Robins Kaplan Increases Diverse Hires With Rooney Rule

Over a decade after Dan Rooney shook up NFL hiring practices, at least one law firm has begun to see measurable results from a policy that requires its leaders to review a diverse slate of candidates for each new hire. Robins Kaplan said that it quadrupled the percentage of attorneys of color it hired for lateral associate positions in just one year after implementing its own “Rooney Rule.”

The 220-lawyer litigation firm began developing the rule when it realized its lateral associate hires were not as diverse as its summer hires, according to Chandra Kilgriff, the firm’s director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Pro Bono. It was implemented in 2016, just in time for the firm’s increase in lateral hiring.

“I do think the Rooney Rule has increased both the quality and diversity of our hires,” she told Big Law Business. “We’ve found candidates we wouldn’t otherwise have found.”

Whereas in the past, hiring attorneys may have stopped looking for candidates after being sent a qualified referral, the firm now takes a more deliberate approach, she explained.

“We slow down and say, we need to open this up to other people, we post the position, we leverage diverse networks, we talk to recruiters, and we end up getting a broader slate of candidates,” said Kilgriff.

In 2014, only 1 of 18 lateral associates hired by Robins Kaplan was an attorney of color, and 1 identified as LGBTQ attorney, according to the firm. In 2015, only 1 of 11 was an attorney of color, and none identified as LGBTQ. But in 2016, 9 of the firm’s 23 lateral associate hires were attorneys of color, and 3 were LGBTQ.

Robins Kaplan also moved up from 140th in 2015 to 126th in 2016 on the American Lawyer’s diversity scorecard, a ranking of the largest 250 U.S. law firms according to the percentage of minority attorneys. The rating relies on average full-time employee data for the calendar year, meaning that laterals hired by Robins Kaplan in the middle or end of 2016 were assigned less weight for the 2016 ranking, according to Kilgriff.

In less measurable ways, the program “has caused a lot more mindfulness” and has become ingrained in firm culture, according to Kilgriff.

The firm modeled its rule, which requires at least one woman, person of color or LGBTQ individual to be considered for each position, after the rule proposed by former Pittsburgh Steelers Dan Rooney in 2003 to address the lack of diversity among football coaches.

Robins Kaplan is not the only law firm to see the advantages of such a policy. Earlier this month, a group of 30 law firms in partnership with Diversity Lab began piloting a similar program, called the Mansfield Rule after the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States. That policy requires firms to consider women and minorities for at least 30 percent of the candidate pools for leadership positions, equity partner promotions and outside hires.

Versions of the NFL rule have also made their way to Silicon Valley, where they have been embraced by Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. A task force led by former Attorney General Eric Holder at Covington & Burling LLP to investigate allegations of gender discrimination at Uber recently advised the tech company to adopt its own version of the policy.

The Robins Kaplan Rooney Rule was implemented alongside seven other diversity initiatives in the firm’s Leaders Engaged in the Advancement of Diversity (LEAD) program, which was implemented in 2015. Under that program, the firm’s executive board, practice group chairs, and office managing partners meet every six to eight weeks to talk about diversity and inclusion and hold each other accountable.   

“Every member has to speak to demographics in their subgroup and how they’ve changed,” said Kellie Lerner, co-chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee.

Among other new policies, the firm recently revamped its parental leave policies and implemented a tracking program to make sure associates are given work in an equitable way, according to Lerner.

Robins Kaplan also has a group looking into diversity in lateral partner hiring, an area where the firm still struggles, according to Kilgriff.

She said the firm’s percentage of LGBTQ partners (5%) and ethnically and racially diverse partners (6%) “hover at or above the national averages for firms of our size,” but that she wants those numbers to be higher than average.

“Our biggest challenges right now are in retention and advancement,” she said. “We’re focused on creating a culture of inclusion at the firm so everyone feels like they belong and can be themselves, in a way that takes into account and mitigates implicit bias issues that crop up.”

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