients.

But in the range of areas covered, his presentation left one key topic unmentioned: diversity. At no time in his nearly 40 minute presentation did this influential lawyer once mention the importance of diversity in his role as GC, in his hiring of outside counsel, or in the contribution that diverse teams bring to strategic thinking in a global business.

Moreover, even as he expressed concern about the negative impact of attrition in the law firms he employs, he did not connect the on-going loss of good lawyers to institutional practices and related barriers to success within his outside counsel firms. Rather, he treated the issue as a negative fact of life, rather than a solveable problem.

I spoke with him afterwards to understand why he did not use the opportunity he had to influence behavior by choosing to raise the topic. He first stated that he did not see diversity as within the purview of what he had been asked to cover in his presentation. He quickly added that diversity was an important value within his corporation, but indicated that when it came to hiring outside counsel, their focus was on offering some portion of work to women and minority owned firms, rather than try to address what their larger outside law firms were or were not doing. Without minimizing the critical importance of setting aside work for women and minority owned firms, the two issues are not mutually exclusive.

He then stated that, when it came to their selection of large firms, they had to go for the “best” and pick the “safe” choice. We both understood clearly what that meant: hire the individuals with the known reputations from the largest firms. That way, if things do not work out as hoped, there can be no criticism from the CEO or the Board that would allow blame to fall on the person who selected outside counsel.

His statement was one that is heard frequently from in-house counsel. It suggests, however, a narrow view of competence that is simply wrong when it comes to the talent-rich environment of today’s legal pool. [Several years ago, I wrote an article suggesting ways to broaden opportunities for the hiring of talented and diverse outside counsel. See: Female In-House Counsel Can Wield Economic Power To Level Playing Field In Hiring Outside Lawyers which recommends ways to ensure the hiring of talented and diverse outside counsel.]

The fact is, women and minorities will never reach the higher echelons of equity partnership and leadership roles if they are excluded from the very thing that provides those opportunities in most law firms -- being selected as a key component of the outside counsel relationship by clients who generate significant work for the firm. No one has more power than in-house counsel to change the institutional barriers to success that women and minority lawyers face in law firms.

The legal profession which now considers itself a business needs to institutionalize practices that businesses who pride themselves on excellence already have in place. Talent management, if done correctly, requires far more resources and time than is currently devoted by over-stressed and over-worked law firm leaders.

The slow pace of change can be altered if clients are willing to articulate to their outside counsel that diverse teams matter. Law firm leaders put on their agendas those issues that are important to their clients. As GCs have spoken out about fees and staffing of matters, law firms have responded. It will be no different when more GC voices express the importance of diversity at all levels of their outside law firms – and back that up by asking the hard questions about their client teams.

The GC who spoke at this program distinguished himself as a thoughtful and caring person. He gave solid advice to a roomful of lawyers eager to succeed in their careers. I hope that, the next time he and his fellow in-house colleagues speak, their sage advice will include the importance of providing in-house counsel with diverse teams that reflect a diverse law firm, along with the wealth of wisdom that entails.