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New math for the legal profession

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The underrepresentation of minority and women lawyers has traditionally been a major challenge facing the legal profession. Yet, a small but increasing number of law firms are taking the lead in making diversity imperative in business. A 2003 study by the National Association for Law Placement Research (NALP) reveals that women and minority attorneys account for just 4.04 percent and 16.81 percent of partners, respectively, in the nation's major law firms. The figures, published in the "NALP Directory of Legal Employers," suggest that women and minorities are still underrepresented among the leadership ranks of U.S. law firms. However, the data demonstrates an ongoing trend of growth from figures compiled in previous years. A decade ago, for example, NALP found that only 2.55 percent of partners were attorneys of color and 12.27 percent were women. The direction of the industry becomes even more encouraging when we consider the number of women at the associate and senior/staff attorney level, which climbed to 43.02 percent last year. Minorities at the same level increased to 14.63 percent. Further, the demographics of recent law school graduates are approximately 5 percentage points higher, indicating that an increasingly diverse population will enter the profession from the ground level. As more minorities graduate from top law schools and advance toward senior-level positions, the balance of leadership will continue to change. The growing potential for minorities to scale the highest ranks of the profession is not just the accident of a growing interest in law school and legal careers. A small group of law firms have made efforts to develop proactive hiring, retention, promotion and compensation policies that widen the opportunities for underrepresented individuals to build successful careers in the law. Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe LLP is one such firm that has committed itself to promoting diversity in its work force and leadership ranks. For the past several years, the firm's policy committee has identified diversity as a key strategic objective, and the firm utilizes an ethnic diversity task force to review all aspects of hiring, retention and promotion. These efforts signal a new awareness that building a balanced attorney population is as much a model of business as a hallmark of culture. As George Brown, co-chair of Heller Ehrman's ethnic diversity task force, explained: "We believe that diversity enhances the quality of service we provide to clients and makes Heller Ehrman a rich and rewarding place to work." Heller Ehrman has also taken great strides toward inspiring and supporting the diversity of its future leaders. The firm recently established an innovative diversity fellowship for law students who show promise of contributing meaningfully to the diversity of the firm and to the legal community as a whole. Heller Ehrman presents four awards annually, each consisting of a scholarship and summer clerkship. In addition to ethnic diversity, Heller Ehrman also focuses on the advancement of women among its ranks. The firm recently established a Women's Initiative that addresses issues affecting professional women (coping, business development, parenting, career advancement, mentoring, etc.). Recognizing its commitment to women in the workplace, the firm was profiled in 2002 as a "Company to Watch" in Working Mother magazine's 100 Best Companies for Working Women issue. The magazine highlighted Heller Ehrman's part-time policy, its firmwide training program for managers, and its innovative parental leave policy for both biological and adoptive mothers and fathers. In creating spaces of opportunity for women, Heller Ehrman has cultivated some of the most skilled and highly recognized attorneys in the field. In the past year alone, women at Heller Ehrman garnered top honors, including such awards as the "Top 50 Female Super Lawyers," "Best Lawyers in America, "Top 50 Women Litigators" and "Women Lawyers of Achievement." Heller Ehrman's dedication to recruiting and developing talented professionals from a broad range of backgrounds is still unique in the legal industry. In 2002, Diversity & The Bar profiled Heller Ehrman as one of three law firms with exceptional diversity programs, having "invested in what it takes to attract and retain minority and women lawyers and associates." And in 2003, Minority Law Journal ranked Heller Ehrman the 13th most diverse firm in the country. Although diversity has not yet become a strategic imperative for all law firms, there is a growing appreciation in the industry for those firms that do make the commitment. In 2003, Heller Ehrman was ranked in the American Lawyer's "A-List" of the top 20 U.S. law firms. Unlike older law firm rankings, the "A-List" is based on a new formula that accounts not just for the standard metrics of revenue and associate satisfaction, but also for more progressive qualities like pro bono commitment and diversity. The resulting list is what the American Lawyer has deemed "The New Elite" -- a roster drawn from a new understanding of what it takes to be a great firm in the 21st century. Although imbalances still affect the profession, the demographics are shifting. Traditional partnership ranks are giving way to a New Elite -- a new generation of leaders from rich and varied backgrounds, unhindered by the conventional metrics of opportunity. And it is this next generation of law firms that will continue to rewrite the old equation -- making diversity an indelible part of the business and culture of law.

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