Historic diversity action plan signed



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Thirteen extremely busy people, the managing partners of law firms in the Grand Rapids area, took hours out of their schedules to collaborate with the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) on a broad plan to increase diversity in the area’s legal profession.

Most of those managing partners set their signatures to the new Diversity Action Plan during a ceremony held last Thursday at the University Club; some signed later.

The plan will entail an unprecedented level of ongoing cooperation between firms and a commitment to the higher goal of employing and retaining attorneys of color and female attorneys.

Moreover, the partners have agreed to continue meeting twice a year over the next five years, the life of the plan.

In 2010, NALP legal profession statistics rated Grand Rapids low on almost all diversity indicators its survey measured, which the local community and the GRBA regarded as a call to action. Though other cities with low ratings have undertaken improvement processes, the Grand Rapids initiative, begun in June of 2011, is unique in both the degree of collaboration and the level of commitment.

At the time, Warner Norcross and Judd’s diversity partner Rodney Martin commented, “There are other cities out there that have programs in place that have met with various degrees of success, but we felt we were not going to be successful if we copy what some other city has done. We’ve got to under stand Grand Rapids and the particular issues we face.”

The task of creating the plan was immediately separated into three working groups: the Pipeline Working Group, to look at ways to ensure that potential diverse candidates are aware of the opportunities in the legal profession; the Recruitment Working Group, to strategize about attracting attorneys of color and women to the Grand Rapids area; and the Retention Working Group, to explore how to keep such attorneys at a high level of employment satisfaction to ensure they will stay.

The managing partners generated the ideas and the strategies — and worked to obtain their firms’ committed adoption — while diversity partners from three different firms facilitated those working groups. Mary Bauman of Miller Johnson led the Pipeline group, Varnum’s Joy Fossel the Recruitment group, and  Martin, the Retention group.

Those groups will continue into the future as committees, charged with helping carry out sections of the plan.

Though attorneys of color and women are most often targeted in the plan, the original agreement was explicit that it “encompasses, among other things, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, language, age, disability, marital and parental status, geographic origin, and socioeconomic background.”

The well-thought-out five-year plan focuses on the three work group activities as well as broader strategic areas. First steps include: The Collaborative Pipeline Committee and GRBA representatives have until June 1 to meet with high school guidance counselors and college pre-law advisors to talk about how best to encourage students to consider and pursue a career in the law, and will begin exploring social media outreach. Also by June 1, the Collaborative Recruitment Committee will submit a draft proposal for a marketing and communication plan that emphasizes the advantages of Grand Rapids; to promote retention, each firm will “adopt a clear statement of the business case for diversity and inclusion and begin persistently to communicate the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion both internally, to attorneys and staff, and externally to clients and the community.” In addition, the Collaborative Retention Committee will start to monitor work assignments of diverse employees, among other factors, to be sure all associates are provided with a “structured and equal opportunity to advance their careers.”

The Diversity Action Plan is available on the GRBA website, www.grbar.org, prominently featured on the home page.

There was a celebratory atmosphere at last week’s signing. Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee, now GRBA President, said the plan is a new chapter in a book that has been long in the writing, but was not previously a “best-seller” in that it did not meet with success in increasing diversity as it intended. Smith said this new chapter “charts a much different path to the top,” one that is clearer and focuses on more measurable elements. “This figurative book is what brings us together — achieving the goal of diversity that has for too long eluded us.”

Greg Conyers, Diversity Director of the State Bar of Michigan, was on hand to congratulate the GRBA on this “historic” accomplishment, and continued the book metaphor. “This is a new chapter in a book that has many chapters,” Conyers said. “There are many steps to achieving true diversity, and it may feel discouraging along the way because it takes a long time.” The State Bar’s Director of External Development, Candace Crowley, attended as well.

In addition to Smith on behalf of GRBA, signatories include: Tracy T. Larsen of Barnes and Thornburg; Ingrid A. Jensen, Clark Hill; Frank G. Dunten of Dickinson Wright; James S. Brady of Dykema; Michael D. Homier for Foster Swift Collins and Smith; David R. Fernstrum, Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones;   Richard A. Gaffin, Miller Canfield; Craig A. Mutch of Miller Johnson; Kevin T. Grzelak of Price Heneveld; Robert C. Shaver, Jr., Rhoades McKee; William Hondorp (Patrick Geary signed at Thursday’s ceremony) of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge; Lawrence J. Murphy, Varnum; and Douglas A Wagner of Warner Norcross & Judd.

It is not too late for other managing partners at firms large and small, as well as in-house counsel, to sign on. The original signers had hoped that others would embrace the plan to help make “the Grand Rapids legal community a welcoming and inclusive environment for all.”