Partnering for Progress

June 12, 2020

McGuireWoods and Bank of America teamed up for a groundbreaking Feb. 25, 2020, event to elevate the issue of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. “Partnering for Progress in Diversity & Inclusion” drew more than 200 attorneys from law firms, corporations and government to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

McGuireWoods Chairman Jonathan Harmon led a wide-ranging discussion with distinguished lawyers on the challenges and opportunities facing companies and law firms and their shared need to make meaningful progress building and nurturing diverse and inclusive teams.

Joining Harmon were panelists Amy B. Littman, Bank of America’s deputy general counsel and managing director; Robert J. Grey Jr., president of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity; Mark W. Johnson, executive vice president and chief legal and governance officer of Kimball International; and Wade J. Henderson, former president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Here are four key takeaways shared by the panelists.

Measure progress and demand results: Littman said Bank of America does “a tremendous amount of data inspection” to measure its outside law firms’ progress on diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not enough to just show up, bill an hour and get your head counted,” she explained. “We look at the percentage of time being spent by diverse attorneys — females, people of color — on our matters and we break it out. We also differentiate between partners and junior lawyers . . . so that you can’t obscure the data by throwing your first-year class on to Bank of America cases.”

Diversity and inclusion weigh heavily in the company’s rigorous evaluation process for outside law firms, Littman said. “We want to know what you achieved that year, what you plan to achieve and, most importantly, we ask you what we can do to work with you and help the effort.”

Johnson, a former McGuireWoods litigator, said in-house legal departments have “a great deal of leverage” to drive change. “If we want to advance diversity and inclusion within this profession, we’re the ones who have to demand that from the people who are providing the services,” he said. “That’s why I really appreciate the process, the program that Bank of America has.”

Carrots are more effective than sticks: While companies must hold their law firms accountable for achieving diversity benchmarks, panelists said incentives can be more effective than penalties. Grey described how a company created incentives for in-house counsel to make sure outside firms hit diversity targets and created incentives for the firms to achieve the goals. “We’ve got more to gain by putting each other in a ‘win-win’ situation than otherwise,” Grey said.

Littman noted that Bank of America launched a program in one of its business units to pair mentors with junior lawyers at law firms to develop a diverse talent pipeline for that unit’s matters. Law firms have an incentive to put forward mentees from diverse backgrounds to compete for that business. Bank of America will be invested in the futures of those young lawyers, she said.

Collaboration is key: Companies and law firms have a shared interest in diversity and inclusion and should work together to accelerate progress, panelists agreed. “The test is what are we doing — what am I doing to help you advance your goals, and what are you doing to help me make my goals a reality? And until we get on the same page about the collaborative effort that’s necessary to make this work, then we will always be passing ships in the night,” Grey said.

Henderson said there is a “moral imperative” to advance diversity and inclusion and a business case predicated on having a broader set of inputs around major decisions that affect the company, “including your ability to extend outreach to markets that you don’t deal with currently, but would like to bring into your orbit. Diversity is a big part of that.”

Inclusion is as important as diversity: A diverse workforce is only effective if women and lawyers of color have opportunities to succeed. Social isolation can be a barrier, panelists said. Littman said the benefits of diversity can’t be realized “if people have to check themselves at the door, or they are socially isolated.”

Johnson said Kimball’s executive leadership “has been very candid about the fact that we need to place more emphasis on this.” Acknowledging deficiencies is “the first step in making those changes,” he said.  

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