Law Firms Tackle Diversity Promotions

Denver-based firms adopt Mansfield Rule to consider more diverse candidates

Clockwise from top left: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck Women’s Leadership Initiative co-chair Nicole Ament, COO Steven Spiess, director of professional development Karen Kleiman and WLI co-chair Ali Metzl. / TONY FLESOR, LAW WEEK

The legal profession is taking a page out of the NFL’s playbook with the implementation of the Mansfield Rule.

Now after its initial six-month check-in, the Mansfield Rule sets a guideline for law firms to build candidate pools for high-level positions with women and minority attorneys making up 30 percent of the group. The rule came out of the 2016 Diversity Lab Hackathon, which set out to solve systemic issues in the profession. While the rule isn’t an overhaul to diversity guidelines already in place at many large firms, its concrete guidance gives those practices more teeth and helps communicate those goals throughout a firm.

Denver-based law firms Holland & Hart and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck are among the 44 law firms leading the way among other national firms such as Hogan Lovells and Dentons. Several firms in the pilot for the Mansfield Rule operate in Denver, such as Faegre Baker Daniels, Holland & Knight and WilmerHale.

The rule drew inspiration from the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” named after former Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney. In the world of football, the rule required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach vacancies. After instituting the rule in 2003, the number of minority coaches in the NFL doubled, and reports showed that minority candidates were 20 percent more likely to fill an NFL head coach position during the Rooney Rule era than before it. 

The concept made the transition from the NFL to the legal profession with Art Rooney II, himself president of the Steelers and named partner of Buchanon Ingersoll & Rooney, bridging the two worlds. Buchanon Ingersoll is among the Mansfield Rule pilot firms as well.

Legal leaders hope the Mansfield Rule has similar results. In the legal profession, women make up 19 percent of equity partner positions and nonwhite attorneys make up 9 percent. Many attorneys agree that the legal profession is trying many things to improve those numbers, but not many efforts have been successful in creating significant change. 

Liz Sharrer, chair of Holland & Hart, said she believes the Mansfield Rule can make a dent in both of those numbers.

“I feel like this is one of the most critical problems we’re trying to solve as a profession. There have been so many efforts for so long and the needle hasn’t moved a lot,” Sharrer said. “[The Mansfield Rule] is a way within law firms who have the best of intentions to put some teeth behind these intentions and make it a little more top of mind than it has been.” 

She said the accountability that comes with tracking and reporting numbers to be one of the key components that might make the Mansfield Rule successful where some other initiatives are not.

Holland & Hart is seeing the Mansfield Rule as an opportunity to formalize its goals that currently exist in other diversity initiatives at the firm. 

The firm has been involved in the Colorado Pledge to Diversity since the pledge’s creation in 2000, and according to recent numbers, women make up 28 percent of the firm’s equity partners and 40 percent of management and compensation committee members. 

The firm is implementing Mansfield Rule guidance in its long-term diversity and inclusion plan. 

And in formalizing it in its diversity and inclusion plan, the firm is expanding its focus beyond the Mansfield guidance to include all protected groups — not just women and minorities — and is applying the 30 percent consideration to all of its new hires, client teams, pitch teams and succession plans. 

“[The Mansfield Rule] is a consideration requirement — we do want everyone thinking about diversity when putting together these teams,” Leslie Boyle, co-leader of the firm’s Women’s Forum, said.

At Denver’s other Mansfield firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the Mansfield Rule was a matter of good timing. Ali Metzl, co-chair of the firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, said the firm was already looking at “moving the needle” for diversity and inclusion when the Mansfield Rule was implemented in June 2017. The rule forced the firm to put concrete systems in place for improving its numbers, and also for how the firm identified a leadership role. The Mansfield Rule’s 30 percent guidance applies to leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions and lateral positions. Brownstein COO Steven Spiess said the firm wanted to make a distinction between job titles created for “marketing purposes” such as promoting an attorney’s expertise, versus leadership roles that carried weight in the firm. While the firm is working on straightening out its roles internally, they said “Mansfield 2.0” will fine-tune those components as well. 

And in implementing the rule, the guidelines forced the firm to be more methodical in retraining the way they were thinking about hiring and promoting attorneys.

“A lot of people already know the Rooney Rule,” Spiess said. “People are coming to the diversity committee with it already in mind.”

The rule gives a way to communicate that guideline and think more intentionally about considering candidates with diverse backgrounds. 

That carries over to how the firm communicates with its head hunters as well as the way the diversity committee itself approaches things — currently the firm is without a committee to address diversity in the broad sense, and the Women’s Leadership Initiative is taking on Mansfield Rule implementation. 

The firm’s diversity leaders also said they think the firm is of an age and size where it can pursue positive changes that it wants to see in itself. And they think the Mansfield Rule might help other firms do the same. There are many diversity initiatives out there, but they haven’t made big impacts. 

“It’s not for lack of effort. What I’ve seen over the last decade is there is a lot of effort, but there are always acceptable excuses,” Nicole Ament, co-chair of the firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative said. “Things that have occurred over the last couple of years are trying to eradicate the excuses.” 

The Mansfield Rule’s check-ins and concrete guidance provide accountability and pressure for law firms to track their efforts.

The Mansfield Rule is moving toward refinements for its next iteration. The rule will be updated to provide guidance for LGBTQ attorneys as well, which is not included in the current structure. 

—Tony Flesor

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