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Diversity, of course

Inside Counsel By Kimberly Leach Johnson

What’s most important, according to Quarles and Brady's Kimberly Leach Johnson, is that diversity is acculturated.

Diversity: good.

It’s not likely that anyone will disagree with that conclusion. In fact, most business concerns, including law firms, now ignore that accepted wisdom at their peril. Few organizations cannot wax eloquent on their commitment to diversity, and their sincerity is not to be doubted. Diversity is fairness personified. It’s smart business policy. It’s eventually inevitable in any multicultural society.

What’s most important, though, is that diversity is acculturated. In other words, I believe diversity isn’t really diversity until it’s more than the product of each of those reasons above. And less.

Like most law firms that date back more than a hundred years, Quarles & Brady was not always diverse, but looking back at the last three or four generations of firm leadership, inclusiveness — the forbearer of diversity — became a key value of the firm while the legal industry as a whole continued to be fairly traditional in its culture and social norms. It was in 1974 that now-chairman emeritus John W. Daniels Jr. joined the firm, later becoming its first African-American partner, but the internal culture that would allow him to eventually become one of a scant few African-American Am Law 200 chairmen was already in place. Similarly, I am now one of an equally scarce contingent of women to head a national law firm.

From an external perspective, this level of diversity and/or inclusiveness apparently appears progressive, organizationally enlightened, even cutting-edge. Internally, however, an age-old spirit of meritocracy that has led to the placement of women, people of color, and other diverse-identifying attorneys in positions of authority, across the entire Quarles network, is nothing terribly new or even noteworthy at all. In fact, when I was elected to the chairmanship by my executive committee, the only person who thought it would be a big deal to the press was our director of marketing — to the rest of us, it was simply a matter of succession and election, and we were frankly surprised at the attention.

It may be our relative size as a law firm that so comfortably and artlessly established this ethos. Especially large law firms have particular concerns and drivers and widely dispersed locations, not to mention pure size, which may make it more difficult to establish a uniform culture across all offices, while boutiques are generally characterized by their principals and their individual perspectives on cultural norms. In the middle, we are small enough to care a great deal about how we interrelate, yet large enough to pursue and implement the kinds of programs that advance modern business ideals. A further contributing factor may be that Quarles & Brady was founded in the Midwest, where lineage and social status generally matter less than a handshake and a good job well done, which continues to characterize the entire firm’s personality today.

To be sure, like many of our peers, we have pursued a host of programs over the years, designed to ensure that attorneys of all backgrounds receive all the support they need to succeed. We, too, actively recruit at law schools with diverse populations. We also join with clients to make diversity a priority, and demand similar attention from our own suppliers. But somewhere along the way, diversity became simply natural to us.

At the end of the day, like many of our fellow law firms, we find that we still aren’t “diverse enough.” The hunt for talent of every background continues apace, and we are vigorous in our ongoing efforts to create and maintain an even playing field for women and diverse lawyers. Our diversity programming is calculated to eliminate inequalities so that we can all be equally successful. But we do it because it’s in our firm’s DNA, and that has allowed us to move beyond “diversity, good” and to the point of “diversity, of course.”

Reprinted with permission, copyright 2013 Inside Counsel.

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