Skip to content
Forum Magazine

Diversity and inclusion in the legal profession

Sharon Sayles Belton  Vice president, Government Affairs and Community Relations, Thomson Reuters

Sharon Sayles Belton  Vice president, Government Affairs and Community Relations, Thomson Reuters

Strategic business imperatives, not philanthropy: A discussion with Joel Stern, CEO of NAMWOLF.

The National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) seeks to increase diversity in the legal profession through greater corporate retention of minority- and women-owned law firms.

Sharon Sayles Belton, vice president, Government Affairs and Community Relations for Thomson Reuters, recently discussed NAMWOLF’s work with CEO Joel Stern.

Sharon Sayles Belton: Joel, first of all, congratulations to NAMWOLF, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. NAMWOLF has grown tremendously and made significant progress to promote diversity inclusion in the legal profession.

What is the makeup of NAMWOLF? Who are the attorneys and the law firms that make up this organization?

Joel Stern: I’m proud to say that we are now up to 170 firms in 42 states, experienced in a myriad of practices, including labor and employment, trials, transactional, product liability, intellectual property, financial services, white collar defense and insurance defense work. When I first got involved with NAMWOLF, there were probably 20 firms and 10 corporate legal groups involved.

Firms are all AV-rated and go through a very onerous vetting process to ensure they meet the high-quality standards that Fortune 500 companies rightfully demand.

Sayles Belton: It sounds like NAMWOLF, in a way, is in the matchmaking business, and many of those “matches” are really paying off for NAMWOLF members as well as the corporations. What makes this organization a success?

Stern: First and foremost, NAMWOLF is the place to go for high quality and great value in legal services. Instead of using the approach of, “Use our firms because they’re minority- or women-owned,” we focus on what corporate legal groups require.

When I meet with GCs, senior leadership or the corporate diversity inclusion legal committee, I surprise them by talking not about how important it is for them to do more in the diversity space. Instead, I ask, “Do you want to get equal or better quality, better value and support your corporation’s supplier diversity initiative?” That’s a compelling and winning value proposition.

Once I talk with corporations, we have a 90 percent success rate in having them come to our meetings, use us to help find firms or actually engage one of our law firms.

Podcasts: Audio interviews with NAMWOLF CEO Joel Stern

How unconscious bias impacts diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Innovative partnerships NAMWOLF forms with Corporate America to boost diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

How NAMWOLF works with large law firms to boost diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

The complete interview.

Sayles Belton: That is really impressive.

NAMWOLF has an ambitious and challenging mission: to promote diversity in the legal profession by fostering successful relationships among preeminent minority- and women-owned law firms, and private and public entities. How is NAMWOLF forging these partnerships?

Stern: Our goal is to provide forums for in-house counsel and our firms to connect, build relationships and then be given the opportunity to compete for the business.

None of our firms want the business solely because they are minority- or women-owned. If you let these firms in the door, they will amaze you, but you’ve got to give them the opportunity. Once given the opportunity, they are fine with being judged on whatever quality and value metrics the legal group is using.

There are about 200 corporations in either the NAMWOLF Partner Program or our in-house network, using the channels we offer to find the best law firms in the specific areas they’re looking for.

A great example is Petco. They asked us to find a firm in every state where they do business for their premises liability work. NAMWOLF firms are now the go-to firms in those states for that work.

“If you let these firms in the door, they will amaze you, but you’ve got to give them the opportunity.”

With our Anonymous Solicitation program, if a legal group has an interest in ascertaining our firms’ capabilities, we reach out to our firms, and have them anonymously respond to whatever question the legal group has so the requester can determine what firms can do the work. Think of it as a mini-request for information to find NAMWOLF firms.

It really makes it easy for corporations to see how great our law firms are. Dozens of firms have been engaged as a result, and any corporate legal group can participate.

Sayles Belton: It’s really great to hear that NAMWOLF is achieving this level of success. But what initial pushback did you receive when you visited corporations 10 or 15 years ago?

Stern: People focused solely on the moral reasons to enhance diversity and inclusion. And while this was appealing to many, others thought the soft sell wasn’t sufficient to create the necessary change. Thirty-plus years after I entered the legal profession, it’s still dead last in hiring and retaining of minorities and women. That means we’re behind doctors and accountants, and that’s very embarrassing to me as someone who became a lawyer because I wanted to lead.

We now stress the business reasons for change in combination with the moral and ethical reasons. Diversity is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do and that resonates very well with the buyers of legal services. We have tons of metrics that show the quantifiable benefits of being more diverse.

Unfortunately, I still have to debunk myths about minority- and women-owned law firms including:

  • “I need a law firm that can handle my complex work. ” Well, many NAMWOLF lawyers came from Big Law. So why can’t they do the same level of complexity of work at their own law firm?
  • “I had a bad experience with a women-owned law firm, and that’s what happens when you use a women-owned law firm.” I ask them, “Have you ever had a less-than-satisfactory experience with Big Law?” Firms both big and small make mistakes but when a minority- or women-owned law firm for whatever reason doesn’t meet or exceed expectations, it tarnishes the image of all minority- or women-owned firms. That is patently unfair and discriminatory. Ironically, our firms are held to a higher standard than Big Law.

Sayles Belton: Joel, it’s wonderful to hear the progress that you’re making and the benefit that you’re providing to all of the members, and as well the fact that you’re spending some time thinking about what NAMWOLF can actually do to help address diversity in the practice of law in the big.

STERN: We feel very fortunate that we are part of the solution. One hundred seventy firms and hundreds of in-house counsel are all part of it. We have a very hardworking and passionate board and a great NAMWOLF team. It truly does take a village and our village is inclusive.

I think we’ve helped improve things, but there’s still a long way to go. The National Association for Law Placement report that came out this year shone a light on the inequities in Big Law and corporate law, and we have to change that.

Importantly, NAMWOLF is complementary to big firm diversity inclusion, and not in conflict with it. Being pro-NAMWOLF does not mean being anti-Big Law. We are advocating that corporations, Big Law, and minority- and women-owned law firms partner together to help solve the diversity inclusion crisis we have in our profession. This is the recipe for positive change.

We’ve got to treat this as a strategic imperative, and that is not philanthropy – that’s critical.

Become the change you wish to see in the world and it will happen. All of us in this profession have to take that to heart and promote action. It’s time to stop admiring the problem – and solve it!

Joel Stern Joel Stern has been actively associated with NAMWOLF since 2006, serving as a board member and chair of the In-House Advisory Council, prior to becoming CEO in 2014. He was previously global deputy general counsel and COO Legal at Accenture.


Sharon Sayles BeltonSharon Sayles Belton is vice president, Government Affairs and Community Relations for Thomson Reuters, and from 1994 to 2001, the mayor of Minneapolis, where she was the first woman and first African American to be elected mayor.

More answers