Law Firms and Business Forge a New Diversity Alliance in Minneapolis/St. Paul
Like many of its metropolitan counterparts, the Twin Cities legal community has long engaged in diversity efforts, with modest results. Home to almost 3 million people, Minneapolis/St. Paul is a perennial Top Ten contender on lists of U.S. cities with an enviable quality of life. Despite this, many of its largest law firms and corporate law departments have struggled to convince young attorneys of color to venture to Minnesota and build careers there.
Beyond its reputation for daunting winters, the Twin Cities area also suffers from a misperception that it simply doesn’t have the kind of cohesive minority communities found in larger cities such as New York or Atlanta. According to U.S. District Court Judge Michael J. Davis, that reputation is undeserved. “Our minority communities in the Twin Cities are growing and they are vibrant, and once lawyers of color get here, they see that,” he says. “But you have to get them here first.”
Recently, some of the area’s leading law firms and businesses decided to quit blaming the weather and start working together to make some headway on diversity. Forming Twin Cities Diversity in Practice, they are pooling their resources in a cooperative effort to recruit and retain more lawyers of color. Although Diversity in Practice is not the first such collective—indeed, its founders credit the Boston Lawyers Group as an early model and an inspiration—it is the only one that draws a full third of its membership from the corporate world, including the upper echelon of Fortune 500 legal departments. This robust partnership between 18 leading law firms and 12 of the biggest companies in the nation has brought unexpected advantages and a new vigor to this legal community’s effort to make sure that its lawyers fully reflect the diversity of the world in which they practice.
A New Partnership Forms
B. Todd Jones
The group had its origins in 2005, when a handful of law firm leaders gathered to begin brainstorming about how to improve their diversity efforts. From the outset, the group had consensus about the importance of forging a true -partnership. “We decided to work collectively to increase the number of attorneys of color, and [to] sell the Twin Cities as a legal community that people could thrive in,” says B. Todd Jones, a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, and one of the early organizers. “So we put our partisan bickering aside and determined that it was to everyone’s collective benefit to increase the mass.” Hennepin County District Court Judge Tony Leung, who was also involved in the group’s formation, describes that decision as a welcome development. “On an individualized basis, the legal community has tried to address the issue of reaching out, and retention, and promotion,” says Leung. “But what we have lacked in the past is a collective effort to pull resources together so that we can really approach it in a systematic way.”
The organizers made several early decisions that helped get the initiative off to a swift start. To give shape and substance to the collaboration, they formed a nonprofit organization with a board composed of firm managing partners and three general counsel. They also asked members to commit to a sizable yearly financial contribution to fund the group’s work. “In many do-good fields, there are far more good ideas than money to support them,” explains Charlie Ferrell, a partner at Faegre & Benson who helped spearhead the initial organizing effort. “We decided from the beginning that we were going to have enough funds and resources and a full-time professional staff, so that we could actually implement our plans.” Each of the member law firms agreed to host the organization’s office on a yearly rotating schedule.
With these resources in place, the group hired its first full-time executive director, Seema Shah, in late 2005.1 Shah is very familiar with the dynamics of practicing in the Twin Cities as a -lawyer of color, having begun her career at Faegre & Benson before becoming an in-house lawyer at General Mills. “I’ve seen firsthand the diversity challenges confronting both large law firms and corporate legal departments in our community, and I bring that perspective to this position,” says Shah.
A Business Invitation
Perhaps the most defining decision made by Diversity in Practice’s founders was to invite their corporate clients to join the effort. The Twin -Cities are home to 19 Fortune 500 companies, more per capita than any other U.S. city. Most of these companies have become members of the group.
Cargill was the first corporation to sign on. Like many multinational companies, Cargill has had a long-standing commitment to workplace diversity, and has achieved success within its organization. Still, Cargill General Counsel Steve Euller says that for his company and the other corporations that were approached, the decision to devote time and financial resources to Diversity in Practice was an easy one. “Every one of the corporate law departments in town sees the business value of diversity,” observes Euller. “The idea of pooling our resources to attract more people was instantly seen as a commonsense solution by everyone involved.”
Although corporate law departments typically have more attorneys of color on the rolls than law firms, they know that they cannot afford to become complacent. “We’ve done a lot of good things, but when we look at the pipeline, we recognize that there has to be some work to fill that and to develop within our organizations the critical mass that makes it more comfortable for minority attorneys to work here,” explains Ron Hunter, Cargill’s Chief Trademark Counsel. Siri Marshall, General Counsel for General Mills, also views her company’s decision to join Diversity in Practice as a natural extension of its corporate ethos. “Our commitment to diversity is not just to diversity at General Mills,” she says. “It’s a broader commitment to minority populations, and so we see our participation in Diversity in Practice as a way of leveraging our experience and sharing our best practices.”
Attract and Recruit
With Seema Shah at the helm, Diversity in Practice is surging ahead with an array of innovative programs, each targeted at one of four stated goals to attract, recruit, advance, and retain lawyers of color. Shah fairly radiates energy as she runs through a rapid-fire description of what’s in the works to implement the group’s carefully considered strategic plan. “We think about program development in several ways, but our objectives are always to be innovative and open to inspiration, to achieve maximum impact, and to be sustainable,” she explains. “Part of our approach is to remain very focused and nimble so that we can take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and leverage our resources whenever possible.” The sheer number of volunteer hours required to support the roster of programs is a testament to the group’s commitment. “Our project teams are made up of attorneys from corporate and firm members,” says Shah. “There is a core group of people coming up with ideas and moving them along, but when we need people to staff an event, they are there in large numbers.”
Members have devoted substantial time to Diversity in Practice’s “Flying Squads,” a program that sends teams of lawyers on road trips to law school campuses in other national markets. Rather than recruit for their own firms or companies, Flying Squad participants have a broader -mission: to sell the Twin Cities to students of color outside the region. The Squads’ diversity—by ethnicity, level of experience, and area of practice—also offers a tangible demonstration that the Twin Cities legal community is far less homogenous than students might suppose. “It’s one thing for me as an attorney of color to talk to a student about coming to the Twin Cities—in some ways, it’s expected of me, as a commitment to my race,” says Agnes Brandon, senior counsel for General Mills. “But when it’s a white male and black people and others, all coming together, it’s very powerful.”
Flying Squads also help to spread the word about the many advantages of life in the Twin Cities and the exciting legal careers to be had there. “Most people think that [a law practice here] is going to be local, not global or national in perspective, but there is very sophisticated legal work coming out of the Twin Cities, “ Brandon points out. “And you get quality legal work even as a first- and second-year lawyer that you just would not get in New York for quite a few years.” The presence of corporate members drives home that the Twin Cities have a decidedly national legal practice. Students may not recognize a Twin Cities law firm, but they most certainly have heard of Minnesota-based corporations such as Target, 3M, and Best Buy.
Locally, Diversity in Practice’s Pathways program gives first-year law students of color an unprecedented chance to meet and talk with some of the group’s most senior-level attorneys in an informal, roundtable format. For the first time this year, Diversity in Practice is offering a unique opportunity for out-of-state, first-year law students to split a summer clerkship between a member law firm and the in-house law department of one of its corporate members.
Twin Cities Diversity in Practice Board of Directors
Advance and Retain
Recruiting is only one part of the equation, of course, and Diversity in Practice is equally attuned to the dual critical goals of retention and advancement. “Collaboration is great for recruitment,” says Seema Shah, “but we certainly know that we can’t stop there.” Todd Jones agrees: “Once people are here, we want to provide them with the guidance, networking, and mentoring so that they stay.”
To that end, the group has developed several programs aimed at promoting professional development for attorneys of color. “In order for some real change to happen in the most fundamental ways, we need some minority partners with the kind of clout that only comes with a book of business,” says Will Stute, a partner at Faegre & Benson. “Power comes in a lot of different flavors: sometimes it’s because your partners elected you to management, but there are also the folks with the large book of business to back up what they say.” The group promotes structured networking among its members so that senior associates and partners of color can begin developing the kinds of relationships that lead to future business. Diversity in Practice also hosts speakers and sponsors social events with local minority bar associations, and its corporate members share best practices with each other and with member law firms.
All of the involved parties agree that the corporate involvement in Diversity in Practice has brought tremendous advantages, beginning with an enhanced capacity to run things in a businesslike way. “Corporate folks are used to identifying a problem, coming up with a plan and with metrics, and then using those metrics to see if we’re succeeding,” says Siri Marshall. “We are very results-focused and, for this group, in terms of making an impact, it’s very, very important.”
The corporate approach to branding has helped the group craft a defined strategy for selling the Twin Cities to the national market. “Large, successful corporations like Target know how to project themselves and to tell the world who they are,” says John Satorius, chairman of the board at Fredrikson & Byron. “It struck us that we need to tell law students across the country about the Twin Cities legal community in the same way.” Participation from the very top of the corporate law departments also has lent instant weight and credibility to the fledgling group’s efforts, catching the attention of law firm partners who are not otherwise consistently focused on diversity. “If corporate members have made it a priority, their presence increases the importance and sense of urgency for the law firms,” General Mills’ Siri Marshall points out.
Corporate members also have seen benefits to the collaboration. “It’s been interesting to me to learn more about law firm culture, because I never worked in a law firm,” says Cargill’s Steve Euller. “Unlike the bigger companies, law firms are the ones that are most often attracting the lawyers into the Twin Cities. The lawyers in the firms tend to be very entrepreneurial and action-oriented, and when we are attracting talent, they are the people who tend to be the role models.” Corporations have solid reasons to participate in recruitment, since they -typically look to law firms when hiring their own legal teams, says Eric Rucker, a shareholder with Briggs and Morgan and its former hiring partner.
Diversity in Practice adds particular value to corporations that are signatories to the national Call to Action for diversity in the legal profession. According to Steve Euller, the group offers corporations a positive way to implement that commitment, in close partnership with the law firms it is intended to reach. “It is a great vehicle for a more serious execution of the Call to Action, but in a way that is collaborative rather than coercive,” he says.
By design, the broader Twin Cities legal community also receives a boost from Diversity in Practice’s efforts. Consistent with the vision of leveraged resources, Diversity in Practice works to complement and enhance the many diversity initiatives under way through the eight local minority bar associations, four Minnesota law schools, and other state and local bars. The group promotes MnLegalDiversity.org, a collaborative web site that showcases the Twin Cities legal market, and has a strong presence at the annual Minnesota Minority Recruitment Conference, which brings together the largest legal employers in the Twin Cities with law students from across the country.
|Law Firm Members|
Ameriprise Financial Inc.
Best Buy Co., Inc.
MoneyGram International, Inc.
Wells Fargo & Company
Bowman and Brooke LLP
Briggs and Morgan, P.A.
Dorsey & Whitney LLP
Faegre & Benson LLP
Fish & Richardson P.C., P.A.
Fredrikson & Byron, PA
Fulbright & Jaworski LLP
Gray Plant Mooty
Larson • King, LLP
Leonard, Street and Deinard
Lindquist & Vennum P.L.L.P.
Littler Mendelson, P.C.
Merchant & Gould, P.C.
Moss & Barnett
Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly LLP
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P.
Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A.
Zelle, Hofmann, Voelbel, Mason &
With just two years under its belt, it’s too early to gauge Diversity in Practice’s impact. When asked about the group’s general outlook, its members describe an organization with a mature perspective and a nuanced approach that belies its relative infancy—not surprising, given that none of the participants is new to this work. They are committed to tracking their numbers as indicators of whether they’re moving in the right direction, but they recognize that they must commit to the long haul, and more than one refers to the work as “a marathon,” rather than “a sprint.” “We have a disciplined plan, but moving the dial is going to be a big challenge, and we’re realistic about that,” says Seema Shah.
At the same time, the group knows that progress by the numbers is only one measure of success, and that follow-through and sustainability will bring their own rewards. A report published last fall by the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Diversity Task Force revealed that many Minnesota lawyers of color perceive that their firms could do more to recruit and retain diverse lawyers. A good-faith effort by a group like Diversity in Practice, undertaken energetically and with an eye on achieving meaningful results, might do much to answer those concerns.
Diversity in Practice’s combination of experience, resources, and good intentions seems to translate into a sense of determined optimism. “Everybody in this organization is motivated for all the right reasons,” says Richard Mark, a shareholder and former president of Briggs and -Morgan, the first law firm to host the group’s office. “There’s a lot of old history and failed attempts, and everybody is saying, ‘okay, we’re putting up a lot of money and a lot of effort, and now we’ve got to make it work.’” DB
MCCA thanks Seema Shah for all of her help in completing this article.
1. In August 2007, as this issue went to press, Ms. Shah assumed the position of Vice President, Diversity, at Ameriprise Financial (a Diversity in Practice member). Valerie Jensen, formerly Executive Director of Career Planning at Valparaiso University School of Law, has succeeded her as Executive Director of the alliance.
From the September/October 2007 issue of Diversity & The Bar®