Applying the Rooney Rule

Taking a page from the National Football League's head coach-hiring playbook is how one law firm increased the diversity in its labor and employment associate-attorney ranks from 34 percent to an impressive 58 percent in just one year.

Monday, August 21, 2017
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What can a national law firm learn from the National Football League about diversity hiring?

More than you might think, as it turns out.

According to Laura Maechtlen, national co-chair of Seyfarth Shaw's diversity and inclusion action team, the firm began tackling its diversity challenge five years ago by searching inside -- and outside -- the legal field for improved strategies for hiring more women, people of color, people who identify as LGBT and people with disabilities.

"The statistics for diverse attorneys -- and the profession as a whole -- are not really where we as a firm would like to see them," says Maechtlen, who also is national vice chair of the Seyfarth's labor and employment department in San Francisco.

To address the challenge, the firm launched a pilot in 2016 that adapted the NFL's "Rooney Rule." In 2003, the league launched the rule to improve diversity in the coaching ranks by requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions or face significant fines.

At Seyfarth, the approach, which they call the "Rooney Presumption," requires offices to hire from a pool that includes diverse candidates unless there are extenuating requirements, such as specific expertise or rehiring a former associate. As a result, 44 percent of Seyfarth's associate attorneys today qualify as diverse, due to the pilot's impact. In January, the firm launched the associate hiring strategy across all its offices and departments.

The firm has been committed to diversity for many years, Maechtlen says, but it wasn't until the diversity and inclusion action team built a detailed process map that the solution became apparent: They needed to build rigorous diversity requirements into the sourcing process.

"We spent a long time with our process in trying to figure out the best way to make it the most efficient," she says. "We were worried about people pushing back and saying, 'We think this is standing in the way of us hiring the best talent or hiring as fast as we need to hire.' "

The resulting best practices protocol requires the recruiting team to publicize positions to diversity-focused job boards, affinity bar associations, diversity groups at law schools, historically black colleges, minority-attorney associations and others.

"Our sourcing really has improved significantly, which means that we are getting more diverse applicants in the hiring process in the beginning," she adds.

Marjorie Soto, who joined the firm's Los Angeles Century City office as an associate attorney in 2016, is one of the people who connected with Seyfarth Shaw through its outreach strategies. A first-generation Mexican-American and the first in her family to go to college, Soto originally connected with Seyfarth when she met one of the firm's African-American attorneys at an Los Angeles County Bar Association event when she was at UCLA Law School. He became her mentor and told her about Seyfarth's summer fellowship program, in which she could learn more about labor and employment -- her area of interest. After clerking for Seyfarth in her third year of law school, she graduated, passed the state bar and got a job at the firm.

"I'm very passionate about this mission of diversity in different environments, whether it would be in the education, corporate or business environments," says Soto, who worked as a multicultural recruiter for different colleges, including Cornell, to interest African-American and Latino students in college education before she went to law school.

"What's been wonderful about Seyfarth," she adds, "is that I can continue that mission and work on initiatives that enhance diversity and inclusion."

The strategy adds rigor to the hiring process and meshes well with the firm's cultural values, says Maechtlen. "We want to have a diverse team to be innovative and to get the best solutions for our clients. We are also hearing from our clients that it's important to them. This can be a differentiator for us."

Soto adds that a focus on retaining diverse candidates is also very important. "Once you bring people in, you want to create an atmosphere that is inclusive and that supports people's interests, whether they are from a diverse background or not," she says. "Seyfarth's advantage is that diversity is not just a buzzword -- it is deeply embedded in the fabric of the firm."

What advice does Maechtlen have for law firms and corporations looking to improve their diversity?

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"A lot of the power of what we did through this initiative was actually looking back at our process and tearing it apart to figure out [if we are] doing best-in-practice sourcing," she says. "We wanted to push forward this concept of Rooney almost five years ago, and when we presented it to our firm's executive committee, we thought they were going to think we were nuts and they were not going to want to do this."

Instead, the team got the go-ahead and began using process improvement techniques to find out what other industries or even their clients were doing to build a better hiring practice. "There's a lot you can learn," she says. "We don't have to look and act like a law firm all the time. We can actually take best practices from corporations rather than firms."

How is the firm assessing the effectiveness of the new diversity strategies?

"Success is measured by seeing increased diversity in our pools of candidates as a result of best-in-practice sourcing by our recruiting professionals," says Maechtlen. "We also measure success by our organizational learning: Are we constantly learning and improving our process? We would also measure success by the number of external partnerships we create around this initiative, to share lessons learned and best practices with others, so we impact the legal profession as a whole."

The next step for Seyfarth is to help develop new approaches for improving diversity in the leadership selection process. The firm is one of 39 participating in Diversity Lab's "Mansfield Rule" initiative, which also was inspired by the Rooney Rule and is named for Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to the practice of law in the United States. Diversity Lab creates and experiments with ways to close the gender gap and boost diversity in law firms and legal departments. Seyfarth participated in the organization's 2016 "Women in Law Hackathon" while it was piloting its own Rooney Rule initiative.

The Mansfield Rule, which was developed in the 2016 hackathon, "measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered women and attorneys of color -- at least 30 percent of the candidate pool -- for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions and lateral positions," according to Diversity Lab. Firms that meet the requirement will be designated "Mansfield Certified."

"We are still in the midst of piloting some ideas around it," Maechtlen says. "Part of our pilot is in the measuring phase. [We are also] looking at past ways in which we've had women and diverse attorneys ascend to leadership roles as well as picking apart our process. We are excited about the possible process improvements that we can have as part of that. It's almost kind of a Mansfield/Rooney 2.0 discussion. I think it has a lot of power to reveal some interesting insights."

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