Microsoft’s Model Program Makes Business Case for Diversity in Legal Profession and Tech Industry One Law Firm at a Time

by Tiffany Bain and Maurita Coley on June 18, 2012

Boosting employment diversity seems like a difficult feat for our nation’s rapidly growing technology industry and noble law profession. With minorities representing 35 percent of the country’s population, at 12.7 percent, the representation of minority attorneys and African American and Latino tech industry workers is more than 23 percentage points below that of the total population.

But over the past four years, one tech industry leader’s legal department has led an effort to turn the numbers around by creating a business case for diversity in the legal profession and encouraging others to follow suit.

Under the leadership of Microsoft Executive Vice President and Legal and Corporate Affairs General Counsel Brad Smith, in 2008, the multibillion-dollar company initiated the Law Firm Diversity Program.  The LFDP is a financial incentive program that gives its partner law firms the choice to earn bonus legal fees by recruiting a diverse attorney workforce, having a diverse legal team dedicate more work hours to Microsoft’s matters, or having its firm’s representation match Microsoft’s internally diverse LCA department.

“Since the program’s launch in 2008, we have seen a measurable increase in the aggregate percentage of hours worked on Microsoft matters by diverse attorneys in participating firms.  This indicates we are bringing diverse perspectives to our legal work, and this is a good sign,” Smith said.  “This investment reflects the importance our legal department places on bringing diverse perspectives to our matters and to the profession.”

Since LFDP’s launch in 2008, more than 15 law firms have reaped the benefits, including Davis Wright Tremaine, which participated in Microsoft’s new associates and senior attorney mentoring program prior to the founding of the LFDP, and Beveridge and Diamond.

Benjamin F. Wilson, a partner at Beveridge and Diamond and president of the Washington DC Diverse Partners Network lauded Smith for championing diversity in the legal profession.

“Brad Smith and his Microsoft team have demonstrated a commitment not only to diversity and inclusion in Corporate America and law firms, but they are leading the dialogue on critical pipeline issues related to the under-representation of African American and Latino lawyers in colleges and law schools,” Wilson said.   Similarly, Karen Russell, Counsel and Director of Diversity Initiatives for Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine, one of Microsoft’s “premium preferred provider” law firms, praises Smith and Microsoft for their leadership in diversity.  “Having a local, incredibly valued client tell us we need to be more diverse, and that they are willing to help us get there, not only makes my job a lot easier, but it helps the firm’s leadership to prioritize diversity as a business necessity,” said Russell.

Diversity:  A Business Necessity

According to an infographic released by Social Cast, the inclusion of “a heterogeneous but cohesive blend of different genders, ages and ethnic groups” in a company “provides multiple perspectives, allowing for better problem solving and more creativity.”  Smith and Microsoft’s LCA department are closely aligned with Social Cast’s claim and focus on achieving that belief in its LFDP.

“Diversity is a business necessity for our legal department,” Smith said.   “As a multi-national company, we understand that to compete effectively in today’s dynamic business environment, we need to engage the broadest range of experience and perspectives for our legal and business matters.”

Although Microsoft and its LCA department have pledged a commitment to increase diversity, the legal field and the tech industry have a long way to go.   According to a 2011 NALP report (The Association for Legal Career Professionals), of nearly 53,000 U.S. law firms, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders represented less than 20 percent of the associates, and out of almost 57,000 law firms, minorities were less than 7 percent of the partners.

Additionally, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s 2011 Minorities & High Tech Employment report indicated that between 2006 and 2008, African Americans represented 7 percent of the tech computer and mathematical workforce, Hispanic Americans represented 5 percent, and Asian Americans represented 16 percent, while whites represented 70 percent of the entire workforce.

“In the long term, we want to see an increase in diverse representation across all of our firms,” Smith said.  “We also hope more companies will consider adopting similar partnerships with their key law firms.”

Similar Economic Incentive Programs in Tech Industry

Although many well-known companies in various industries such as the retail, food and beverage, and energy industries have created incentive programs for their partners to participate, to date, Microsoft is the only company known in the tech industry to have a monetary incentive program to encourage diversity.

“There isn’t a one size fits all solution or program, but every organization can ensure diversity is a part of how it does business.  Our company is on a journey in this regard.  We learn, improve, and then learn some more,” Smith said.

Other tech firms who have had allegations brought against them for being biased against minorities and other underrepresented groups should take a page from Microsoft’s playbook.  In an increasingly diverse workforce in other professions, the tech industry’s low employment statistics on diversity stand out.  Industry financing practices such as “pattern matching” should be examined to ensure that they do not deprive the marketplace of the inventions and contributions that diverse entrepreneurs offer but that rarely connect with funding.

  • Tiffany K. Bain is a 2011 public relations graduate of Florida A&M University. She currently serves as the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s Research Associate. She got her start in the industry in 2007 as an Emma L. Bowen Foundation intern at the nation’s leading cable provider.

  • Maurita ColeyMaurita Coley, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of MMTC, is the former Executive Director of Capital Area Asset Builders and a former Partner at the Davis Wright Tremaine Law and Cole Raywid & Braverman law firms. She earned her law degree from Georgetown Law where she was a recipient of the 2011 Paul R. Dean Award, and she holds a BA in Communications from Michigan State University. Coley served on the BET executive management team in the 1990’s.

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