Law firms are making their ranks more representative of their clients by recruiting a more diverse pool of lawyers.

Advocating Inclusion

When five Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter attorneys traveled to Washington, D.C. in January, the trip acknowledged a reality the local legal world has been trying to address in earnest for 15 years.

The quintet made the nearly 400-mile trip from Ohio's capital to the nation's capital to gauge interest among minority law school students in the D.C. area about working in Columbus. The reception Kegler held for them was sparsely attended, but it wasn't discouraging.

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"We had limited success with numbers, but it was just the first year," says Dave McCarty, Kegler director, who made the trip and who oversees Kegler's diversity efforts.

Reaching beyond state borders to urge prospective minority candidates to join their ranks is a new step central Ohio law firms are taking to keep their diversity pipelines full.

A systemic effort to create more diverse and inclusive offices has been on law firms' agendas since the turn of the century, but success has been a mixed bag, according to the data and people who focus on this issue. They say that while strides have definitely been made, cultural hurdles persist in a profession ruled by male Caucasians.

"It remains a difficult topic to address because there is a lot of change attached to it. It's not a kumbaya thing; it directly affects ROI," says Stephen Francis, president of the nonprofit Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, a clearinghouse for organizations and companies interested in learning best diversity and inclusion practices.

The consortium was created in 2006 and in short turn organizers realized their services were in demand, says Francis, a lawyer and manager of corporate affairs at Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.

"It caught on like wildfire with organizations, because everybody experiences these issues," he says.

Similarly, the Columbus Bar Association created the Managing Partners Diversity Initiative in 2000 along with managing partners of 22 law firms, Capital University Law School, Ohio State University Moritz School of Law and the John Langston Mercer Bar Association, which is comprised primarily of African-American attorneys. Launched as an effort to diversify local firms-calling it a "business and cultural imperative. "The program has earned kudos from several local, regional and national groups over the years.

The 2014 annual report of the initiative shows that of the nearly 1,300 attorneys among participating firms, 7.5 percent, or 97 were attorneys of color. African-Americans, the largest of the minority groups, comprise 3.4 percent of the 97. Ten years ago-a benchmark year for the Initiative-there were more attorneys overall, 1,423, and 109 minority attorneys, representing 7.7 percent of the total.

What's the best recipe?

"You keep talking, you keep talking, you keep talking," is what Bricker & Eckler attorney Marie-Joëlle Khouzam says is necessary for a diversity strategy to succeed.

Creating a diverse environment in a law firm is not an exact science, she says, and one size doesn't fit all. Smaller firms, for instance, have fewer dollars to spend on the topic than larger ones, or a few bad comments from an attorney of color might poison the well to attract additional candidates.

"For many years, when we talked about diversity it was just about the idea of hiring people of diverse backgrounds-race diversity rather than other areas of diversity like gender or sexual diversity. But a lot of that has led to looking at diversity in so many different ways…I think today you must look at inclusion," says Bob Tannous, managing partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur's Columbus office.

All the talking, he says, must be followed up with action, which for Tannous means ensuring lawyers are integrated into every facet of the firm and given meaningful work. Furthermore, leadership must provide more than lip service because clients today expect something other than a casual nod to diversity.

Law firms have abandoned what one person called the "potted plant" syndrome, which meant minority attorneys were brought along to client meetings merely for show versus substantial contributions. Indeed, the nation's largest businesses like Wal-Mart are demanding outside counsel employ a robust diversity program.

"Our evolving client base and the global economy affect our practices. Adapting to changes is essential and beneficial. A diverse workforce gives voice to more perspectives, which results in a more comprehensive and insightful work product for the client," says Khouzam, Bricker & Eckler's diversity committee chairwoman.

Jarrod Skinner, a prosecuting attorney for the city of Columbus, says he has viewed the diversity dilemma from the bleacher seats-watching friends become partners in law firms and others leave because they couldn't assimilate into the culture. Skinner is past president and a current board member of the Langston Mercer Bar Association.

Law firms look first at the top candidates out of law school, but because of a discrepancy between Caucasian and minority law school graduates, it makes it harder for the latter group to get a good look.

"We are inherently at a tougher point getting to the (top) five percent," Skinner says.

Filling the pipeline

Diversity depends on having a deep enough pool of prospective employees from which to hire. Most of the firms in the diversity initiative offer some type of scholarship or summer associate program to law school students of color or from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The CBA's Minority Clerk Program has been operating since 1987 and places students of color in summer internships with area law firms. Complementing those efforts are programs such as the Ohio Law & Leadership Institute designed to expose urban high school students to the legal field.

At Porter Wright, the firm participates in a work-study program through Cristo Rey Columbus High School where students, often from a low-income family, work at the firm weekly to help pay for their education and view a slice of life that otherwise may be invisible.

"If they aren't aware of opportunities, they aren't really likely to consider (law) as a career," Tannous says.

Lately, the CBA is looking at retention of minority lawyers. Because there are fewer numbers of attorneys of color from which private firms can select, it means bigger holes in diversifying their offices when one leaves.

"We are focusing a lot on recruiting and retention, looking into those pipeline issues, because of the demographic changes," says Jill Snitcher McQuain, the association's executive director. "If you're really good, you're gonna get sucked up by a big law firm on the West Coast."

The diversity initiative's 2014 report showed that 52 percent of diverse employees leave their private law firm after the first two years, and 21 percent leave after four years. That's a lot of departures from a pool of just 38 minority associates initiative partner firms reported.

The 2013 attrition rate reached 15.6 percent, and several attorneys say companies that also are looking to diversify their ranks are hiring minorities as in-house counsel. McQuain says it is prompting enough interest to start discussions about including corporate legal departments in the bar's next report to truly gauge legal industry diversity.

Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer.