Will Law Firm Leaders Get Involved in this Diversity Initiative?

Photo by Benson Kua (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Two weeks ago, Ricardo Anzaldua, the general counsel of MetLife, urged law firm and in-house leaders not to delegate responsibilities around creating an inclusive and diverse workplace, calling upon leaders to do things like require mandatory meetings to educate employees about implicit bias.

“Leadership needs to own it,” he said, at the Big Law Business Diversity & Inclusion event in midtown Manhattan.

That same need — to include senior leadership in diversity efforts — is coming to bear in a new initiative announced in October to create a Shark Tank-esque competition in Big Law to generate new ideas on attracting and retaining women in the legal profession.

Called “Women in Law Hackathon,” the project was launched by Caren Ulrich Stacy, founder of Diversity Lab, a company that devotes itself to cultivating diversity at corporations and law firms.

Its current project entails organizing various teams of lawyers in Big Law to participate in a January-to-June competition: Each team will draw up plans for an innovative project that boosts the advancement and retention of women lawyers in law firms. Stanford Law School is helping coordinate the endeavor.

The tricky thing about those efforts, though, is making sure enough participants sign up and dedicate time in their already-hectic schedules to make it work. And not only that, but the participants need to wield influence at their law firms for the ideas to translate into any meaningful change after they are conceived.

Explained Stacy: “They need to be a partner and need to have enough gravitas to bring ideas back to their firm and get them implemented. It’s not like they are all practice group leaders — but someone in the firm who has the ear of other people.”

It’s important that they have some clout because in June, they’ll have the opportunity to turn their ideas into real change: the teams will pitch their ideas to a team of judges that includes Tony West, general counsel of PepsiCo, Lucy Endel Bassil, assistant general counsel of Microsoft and David Perla, president of Bloomberg Law. (Bloomberg Law is owned by Blooomberg BNA, which also owns Big Law Business)

Bloomberg Law will provide the top three winning teams with prize money — 1st place $10,000, 2nd place $7,500 and 3rd place $5,000  — to donate to their non-profit organization of choice that advances women in the legal profession and beyond, according to Stacy.

So how’s it going so far? Stacy told Big Law Business on Tuesday out of the 54 partner positions she is seeking to fill for the initiative, she is about halfway there after two weeks, with 26 confirmed participants and a handful of others discussing potential involvement.

There have been some bright spots along the way: At one point, Mitch Zuklie, chairman of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, called Stacy directly and spent 20 minutes talking with her about the initiative and discussing who would be the right person from Orrick to participate.

Stacy’s strategy has been to reach out to managing partners and chairmen directly, who then figure out which lawyer would be best to participate in the initiative. But in taking that tack, how many senior leaders with real influence will end up participating?

The answer is still up in the air, as law firm leaders privately identify who is going to be involved. Big Law Business spoke with several lawyers who were approached by Stacy about the initiative. All expressed their support for it — who wouldn’t? — but they didn’t yet know who would be the best fit for the role.

“We have not yet identified our lawyer who will participate in it,” said Thomas Leatherbury, practice group leader of Vinson & Elkins’ firmwide appellate practice, who Stacy had approached about the project, in an interview last week. “It probably will not be me, because we’d like to involve someone new in this and give other lawyers an opportunity to participate in innovations like this.”

Leatherbury later said that whoever is involved, “It’s going to have to be somebody who is in leadership. I completely agree it needs to be someone who is senior — you can’t always preach to the choir.”

Jennifer Hagle, a corporate partner at Sidley Austin, also said, as of last week, that the firm was in the process of identifying the right person for the job.

“What we like to do is open the opportunity to someone who isn’t already into women’s issues,” she said. “The right person is going to have that combination of creativity, enthusiasm and time. Because once we sign on, you better bet you’re going to get our best.”

Of course, juggling so many responsibilities as a member of senior leadership at a law firm is tough. And focusing on an initiative that fosters idea-generating, rather than business-generating, even for such a good cause, may not seem like a top priority. The senior leaders who do get involved, like Hagle said, should make sure they can commit.

Asked for the most senior leaders involved in the Hackathon thus far, Stacy provided the following names:

  • David KoschikWhite & Case, Executive Committee Member and Former Leader of the Firm’s Innovation Council
  • Anne Cappella, Weil Gotshal, Firmwide Women @Weil Leader
  • Leah Schleicher, Neal Gerber, Co-Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee and Past Co-Chair of the Associate Review Committee
  • Christina Guerola Sarchio, Orrick, Board of Directors Member
  • Maureen Jeffreys, Arnold & Porter, Practice Group Leader

Koschik,  the executive committee member at White & Case, issued a statement through a firm spokesperson about his involvement: “As the father of three teenage daughters, the issue of gender parity is something I feel strongly about — so joining the Hackathon was an easy decision… We have much to learn from others and are looking forward to hearing all the unique ideas to help address this challenge all firms face.”

(UPDATED: This story has been updated to reflect Stanford Law School’s involvement in organizing the Hackathon)