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Sunday, 05 May 2013 16:35

GR Bar Association aims to attract more diversity to ranks of local law firms

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Law firms that united two years ago to promote and drive further diversity in the local legal community are about to launch a branding campaign designed to position Grand Rapids as a career destination for attorneys.

Developed by SeyferthPR, the effort will include a “very modern”multimedia campaign using trade publications and social media to target law students and young attorneys, said Kristin Vanden Berg, president-elect of the Grand Rapids Bar Association and a staff attorney for the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.

Rolling out this summer, the branding campaign “will really sell the vibrancy of this community and the ability to be here and make a difference,” Vanden Berg said. Attorneys can “still have a life that is in balance and can practice law at a high level.”

“We want this town to bring people in and to have a good diverse group,” she said.

The effort is part of a broader initiative formed in 2011 by 13 law firms in Grand Rapids to increase diversity within their ranks. Firms participating in the Managing Partner Diversity Collaborative want to grow the talent pool to increase the number of women and minority attorneys and law partners in Grand Rapids.

The region trails many markets across the nation in diversity despite the best effort of many firms. An annual 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 was one of the worst markets in the U.S. for minority partners: 1.76 percent locally, compared to 6.71 percent nationally, according to the report from NALP: The Association for Legal Professionals.

Grand Rapids also ranks below the national average for women law partners (16.62 percent locally versus 19.91 percent nationally) and for minority associates (12.0 percent compared to 20.32 percent across the nation).

The 2012 NALP report did note that communities such as Grand Rapids that have low percentages of minority law partners and associates also have comparatively low overall minority populations of about 20 percent.

“Minority representation within law firms does not always parallel minority representation within the overall population of an area,” the report stated.

The Managing Partner Diversity Collaborative effort is focusing on retention, recruitment and the talent pipeline. The Grand Rapids Bar Association expanded its Minority Clerkship Program in 2013 and both organizations have increased networking and business development opportunities and are organizing diversity and inclusion seminars.

The collaborative is also reaching more into the middle schools and high schools to begin promoting the legal professions as a career option to students. It’s also doing outreach to law schools nationally.

One of the positives Grand Rapids has going for it is the growth and development in the community, especially in downtown. Years ago, Vanden Berg noted, “there were not many places where you could get out and about.”

The changes that have been occurring downtown can help in recruitment and retention efforts.

“Everybody’s going to benefit through the work the city’s doing,” said T.J. Ackert, president of the Bar Association and a member of Miller Johnson.

An improved community can help to retain young talent, especially people who grow up in West Michigan and decide to go elsewhere for their career after graduating college.

Mark Smith, a partner at Rhoades McKee PC and past president of the Bar Association, said Grand Rapids needs to compete better to retain young legal talent and promote what it offers both professionally and culturally.

Firms in Grand Rapids can offer plenty of professional opportunity and compete with larger markets for young attorneys. What’s needed is to better position the community to appeal to women and minority lawyers, he said.

“It’s not a problem with the practice of law …it’s the community and culture within where you practice law,” Smith said. “We just haven’t gotten the ball rolling enough to get that synergy.”

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