Some of their biggest corporate clients are demanding that they increase the number of minority and women associates and partners.
Indeed, for some companies, diversity is as important as cost-cutting and performance when evaluating which law firm to hire. And they are threatening to fire firms that do not show enough progress.
Until recently, “law firms have been able to be successful while ignoring’’ the hiring of more minorities, said Meredith Moore, director of the office for diversity at the New York City Bar. “It’s that client pressure that’s forcing them to address this question. You almost can’t ignore it anymore.”
Wal-Mart Stores has dropped two law firms — pulling active work from them — because of unhappiness with the firms’ lack of diversity.
“Both of those firms were performing well, exceeding expectations, in the category of performance and in the category of cost,” said Thomas Mars, Wal-Mart’s general counsel. Wal-Mart has also decided not to send any additional work to several other firms.
Companies that have sought to present a face that reflects the diversity of their customers are keen not to have their lawyers undermine that public image. And companies that have faced racial and sex discrimination lawsuits — as has Wal-Mart, which is fighting a huge sex discrimination class action — are particularly sensitive to their law firms’ diversity. (Mr. Mars says that Wal-Mart’s efforts with its law firms have nothing to do with the litigation against the company.)
The recent corporate effort to push law firms to improve their diversity record began with Roderick A. Palmore, general counsel at Sara Lee, who wrote his peers at the top of corporate law departments to commit themselves to “end or limit our relationships with firms whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse.”
Mr. Palmore began the effort in 2004 because, he said, he saw no real progress, especially at the large firms, in the aftermath of a 1999 statement signed by more than 500 corporate lawyers, urging law firms to hire more women and minorities.