Microsoft’s revamped Law Firm Diversity Program brings significant gains in diverse leadership

A year ago, Microsoft announced a significant change to our Law Firm Diversity Program (LFDP), which now focuses on increasing diversity among the partner and leadership ranks of the law firms in our premier provider network, and provides financial incentives to those firms who show improvement in these areas.  We are pleased to report significant progress by all our firms, and we especially want to recognize our top performers – K&L Gates, LLP; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LP; and Perkins Coie LP.

There is a clear need to address and improve diversity in the legal profession. While there has been incremental progress in the last few years, these gains have yet to be seen in a meaningful way at the leadership levels of most firms. In 2015, Just 7 percent of equity partners at U.S. law firms were minorities, and women comprised less than 22 percent of law firm partners.  We believe that the legal profession should be as diverse as the nation it serves, and that should be true of the leaders in the profession as well.

To address the lack of diversity at the firm leadership level, we realized that we needed to work together with our law firms. So, this past year, we revamped the LFDP to focus on this challenge. While it is just the first year, we are encouraged by the results achieved by all our firms. There was, for example, significant improvement in the diverse representation in management committees, increasing from 31.2 percent to 34.4 percent, and a 1 percent improvement in partner composition from 33.2 percent to 34.5 percent diverse.

I want to particularly recognize the work of K&L Gates, Orrick and Perkins Coie. These firms increased diversity across all three of the areas in which we have focused on diverse leadership – the partnership overall, Microsoft relationship partners and on Microsoft matters.

Each of these firms already had strong commitments to diversity and a range of initiatives in place. But each firm shared with us that the newly refocused LFDP provided a real push to expand and refine their efforts. For example, Mark Parris, Orrick partner, shared that in “looking at Microsoft’s new targets, we paid a special focus to the composition of client teams. We reviewed our progress monthly and when opportunities arose to introduce diverse partners to our existing teams and matters, we did so.”

At Perkins Coie, the LFDP’s new focus on leadership is already yielding positive returns. “The new litigation focus on having the first or second chair be diverse is helping to develop and empower the next generation of first chair lawyers and relationship managers,” said Susan Foster, partner at Perkins Coie.  “It’s giving significant responsibility to a new group of junior partners who might not have the opportunity otherwise, and is highlighting their capabilities and skills to Microsoft for future work.”

It was clear to us that diversity initiatives have a higher chance of succeeding if they are visibly supported by lawyers at the highest levels of the firm. Annette Becker, Practice Leader – Corporate and Transactional at K&L Gates shared a great story with us that illustrates how this “tone at the top” makes an impact, and how diverse leaders especially can serve as role models. In the past two years, K&L Gates has more than doubled the number of women on the firm’s management committee. Recently, a diverse partner in one of their largest offices was named managing partner of that office and elected to the firm’s management committee – while she was on maternity leave. “This sends a powerful message to other firm lawyers who question whether their personal and professional goals conflict,” said Becker. “It helps lawyers at all levels to see that we invest in each other here, and we build careers here. That always makes for a stronger firm.”

We’ve seen that diversity has also made us stronger as a company. Since the start of the LFDP, the Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA) team has grown more diverse, as have our law firms. And that has been instrumental in helping us advance key aspects of our work, from litigation to global product launches to patent licensing.

This year’s leading firms report they, too, see the business case for diversity. Mark Parris from Orrick remarked, “By all measures, our firm has grown stronger since we have enhanced the diversity of our board and our leadership more generally.  We have improved the rankings of our practices, attracted extraordinary new talent to our firm, innovated and generated positive financial returns so we can reinvest.”

It takes effort, awareness and commitment to focus and improve diverse leadership. K&L Gates shared that its biggest lesson learned this year was to really challenge itself to do better on this front every day.  Microsoft agrees, and we will continue working with our firms and as a department towards a more diverse legal profession.

Congratulations to our top-achieving firms for really leaning into this important work. We’re looking forward to continuing this year’s momentum and sharing the insights we gain along the way.

About the Author

Corporate Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, Litigation, Competition Law and Compliance