Can Procurement Save the Least Diverse Profession in the United States?

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Shira Scheindlin is appalled that women’s roles in New York City courtrooms are still, after all these years, miniscule.

According to her account in the New York Times, Scheindlin has endured decades on the federal bench in New York, listening to male lawyers argue cases as lead counsel while their female counterparts often sat silently at the table.

The biggest outcry, of course, has been about the gender pay gap in the legal profession. For example, three former female partners “have brought a $100 million lawsuit accusing the now-merged firm Chadbourne & Parke of gender pay disparity,” according to another Times story, which the firm is contesting.

But the bigger issue for law firms these days seems to be even more basic, and twofold: getting diverse talent in the door, and, once there, allowing that talent to have its own voice.

For the latter, Scheindlin proves that even once you’re in, it’s difficult to rise above the entrenched status quo. She helped write a report on this. After conducting “the first-ever observational study of women speaking in court,” the New York State Bar Association’s commercial and federal litigation section found that only 25% of lead lawyers in commercial and criminal cases in courtrooms across New York were women.

Granted, that’s but one (yet quite litigious) state. According to more recent statistics, U.S. law firms overall could be doing a much better job sourcing that all types of diverse top talent.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 88% of lawyers are white, according to a 2015 Washington Post piece. A more recent Post report notes that Asian-Americans comprise 10% of graduates at the nation’s top law schools but have the lowest ratio of partners to associates in the private sector. Black lawyers represent less than 2% of law firm partners, and women make up less than 35% of law firm lawyers, according to the Times.

How to change that?

Client Pressure to Adopt Supplier Diversity Programs

The biggest change agent could be the as yet unspoken (rather than contractual) pressure from legal firms’ corporate clients, who are pushing their legal partners to go further into supplier diversity efforts.

These corporations (e.g., HP, Facebook and Oracle), many of which have instituted their own supplier diversity programs, increasingly want their suppliers and partners to do the same, according to Lee Garbowitz, managing director of Procurement Managed Solutions for HBR Consulting. This helps the partners align strategically, with the ultimate goal of improving brand image and reputation on both sides.

“Shearman & Sterling, for example, has great line of sight in terms of diverse supplier spend, coupled with a policy and programs that encourages use of those diverse suppliers,” said Garbowitz. “In my view, that’s what all firms should be doing.”

But most firms are in the very early stages of maturity when it comes to supplier diversity programs. Only about 10% have made it to that level, according to Garbowitz.

“Most firms are in what I would call Stage 1 when it comes to supplier diversity,” he said, “where they have [only] a supplier diversity policy. But most haven’t taken it to the next level where they have a way of actually measuring the percent spend they have with diverse suppliers” — not to mention a Stage 3, which includes the commitment to setting goals for how much spend the firms is looking to place with diverse suppliers.

Ultimately, of every dollar spent at a law firm, roughly 20%–25% is with third-party suppliers, according to Garbowitz, so that still remains somewhat of a secondary concern.

The primary concern their clients have is employment diversity.

How are Law Firms Sourcing Talent?

To court the best — and most diverse — talent, firms are continuing to start upstream. The biggest talent pool is law schools themselves.

A lot of the talent sourcing is focused around the outreach to law schools that firms are engaged in. They start planting the seeds early, inviting students in to learn more about their firms and be part of that community. Of course, having established internship programs that lead to formal paid positions over time helps too.

According to Garbowitz, law firms have exceled at attracting talent proactively. “The goal is for diverse talent to consider their firm, as opposed to anybody else,” he said.

One of Many Concerns for Budding Legal Procurement Teams 

Of course, many law firms don’t have formal procurement functions yet — to the tune of 50%–60% of them across the country’s top 100 firms — which translates to spend goals and measurement being secondary to, say, honing a next-level services procurement approach.

“You’re never going to have a law firm sitting at ‘the billion-dollar roundtable,’ because their spend is much more de minimis,” said Garbowitz.

But once they turn the corner, law firms’ procurement functions will ideally play a central role in attracting and retaining diverse talent and diverse third-party suppliers, especially if the function’s engagement with corporate stakeholders is able to prove the value of organizational diversity and broader CSR efforts.

“As a whole, diversity has become more and more of a consideration in terms of the placement of goods and services within the legal sector than it was five years ago,” Garbowitz said.

Let’s hope for observers like Shira Scheindlin that tangible change is on the horizon.

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First Voice

  1. Jaideep Sen:

    Relevant and important discussion with useful and actionable insights. Thanks All!

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