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Adams and Reese, a law firm with offices throughout the South, including in Sarasota, formed its diversity committee in 2000.

There was abundant need to consider diversity at that time, says Jaimmé A. Collins, a partner at Adams and Reese and chair of its diversity committee. And there still is.

For example, women constitute more than a third of the law profession, but only a fifth of law firm partners, general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations and law school deans.

The statistics look bleaker for African-Americans, Latinos and Asian- Americans; less than 7 percent become partners. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners are African-Americans.

“There’s no easy formula,” says Collins, who’s been honored for her diversity work, including in 2013, with the National Diversity Council’s Glass Ceiling Award. “Law is a hard industry to diversify.”

Women and minorities are often left out of the networks of mentoring and sponsorship that are critical to career development. Young lawyers are also expected to bring new business. “That’s hard if you’re the first college-educated person in your family,” says Collins. “Coming from a lower socioeconomic background gives you fewer opportunities to rely on family connections. If you’re a minority building your client base, it’s more difficult.”

What’s the answer?

“What we’re doing,” she says. “Law firms need to make a strong commitment to equal opportunity, then follow through with proactive policies, priorities and results-oriented reward structures. We don’t stop our commitment with recruiting.”

The firm sets diversity goals that are evaluated annually and then holds itself accountable. “Don’t simply hire people of color and women, but invest in them and track their internal success,” Collins says.

Collins stresses that good results often start small. But small changes can eventually spark big changes, a virtuous circle that transforms the corporate culture. Hiring a diverse workforce is just the first step. “Retaining that workforce is what counts,” she says. “Creating support systems is the best way to do it.”

Adams and Reese creates opportunities for advancement through mentoring and networking opportunities for minority attorneys to build relationships, hone legal skills and share ideas. “Minorities and people from underrepresented groups should never feel stuck or invisible,” Collins says.

And, she adds, “Diversity breeds diversity. Once a law firm has a diverse staff, they’ll recruit for other diverse staff. The network of mentors and professional connections will grow. You have to start someplace. Once you do, you have to keep going until the transformation begins and revisit it each year.”

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