Large law firms have made progress on diversity issues in recent years, but they need to do more.

That’s the conclusion reached in a recent study by the Minority Corporate Council Association (MCCA), a group dedicated to expanding the hiring, promotion and retention of minority attorneys in law firms and corporate legal departments.

The study found that white lawyers still enjoy a significant advantage when it comes to professional development, landing plum assignments and receiving satisfactory coaching and feedback. It also found a persistent sentiment among white male attorneys that their minority colleagues are less qualified. recently met with Kristi K. Walters, director of professional development and diversity at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte, to talk about diversity issues at her firm and in the legal professions. Parker Poe last year won the Charlotte Chamber’s first Belk Innovation in Diversity Award.

What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

Q. How did you end up in charge of diversity at Parker Poe?

In 2005 I had begun to read a number of different articles about the legal profession’s focus on issues related to diversity. It became a hot topic. At that point I had been a lawyer in our employment practice group for about six or seven years and had a fairly close relationship with Bill Farthing, our managing partner, because he was the senior-most parter in the employment practice group.

When I started seeing these articles I decided to schedule a meeting with Bill in the summer of 2005. He and I sat down and I said, ‘Has the firm ever considered having someone in a role with central oversight related to issues of diversity?’ Interestingly enough, Bill had also come across similar articles and had read about these types of positions in larger law firms in much larger markets like New York and Chicago and D.C.

He basically told me to go and do some additional research. So through the fall he and I looked at what this role might look like, what it looked like in other firms, what would be best for Parker Poe and essentially drafted a job description and a proposal that went to our board and was unanimously approved.

It really grew out of a realization that the legal profession as a whole needs to be doing a better job on issues related to diversity. Therefore, Parker Poe needed to be doing a better job as well.

What measurable progress has Parker Poe made since your position was created?

One way, I guess, to measure the progress is through numbers. When my position was created in December of 2005, since then we’ve more than tripled the number of minority lawyers. We went from three or four to 16 minority lawyers now out of about 220. We’ve also made significant strides in the number of women lawyers. Today there are more female associates than male associates at Parker Poe.

How many of those women or minorities are partners?

We have about 100 partners – 18 women partners and four minorities.

Are there other measures you’re proud of?

I’m proud of the enthusiasm that we have centered around the programs we’ve put in place. One program that I’m particularly proud of is a program we do for minority law students every winter. We host two of these programs now, one in our Columbia office and one in our Raleigh Office.

The goal is to really just be a service to these students, to talk about what life is like as a lawyer, to talk about the distinction between a litigation practice and a transactional practice. We provide the students with mock interviews where they sit down one-on-one with one of our lawyers and they conduct and interview just as if they were interviewing for a job, and the lawyer spends about 10 minutes giving them feedback on their interviewing skills.

We do small group sessions on things like networking skills and how to be a good summer clerk and how to be a successful new associate and how to survive law school.

How do you find the students?

We host the programs in Columbia and Raleigh because those two cities where we have offices are the most centrally located to some law schools. In Columbia we draw from the University of South Carolina, the Charleston School of Law and Charlotte School of Law. In our Raleigh office, that program typically is a little bit larger simply because there are so many law schools close to Raleigh, with UNC and Duke and Central and Campbell and Elon. This winter, across the two programs, we had about 60 law students attend.

Are you looking for prospects or is it truly altruism?

It is truly altruism. However, I would say that if a great prospect arises out of it, that’s wonderful, too. I do believe that as many contacts as we can have with these students early on in their law school careers the more likely we are to be a place that they might look to practice.

How difficult is it to sell Charlotte to young, minority lawyers?

I’m heavily involved in a program of the Mecklenburg County bar called the Charlotte Legal Diversity Clerkship Program. It’s really an incredible partnership of some of the largest law firms in the city and six of the largest corporations here.

The same sorts of issues I’ve been talking about led this group to come together. The goal of that program is really to sell Charlotte. It brings first-year law students to Charlotte for the summer. They spend six weeks at one of the law firms clerking and then six weeks clerking in-house in one of the legal departments.

We think we’re one of the only bars in the country that has this type of program. There certainly are programs like it, but no one where a student gets an opportunity to be both in a law firm and in-house.

Charlotte just isn’t as well known as Atlanta or DC or other places on the East Coast where these students may look to begin their careers. We’ve been very successful in that program in bringing a really strong group of law students to Charlotte. It ranges between six to nine law students per summer. This is the fourth year of the program.

Why is diversity important to Parker Poe?

I am a firm believer that when you get a group of people from different backgrounds, different genders, different races, whatever it my be — and I define diversity pretty broadly — that when you’re looking at problems and looking for solutions to tough, thorny problems, that you arrive at better solutions and you make better decisions if you have a diverse group of people coming at that issue. As lawyers, we’re in the business of solving problems for clients. Besides the fact that it’s just the right thing to do.

Does Parker Poe have goals in terms of minority recruitment?

We don’t have any stated numbers or quotas, and I like to steer clear of those sorts of things. I’m not so sure I could sit here and say if we get to X number, then I’ll know we’ve made it. I do think, though, that my goal is for this to be a place where everyone feels comfortable, where I don’’t have to listen as much to people who have concerns.

We certainly look at the numbers and track them, but there’s some subjectivity, I think, in all of it. I hope I get to the point where I can say ‘OK, we’ve really arrived, we’re there and we don’t have any more work to do,’ but I don’t know exactly what’s going to make me feel that way.

You said one of your goals is to have a law firm where everyone feels comfortable. Tell me more about that.

This is not just Parker Poe but in general in large law firms, I think that it’s sometimes harder for women and minority lawyers to fell connected with the firm because it’s more difficult for them to find mentors with whom they connect and people who are power players in a firm they can connect with.

One of the things I strive to do with our women and minority lawyers is help connect them with people. It may not be another minority lawyer or a female lawyer. It may be a white, male lawyer who’s in a position of power. I think those mentoring relationship that might happen more naturally for Caucasian males in a law firm setting, you have to be more intentional about it if you are a woman or a minority.

How do others in the firm view you and your efforts?

I hope they perceive them in a positive light, and that’s the sense that I get. I am stopped a lot by partners in the parking garage, particularly after we won this Chamber award.

I do think that one of the reasons that my position has been successful, or I have been successful in it, is the fact that I actually practiced at Parker Poe as a lawyer for six or seven years and had already established a level of credibility here with partners and had an understanding of inner workings of the firm.

I think it would be much harder to create a brand new position like this that centers on issues that are potentially controversial if you didn’t have a lawyer in it and a lawyer who had already practiced in the firm.

What keeps you up at night?

I guess related to diversity at Parker Poe, just wanting this to truly be a place where all people feel included, and really trying to focus on issues related to retention.

I think we have made great strides, as you can tell by the numbers in the past three years, related to recruiting women and minority lawyers. I think the firm’s great challenge going forward is to make sure that we are a place where all those great lawyers we have recruited want to stay.

That keeps me awake. Is there something in this environment that would cause someone to want to leave, and how do we create an environment where people truly feel like they are connected and they can excel and that this is where they can carry out their legal careers?

How much (diversity) work do you do with partners or associates who aren’t women or minorities?

Part of my work in dealing with majorities is helping them understand why this is important. If there are things that are unintended bias, then I may get involved.

That can’t be a very popular job at times.

You’re right on some level. Our constant challenge is letting people know why this is important.

I think the large law firms, and my law firm, have worked really hard at this issue, but we are not there yet. That’s why I think it is important to have someone in a role like mine who consistently is watching and looking and thinking and creating programs and initiatives that help firms become more inclusive.

I wouldn’t say that any behavior in this day and age is intentional, but I think that there are unintentional biases in the legal profession every day, and if you don’t have someone there who is watching and looking then we’re going to go about our business practicing law and it’s never going to change.

I do a whole lot of listening with our women and minority lawyers here and then serve as a liaison for them to the leadership of the law firm. I think we still have a ways to go, and I think the profession as a whole has a ways to go.

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