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02/06/07

Diversity is the latest law firm and corporation mantra

Minority lawyers, particularly those in Charlotte, have much to celebrate. Top gun companies in the region and prominent law firms have committed themselves to promoting a diversely rich legal workforce in the area. To this effect, the influential partners from both sectors have also signed an "action plan" that reinvigorates a five-year minority-thrust plan. The drive takes force from the initiatives by Mecklenburg County Bar who formed a local subcommittee chaired by Felicia Washington Mauney, a partner with Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman. The committee members agree to focus on minority recruiting, mentoring, leadership development, and best practices. As many as 20 Charlotte law firms and law departments have signed the action plan so far, though she expects the roster to fill in further.

The top guns in this issue include huge names like Bank of America Corp., Wachovia Corp., Duke Energy Corp., Goodrich Corp. and are also among the frontrunners along with the law firms who organized a 12-week internship program for the minority students in the city. The students could split their time between the law firms and these corporates' legal departments. Recently, in a bid to plug its own diversity promotion measures as well as to boost up the number of minority lawyers in the area, leading law firm Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus awarded diversity scholarships worth $7,500 to six law students from Missouri and Kansas.

Elsewhere, another countrywide survey, the second of its type done by Altman Weil and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, was conducted on diversity directors and committees. Virginia Grant Essandoh, the key resource person, stated that diversity directors revealed a lot about the average budgets and staff allocations in the survey. Of 196 AmLaw firms, 72 responded, which came to 37 percent participation.

Of the largest 200 AmLaw firms that participated in the survey, nearly 35 of them have a designated diversity manager. This figure sees an increase of 5.4 percent than the previous year's figure. Also, the diversity committees in firms also registered a 3% increase. It stands now at 96 percent. Of them, the diversity managers who now report to their firm's managing partner or chairperson also saw a 20 percent rise from 47 percent last year, registering greater trust, and responsibility. However, on the flip side, of the law firms who are yet to open their diversity accounts, most of them are yet undecided on recruitment for at least another year.

A very recent addition, diversity managers in law firms get involved in various jobs, from lawyer staff recruitment and professional-development committees to associate and partner review committees. Apart from this, they also often cover other aspects like business development, client relations, and professional-development issues. However, the basic duty of these managers is to build, guide, and implement diversity targets, strategize, and accelerate diversity awareness campaigns within the firm. Essandoh's survey revealed that besides hiring diversity managers, the need to sustain the efforts is to allocate a budget to get things done. The total budget allocation at most firms, including the manager's salary, was an average of $513,500. While managers who are also lawyers earn $255,000, other professionals can earn only about half of the figure. The survey revealed that most of these diversity managers are attorneys in the firms itself. While most handle the role full time, a 29 percent of them are lawyers who have to fulfill the firm's billable-hour requirements.

Compulsory pro bono service at Adams & Reese
New Orleans-based prominent law firm Adams & Reese issued a firmwide notice asking its nearly 300-strong attorney force in its nine offices, including Memphis and Nashville, to contribute 10 hours of free legal work per year in 2007. The firm also struck a deal with Appleseed, a network of 17 public interest law centers across the county to carry forward its mission. Says Brian Faughnan, the driving force behind the move, the 10 hour requirement will double itself in the coming year, i.e., 2008.

The firm opened shop in Memphis last year recruiting 15 of Armstrong Allen's men to the new setup. The head count there now has risen to 17. Pro bono work so far, though popular, was not obligatory. As in most other places, in Tennessee, the Rules of Professional Conduct only encourage the lawyers to offer pro bono service. The firm will work with less privileged people individual charitable organizations which work to protect civil liberties or public rights and some select organizations that cannot afford huge legal bills.

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