Partners from minority groups still lack ‘critical mass’ to boost diversity

Leading law firms in Latin America and the US have had some success in increasing diversity among their rank and file, but a lack of leadership from an overwhelmingly white, male partnership in most firms is still preventing many women and lawyers from different ethic and socio-economic backgrounds from reaching the top positions, according to delegates at a diversity and inclusion conference at the New York City Bar Association earlier this week.

Partners from minority groups still lack ‘critical mass’ to boost diversity Mari Carmen Aponte, US ambassador to El Salvador under the Obama administration, who delivered a keynote speech and said intolerance and discrimination will ultimately prove self-defeating

The half-day Diversity and Inclusion in the Latin American Legal Profession conference, which took place on Monday, drew more than 130 attendees from more than a dozen countries. The event was organised by in-house counsel from Philip Morris, GE, Honeywell, Walmart and Mondelēz, and supported by the Cyrus R Vance Center for International Justice and Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. It was also livestreamed to 12 countries across Latin America, coinciding with local forums in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.Drawing on data collected from more than 130 New York law firms over the past 10 years, Gabrielle Brown, Director of the New York City Bar Association Office of Diversity & Inclusion, provided some context to the scale and complexity of the problem. She explained that although law firms are becoming more diverse, these gains have tended to be concentrated among certain minority groups and at lower levels of seniority. Among those to see the biggest improvement over the past decade were female lawyers and male lawyers from ethnic minority backgrounds at associate and special counsel levels. However, the data also indicates other groups are still underrepresented in many firms; particularly lawyers that identify as LGBT, who only make up 3.4% of the headcount at the firms surveyed, and lawyers with a disability, which comprise just 0.54%. The results also show that although firms may be becoming more diverse at the lower levels, this is not filtering through to senior levels at most firms. Female partners, which have seen a steady increase in their number over the last decade, still only make up less than 20% of the partnership at New York City firms, Brown explains. However, of this total just 15% (or 3% of the total partnership of the firms surveyed) came from a non-white ethnic background. Broken down by ethnicity, the data reveals the almost complete lack of participation of female lawyers from certain ethnic backgrounds. Among the least represented are African-American and Hispanic women, who respectively occupy just 0.5% and 0.3% of all partnership positions. “A persistent challenge remains at the law firm leadership level, at the very top of the pyramid, [where] 75% of these partners are still white men,” notes Brown. “If we are just relying on representation at the top, the numbers don’t reflect enough critical mass to effect meaningful change.” Deeds not words While the numbers only apply to New York City law firms, in-house counsel and private practice lawyers say similar trends are also apparent in legal markets across Latin America. “Latin American [firms] are not there yet,” says Valeria Chapa, Vice President and General Counsel for Latin America at US conglomerate Honeywell. “They think they are, particularly those that are part of international networks, but it is still cultural and ingrained.” Giving the example of flexitime, which many firms across the region have introduced in a bid to retain female lawyers who are often forced to leave their firms due to family commitments, Chapa says that many of these policies often only pay “lip service” to greater diversity and many female lawyers continue to find themselves “set aside for the bigger deals and don’t have the opportunity to develop certain skills that you only get working on more complex deals.” For Chapa, substantive efforts toward encouraging greater diversity within Latin America’s leading firms can only come from the male-dominated partnerships that lead them. “If there is no alignment from management and the law firm partners, the majority of which are still men, I don’t think that change can really trickle down,” she says. “Firms need to have a strategy, not just a written plan, and they need to put their money where their mouth is. They are not doing that in my experience, at least not in a way that will really change the landscape of our legal profession in terms of having more women in leadership roles.” Several US firms have already woken up to the lack of diversity among their leadership and have taken steps to redress the imbalance. Kirkland & Ellis, for example, redesigned its evaluation system at associate, income partner and equity partner level to include a section requiring details of mentoring and steps taken to improve diversity. “If you have done a significant amount, then you get credit with your hours or a bonus, but it is kind of embarrassing if you have to provide your firm committee with a memo that has a blank section,” says partner Barack Echols, who also sits on advisory board of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. Similarly, Baker & McKenzie recently conducted an internal survey across its 77 offices that included specific questions related to diversity and inclusion. For partner Claudia Farkouh Prado, who is the first female partner to lead the Latin American practice, two results stood out from the data they gathered. The first was the number one reason respondents cited for leaving the firm: the lack of flexibility in the firm’s working practices. She says this finding has since helped inform a new agility programme recently launched across all its global network of offices. The second was a “huge aspiration gap” between men and women, reflected by 78% of men saying they wanted to become partner compared to 53% of women, which led the firm to conduct a follow-up survey of its female lawyers this year to find out why. “We are still gathering more information, but one of the findings that has come out already is not only the lack of flexibility, but also the lack of role models,” she says. Client privilege Companies play a crucial role in encouraging greater diversity within law firms across Latin America. Several leading domestic and multinational companies now include diversity requirements within contacts signed with external counsel handling matters on their behalf across the region. They request detailed information, ranging from the gender ratio of the firm’s partnership to details of its flexible working or maternity policies, to ensure their demands are being met. Philip Morris International, for example, includes some basic, mandatory guidelines in its contracts with outside counsel, but Luisa Menezes, Vice President and Associate General Counsel for Regulatory, Policy and Strategy, says the company wanted to go further and structured a voluntary programme for the firms it works with in Latin America and Canada. “We are trying to move the needle, really by trial and error, and find the right approach and the right balance with the firms we work with throughout Latin America and Canada,” she says. “It is a difficult topic and due to cultural differences in Latin America specifically, the topic is not very well-known, so we first had to raise awareness.”  A similar approach was also adopted by Walmart when it began operations in Chile. Entering one of of the region's most conservative legal markets with one of the lowest participation rates of female partners among leading firms, the company saw an opportunity to use its spending power to effect change within its partner firms. “Chile is very delayed in these sorts of matters, so when Walmart came to Chile, it was very important for Walmart to try to promote ideas, such as diversity and inclusion, flexitime and others,” says Carmen Román, Corporate General Counsel and Head of Corporate Affairs for Walmart Chile. “It is not just words, but it is one of our principles, so we take the time with law firms providing legal services to explain that we have outside counsel guidelines and this is part of our core business. We do this because we think we can have better [financial] results if we have these values.” Even within countries featuring law firms with more diverse partnerships, companies can still do more to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Gómez-Pinzón Zuleta Abogados partner Paula Samper says although Colombia’s business community has a good record of promoting gender balance (a recent study showed 40% of higher executive positions are occupied by women) many local business leaders “still don’t talk very much about these issues.” To illustrate her point, she says that over the last 25 years she has worked at the firm, only two companies have sent her letters requesting information about her firm’s diversity initiatives; both multinational companies from the US. “In Colombia, 50% of lawyers in the main firms are women…and at partner level we have 33%, which is not bad, but I don’t think law firms in Colombia are diverse,” she says. “Just to give you some numbers, 60% of all lawyers from these leading firms come from just three private, elite universities and we don’t have many lawyers from public universities. We certainly don’t have many lawyers from other races, or lower social economic backgrounds.”   For Felipe Paez, Chief Compliance counsel for GE Global Research and co-chair of the company’s diversity council, such country-specific and cultural factors mean there cannot be a one-size-fits-all policy to redress a diversity deficit within every context. “Diversity begins with a recognition that no individual has a single answer because there is no single perspective,” he argues. Rather, the challenge facing both in-house and private practice lawyers is ensuring that mechanisms are institutionalised within their organisations that both encourage and effectively promote diversity initiatives. Few people better represent the potential benefits having such a system brings for both the organisation and broader society than Puerto Rico-born Mari Carmen Aponte. Aponte overcame the triple discrimination of gender, race and socio-economic background to become ambassador to El Salvador under Barack Obama. Drawing on the lessons she learned during her rise from an ambitious law student to the highest echelons of the US political system – and that she shares with millions of Hispanic workers, both documented and undocumented, in the US today – is that intolerance and discrimination will ultimately prove self-defeating. “We know and we understand racism, we know and we understand rejection, but we also know and understand that responding negatively will only lead us into an endless cycle of getting even, but unfortunately, getting stuck,” she said during her keynote speech. “One way to move forward constructively is to learn and apply lessons of good will and understanding. How do we promote respect for differences? How do we promote empathy and understanding? We must seek to identify not what divides us, but what unites us.”

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