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SF Bar Charges Hard Toward More Diversity in Law Firms Nationwide

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

  • Anna Oberthur
  • Daily Journal
S.F. Bar Charges Hard Toward More Diversity in Law Firms Nationwide By Anna Oberthur
Daily Journal Staff Writer

The majority of California's top 50 law firms have signed on to the Bar Association of San Francisco's ambitious minority hiring goals for 2010, encouraging bar leaders who say the unique program to promote diversity has helped the local legal community gain a national reputation as a diversity trailblazer.
While some law firms are noticeably absent from the list, the bar association stressed that no firm has declined to participate and that the door is still open for more sign-ups.
"We're getting more signatories as the days go by," Joan Haratani, BASF president and a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said Tuesday at a bar association news conference to promote the program.
BASF leaders say their program, which sets specific hiring goals and timetables, is the only one of its kind in the country.
For example, while the Los Angeles County Bar Association encourages firms to pledge support for diversity, it hasn't set specific quotas for minority hiring. Only a handful of firms have made the pledge, according to that bar's Web site.
BASF's targets are certain to be a challenge for some, if not all, law firms. The goals for 2010 are for 15 percent of firm partners to be minorities and 37 percent of associates, including 9 percent black and 9 percent Hispanic associates.
In the bar's 2005 diversity report, it found that while firms did well hiring Asian American attorneys, they lagged when it came to hiring black and Hispanic associates.
Overall in 2005, San Francisco large law firms counted 27 percent of its associates as minorities and 8 percent of its partners.
So far, 90 employers have signed onto the 2010 goals - most are law firms, but some are corporate legal departments and government agencies. Many participants have been involved in the program since BASF began setting the targets in 1989.
BASF diversity task force member Bill Lann Lee, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, said the bar set "stretch goals" on purpose.
"The goals are benchmarks to give firms a way to gauge progress," Lee said. "San Francisco is a hard town. When a law firm meets its goals, they are immediately raised."
BASF stressed the positive but acknowledged that some law firms were missing from the diversity initiative.
Some of the 50 biggest law firms in the state who haven't made the pledge don't have an office in San Francisco or do not have a very large presence in the city.
But others do, such as Los Angeles-based Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, which has 69 attorneys in its San Francisco office; Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has 45; and Silicon Valley giant Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which has 41 in the city.
Courtney Chiang Dorman, a spokeswoman for 600-attorney Wilson Sonsini - which has one of the state's highest partners of color figures for a large law firm - said the firm intended to sign the goals "shortly."
"Frankly, people have been extremely busy," Dorman said. "As you know, the firm has a long-time commitment to diversity and is consistently ranked among the country's leaders - a recognition of which we are extremely proud."
The partner in charge of Gibson Dunn's San Francisco office said diversity is a priority "from the top down," but that the firm "did not feel like we could sign the pledge at this time."
"We are confident that we will have the same success with minorities that we have had with women associates and partners,' Fred Brown said. "In fact, the percentage of minorities in our incoming 1st year class increased from 8 percent in 2005 to 12 percent for 2006."
A representative for Lewis Brisbois could not be reached for comment.
Another challenge for BASF is to draw participation from national firms based in other parts of the country.
As more and more out-of-town firms have entered the San Francisco market, "they're seeing that to be a part of the legal community you embrace the bar and the bar's goals and timetables," said BASF president-elect Nanci Clarence of Clarence & Dyer.
BASF leaders hope bars throughout the nation will follow their lead. The Boston bar, having gotten wind of the program, has met with BASF officers to learn more about it.
"We're hoping other bars take on goals," Haratani said. "Whatever works in their community."
San Francisco's Morrison & Foerster, the state's biggest firm in 2005, has signed onto the goals, which Chairman Keith Wetmore describe as "both ambitious and sensible."
"I don't fault the bar for setting a high standard," he said.

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