What All Championship Teams Know About Winning in the 21st Century

“Just as in sports, the business team with the best talent, that is the best trained and the most motivated, usually wins the championship.”  This is how I started my presentation on Diversity and Inclusion at Conner & Winters’ annual partners’ retreat in September, 2013.  Conner & Winters is one of Oklahoma’s oldest and most prestigious law firms, with over 100 lawyers and offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Houston, Northwest Arkansas, and Washington, D.C.  I was joined in this presentation by Conner & Winters’ retiring partner and Diversity Committee Chair Anne Sublett, Esq. and Kevinn Matthews, Esq., attorney at WPX Energy.

In my legal diversity consulting work, I share hard facts, such as:

  1. According to the American Bar Association, the legal field is the least diverse profession in the United
  2. Diversity improves the product for a client, enriches the work environment and enhances the overall image and morale of our country; and
  3. With the rapid diversification of our nation, it is of the utmost importance that there be adequate diversity and representation within the legal profession because it is lawyers and the law that serve on the frontlines of justice and equality in this nation.  Without sufficiently diverse legal practitioners, the prospects for justice, equality and opportunity for all citizens diminishes.

But in my presentations, I also use  sports analogies to help explain that,  for premier regional firms like Conner & Winters, developing an aggressive and comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy is not just “the right thing to do,” more importantly it is “the must thing to do” to effectively compete in the 21st century global business world.   Major market shifts are currently taking place: for example, by 2043 Caucasian-Americans will comprise  less than 50%of the population, and law school applications are hitting a 30-year-low, causing law school administrators to have to begin to aggressively recruit more law students  from  the African-American, Latino, and Asian communities.

Further, firms like Conner & Winters must plan how they are going to capture and retain talented and promising young lawyers of color as more legal industry leaders like Rick Palmar (General Counsel of General Mills) and Brad Smith (General Counsel of Microsoft) place greater emphasis on diversifying the profession both within their respective corporations and in powerful organizations like the Leadership Counsel on Legal Diversity.

In speaking to the Conner & Winters partners, I also made it clear that simply stating “we can’t find any qualified candidates” is just not a reasonable statement in 2013 when many qualified young lawyers of color are graduating from law schools.  In fact, I submitted to the Conner & Winters’ partners, that if Boise State University located in Boise, Idaho can convince Black and Latino players from the South to come and play football in Idaho for free, surely law firms offering six figure salaries and opportunities for improved social status can convince diverse candidates to join their ranks.

To further illustrate the “business case” for diversity,  Kevinn Matthews made the point that fortune 500 corporate legal departments,  that spend on average 11 million dollars a year in outside counsel legal fees, are “becoming increasingly more aggressive in finding and retaining firms (all things being equal) that have diverse lawyers working on their files.” Kevinn related a recent example in which, a female Assistant General Counsel, instructed him to find a “top-notch firm that has an African-American woman” who could be part of the team to work on a particular legal issue.

Anne Sublett, Diversity chair at Conner & Winters, suggested to the partners that some of the difficulty the firm has faced in recruiting lawyers of color may be because of the overwhelming “WASP appearance of the firm to minority candidates.”  Conner & Winters currently has only one African-American partner who is based out of Dallas.  I advised the partners that Conner & Winters might benefit from reevaluating its recruiting efforts and focus – for example, attending more minority job fairs and recruiting at schools with higher diversity enrollment — in order to hire qualified lawyers of color.  Anne added that the firm would likely also benefit by increasing its support of legal pipeline programs, such as the Pipeline + Program that I direct and which Conner & Winters has supported in the past.

Throughout the presentation, I stressed that all the literature on diversity and inclusion states that, without the most senior management mandating and enforcing clearly articulated, understood and measurable goals and objectives, there will not be any transformative success in diversifying an organization.  This is a major, but not insurmountable, hurdle for large law firms that, unlike corporations, are usually managed by a multi-member executive committee that makes decisions by consensus.

In closing, I feel that the presentation was well-received by those in attendance and I am convinced that every single partner at Conner & Winters wants exactly what every interested stakeholder does — for their team to “win.”  That is why I am optimistic that Conner & Winters will take the necessary steps to create a more diverse and inclusive firm capable of “winning championships” for years to come.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, Esq., M.Ed., a former football player at University of Oklahoma, is Of Counsel  at Oklahoma’s premier full-service law firm Riggs Abney  where he focuses his practice on Employment, Diversity, Government, Sports, and Personal Injury Law.  He can be contacted at dsimmons@riggsabney.com.