The percentage of associate positions held by women and minorities inched upward in 2012, as did the percentage of women holding a law partnership, according to an annual diversity report published by NALP, The Association of Legal Professionals.
The number of minorities and minority women in law partnerships, areas where Grand Rapids lags the national average, declined slightly.
The gains came as managing partners of 13 larger law firms put in motion a coalition to significantly improve legal diversity in the Grand Rapids area, which lags national averages in all but one category measured by NALP — women associates, where the region rates near the top nationally.
Craig Mutch, an employment law attorney and managing member of Miller Johnson in Grand Rapids, credits the gains to efforts to increase diversity by individual firms prior to the collaborative’s formation, as well as to an improved economy. Diversity efforts stalled both nationally and locally the last two years because of the recession and began to rebound in 2012, according to the NALP.
“Everyone’s back more in the hiring mode,” Mutch said.
As far as the effect of the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative formed in early 2012, “I just don’t think we’ve had enough time yet,” Mutch said. Any gains attributable to the five-year diversity collaborative are probably a year or two away, he said.
“None of this is going to happen overnight. You just have to plug away and be very intentional about what you’re doing, and hopefully, these things over the course of time will happen,” he said. “Next year, I would hope these numbers are significantly better, and then we just keep adding and adding.”
Firms involved in the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative committed to increasing diversity by recruiting more female and minority attorneys to Grand Rapids and better retention, as well as by promoting the legal profession locally as a career option. The collaborative stems from Grand Rapids’ traditionally low diversity rankings, despite the individual efforts of many local law firms.
The collaborative intentionally did not set specific goals, although partners would like to match national averages within five years. Managing partners who signed onto the collaborative took the view that they could attack the issue better together, rather than continuing to work on it individually.
“A lot of the larger firms here have been doing their own thing for a number of years now. What we decided was if we could collaborate, that probably would move the ball more,” Mutch said.
The collaborative is preparing a campaign to promote and brand Grand Rapids as a destination for women and minority attorneys. Firms often share information on candidates when they don’t have an opening.
The annual NALP diversity report, issued in mid-December and using data from large law firms in 42 markets nationwide, specifically cites Grand Rapids’ status in two contrasting positions: It’s one of the top markets nationally for women legal associates, 48 percent versus a national average of 45.89 percent. At the same time, and despite a solid gain between 2011 and 2012, Grand Rapid is one of the worst markets in the U.S. for minority partners: 1.76 percent locally, compared to 6.71 percent nationally.
The report, however, notes that communities such as Grand Rapids that have low minority percentages of law partners and associates also have comparatively low overall minority populations of about 20 percent and that “minority representation within law firms does not always parallel minority representation within the overall population of an area.”
“It’s the makeup of the community,” Mutch said. “But that’s obviously an area that is of concern.”
The push for increased diversity comes largely from the demands of corporate law clients operating in a global economy. Having greater diversity within the firm has both internal and external benefits, Mutch said.
“The corporations we deal with, they’ve all become multi-cultural. In order to be able to relate to them and to be able identify their problems and provide them with realistic solutions, we have to be able to think like them and the people there,” Mutch said. “Within our organization, the fact that you have different inputs and different ideas and are sharing those things make us better.”