Like many law firms in Los Angeles and throughout the state, downtown’s Nixon Peabody has struggled to build a diverse staff.

About 34 percent of the 50 lawyers at Nixon’s downtown office are people of color, while women make up 18 percent of the 21 L.A. partners, according to the firm.

One challenge facing firms seeking to diversify their ranks is the paucity of minority attorneys in California. Nearly 80 percent of lawyers in the Golden State were white in 2011, the most recent period for which data are available. Four percent were Latino and less than 3 percent were African-American, according to the California Bar Association.

Last year, Nixon hired former practicing attorney Rekha Chiruvolu as manager of diversity and inclusion to focus full time on addressing implicit biases in the ranks and improving the hiring, retention, and promotion of female and minority lawyers.

“We do pretty well at bringing people through the door,” said Chiruvolu, who is of Indian descent. “Where I think all firms struggle is the professional development and retention of attorneys.”

California law firms have enacted a wave of diversity initiatives in recent years but Chiruvolu’s position is unusual.

At Latham & Watkins, the firm has two committees focused on the success of minorities and women in addition to dedicated recruiting, retention, and promotion initiatives. At Covington & Burling, in addition to a women’s forum and diversity commission, the firm operates an informal mentoring program meant to help new attorneys navigate challenges.

At many firms, though, diversity efforts are often shouldered by attorneys with full caseloads, which means less time to dedicate to the cause, said Nixon’s Chiruvolu.

Change from within

Chiruvolu doesn’t have that issue.

She said firmwide diversity increased over the past year but the L.A. office won’t have updated statistics until the end of January. Prior to her arrival, the office didn’t track demographics statistics.

The goal is to ensure these attorneys can flourish by nipping challenges in the bud, said Chiruvolu. This means watching for signs of struggle, such as sagging billable hours, and then promptly addressing them with mentors and a comprehensive support system.

Nixon has also implemented a recruiting initiative modeled after the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires pro teams interview minority applicants for high-level positions. This means that for each open lateral associate position at the firm, 20 percent of candidates interviewed must qualify as diversity hires.

This focus on diversifying the ranks could have a positive impact on the bottom line. A global study released this year by market researcher Acritas found legal teams that were “diverse” received 25 percent more of a client’s business than those that were not.

Firms with more female and minority lawyers also led to more satisfied clients, who are more likely to refer those lawyers to a friend, according to Acritas.

“Diversity actually translates into companies having more revenue,” said Jill Gordon, a partner at Nixon.

Slow road ahead

Achieving that diversity is especially difficult with female minority lawyers. About 85 percent of them quit large firms within the first seven years of their career, according to the ABA Journal.

Although many more female partners are in the legal profession today than when Gordon started practicing 20 years ago, lawyers in general have an entrenched sense of risk aversion and are concerned about alienating the old guard of clients, she said.

“Change is hard for our industry,” said Gordon. “We think of ourselves as being fair and not biased.”

Diversity initiatives must have support from upper management if they are to be effective, said Amber Finch, a partner at downtown’s Reed Finch and president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles.

“That’s the difference between making it work and making it just a website page,” said Finch.

The association works to provide aspiring attorneys with law school scholarships and then the mentoring needed to survive school and adjust to a job setting. In these predominantly white settings, black lawyers often grapple with self-doubt and a constant need to prove themselves, said Finch.

“I’ve always been one of a small number,” she said. “My prior firm, I was the only African-American lawyer there in the entire time I was there.”

Although diversity liaisons and committees can be a good first step to change, Nixon’s Chiruvolu said it’s her direct access to firm leadership and company data that helps get results.

“There’s no hiding the ball here,” she said. “If I see something, then I’ll say something.”

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