An inside look at how Big Law firm Perkins Coie built up a diverse attorney base, winning major clients like Microsoft and Intel

  • Law firms are taking greater steps toward improving their diversity, an industry-wide move that's bolstered by pressure and incentives from large corporate clients.
  • Perkins Coie recently raked in top awards for diversity from both Microsoft and Intel.
  • Business Insider spoke with Genhi Givings Bailey, the firm's chief diversity and inclusion officer, and Judy Jennison, partner and lead client relationship attorney for Microsoft, about how Perkins Coie has built up a diverse firm, from hiring and leadership opportunities to strategic partnerships with clients.
  • "In a word, it's intentionality. It's critically important that everyone in the firm across all levels be engaged and involved in the work," said Bailey.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Law firms, like much of corporate America, are under renewed pressure to increase diversity among their ranks. 

Just 20% of equity partners at large US law firms are women, and only 7.6% are people of color, found a 2019 report by the National Association for Law Placement.

Recent developments are signaling steps toward greater inclusion in an industry that's been largely dominated by white males. Hogan Lovells, for example, announced new diversity goals to increase the percentage of minority and LGBTQ+ partners, and Fenwick & West recently elected its most diverse class of partners, where over half are women.

Large corporate clients are taking notice of these efforts, and are more actively setting diversity standards for counsel they work with — and rewarding those that meet them.

In October, Perkins Coie, an Am Law 100 firm, was recognized as the top performing firm by Microsoft as part of its 2020 Law Firm Diversity Program. According to Microsoft, nearly 44% of Perkins Coie's partners are women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, or have disabilities, representing an approximately 10% growth from 34% five years ago.

Read more: 2 key steps law firms must take to boost diversity — and how being inclusive can help land major clients like Microsoft

The program incentivizes firms that increase their diversity among attorneys working on Microsoft matters, the firms' partners, and executive committees, rewarding them with a bonus of up to 2% of their annual fees by meeting these targets.

Perkins Coie also won top honors as Intel's most diverse outside legal team in September. The global software company also announced the Intel Rule, under which only law firms that have at least 21% female equity partners and 10% equity partners of underrepresented minorities will be eligible to work for Intel.

Business Insider spoke with two of Perkins Coie's members spearheading its inclusion initiatives on how it's built up a diverse firm, and the importance of effective partnerships with clients in doing so.

Perkins Coie's recognition as one of the most diverse law firms is a result of years-long intentionality toward new hires and leadership opportunities

Perkins Coie has cultivated a network of initiatives and programs — from recruitment and retention to promotions and business development — that support its broader strategy of fostering diversity and inclusion at the firm, explained Genhi Givings Bailey, its chief diversity and inclusion officer.

The firm, for instance, has looked into expanding its 1L diversity program, through which around 20 to 30 first-year law students a year are given a $15,000 fellowship and the opportunity to work with other summer associates.

And, among lateral hires in 2020, 75% were diverse, with 44% of them people of color.

Bailey said that ensuring that there are opportunities for leadership among minority attorneys is another key to diversity at the firm. 63% of newly promoted partners were diverse this year, and Perkins Coie's executive committee is 65% diverse: 11 out of the 17 members are women, people of color, have disabilities, or are LGBTQ+.

Read more: Female partners in Big Law make $332,000 less than male partners on average. But 1 change has been shown to increase women's salaries by more than 40% — and boost their happiness as well.

"There has to be input from a broad group of people to ensure that there is diversity of thought among key policymakers at the firm," said Bailey.

Even before this summer, when the murder of George Floyd sparked renewed calls for social justice, Perkins Coie had been having "bold," and sometimes difficult, conversations about race with the firm's leaders and wider diversity community of lawyers, said Bailey, who's been at the firm for two years.

"In a word, it's intentionality," she said. "It's critically important that everyone in the firm across all levels be engaged and involved in the work."

The firm hired its first full-time diversity professional in 2008, though its commitment to diversity extends back several years, said Bailey. Its first resource group dedicated to minorities at the firm, the Women's Forum, was created in 2007. 

The partnership with Microsoft is a key factor in ensuring equitable distribution of high-value legal work among diverse attorneys

But it's not just the headcount of diverse lawyers that matters, but also their utilization, stressed both Bailey and Judy Jennison, partner at Perkins Coie and its lead client relationship attorney for Microsoft.

When diverse lawyers are given the opportunity to take on more substantive, high-value legal work, like taking depositions and leading M&A projects, they're able to not only develop important legal skills, but also gain exposure that makes their "upward trajectory" toward advancement a little smoother, said Bailey.

Perkins Coie's partnership with Microsoft is one "absolutely important" way to do this. "Microsoft is very demanding when it comes to making sure they have diverse lawyers working for them," explained Jennison. "It's a great marriage between their work and giving our lawyers the opportunity to shine, develop, and grow."

Perkins Coie has what Jennison calls a "portfolio arrangement" partnership with Microsoft. The firm builds teams, called "pods," comprised of diverse attorneys that work with a particular workstream or set of clients within the company for a fixed fee. Though the size of the pods varies depending on the work, it averages around three to six lawyers, and most are 70 to 80% diverse, according to Jennison.

"They become an extension of the internal legal team, which allows them to get greater exposure and more knowledge than getting discrete assignments through a partner who's the interface between the firm and Microsoft," said Jennison of the benefits of this system. "They're getting direct client contact and a much better understanding of how their legal work translates to business execution."

Read more: The lawyer who sued Proskauer for $50 million over gender discrimination just launched her own firm. She lays out her vision for shaking up the legal industry by abolishing billable hour targets and hiring mainly women and minorities.

The firm also collects data about the work done through this portfolio arrangement, allowing them to run reports across pods on how much each individual attorney is getting strategic, complex work.

"The data allows us to be more thoughtful about assignments, and determine whether it's just happenstance that someone's getting less strategic work, or whether there's something systemic that we need to address," said Jennison.

A moment that struck Jennison as especially meaningful was when Microsoft, learning that a diverse senior associate was up for partner at Perkins Coie, put together a memo with endorsements in support of the lawyer. He would've made partner anyway, she said, but it showed her just how seriously they understood the then-associate's career trajectory.

"It's truly an interactive partnership, where we make sure that everybody is getting what they need on both sides," Jennison said. "It's a different way to practice law. And it is exceptionally rewarding for everybody involved."

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