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VOL. 121 | NO. 249 | Thursday, December 28, 2006

'Diversity' Becomes Word of the Day at Local Law Firms

By Amy O. Williams

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Vangela Wade

Attorney Vangela Wade is the picture of diversity: She is a 44-year-old cancer survivor who just completed her first marathon.

She has her hands full just between her husband, three children and her position as senior counsel at the Memphis-based law firm of Lewis Fisher Henderson Claxton & Mulroy LLP.

"(I have) just so many things going on that you would never look at me and say, 'She ran a marathon,' or 'She is a survivor of cancer' or any of the other dimensions of my own diversity," said Wade, who works out of the firm's Jackson, Miss., office.

In her position at Lewis Fisher, Wade heads the firm's diversity management services department. She advises clients on ways to meet and embrace diversity standards.

In November, Wade led a seminar called "Diversity Over Breakfast," which was hosted by the firm and is part of a current trend in the legal profession that addresses the importance of diversity in the workplace.

Gathering steam

The Memphis Bar Association's Diversity Task Force held its Diversity Summit in December at the Pink Palace museum. The event included speakers such as Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, a longtime civil rights leader who talked about "The Inspiration for Diversity."

Also, in November, International Paper honored local law firm Adams and Reese LLP with its annual "Lighthouse Award" for diversity efforts. The firm was selected for fostering diversity in the legal profession, according to a statement released by the firm.

To Wade, having a diverse workplace is especially important in the legal profession because it is the best way to ensure the best representation for clients and for continued business growth and success.  

"For many years, the legal profession, like some others, has been primarily represented by white males. To best serve those parallel interests, the law firms must demographically be reflective of the client and the client's marketplace stakeholders."
- Vangela Wade
Senior counsel at Lewis Fisher Henderson Claxton & Mulroy LLP

"For many years, the legal profession, like some others, has been primarily represented by white males," Wade said. "To best serve those parallel interests, the law firms must demographically be reflective of the client and the client's marketplace stakeholders."

It is not enough to know the law, Wade said, but lawyers also must be able to communicate and form relationships across the cultural differences in their clients.

Also, with increasingly diverse juries and judges, lawyers and their staffs need to be diverse and "culturally competent," she said.

But first, Merriam-Webster ...

Wade defines diversity as differences characterized by multiple dimensions. And she encourages individuals, organizations and businesses to define the term before they begin to discuss it.

Human diversity, Wade said, includes racial classification, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, physical ability, culture, language, geographical origin, sexual orientation, education and more. 

"Essentially, diversity enhances an organization's ability to compete in today's changing marketplace and can mean development of new opportunities that increase the bottom line," she said. "Simply, diversity makes good business sense."

At Lewis Fisher, Wade helps clients develop strategies that businesses and organizations can implement to maintain diversity. That strategic approach means looking at the organization's need for diversity, how it will bring value to the organization in meeting its goals and mission, and determining whether the organization's human resources system can support diversity in its current or existing form.

"A lot of time I think people or organizations look at diversity as just a standalone program," she said.

Temporary fixes don't work

Organizations try to have training or mission statements that address diversity, she said. Some even try to have holiday-type celebrations that Wade said are not integrated into the culture of their organizations.

Often, these organizations do not see their diversity of people as adding value.

"That is why I think many diversity programs fail or are not received well by people within the organization, because they don't see the value," she said. "It is just a new fix for the day."

Wade has led more than 100 seminars on diversity, such as the one held in Memphis in November. She said the firm is planning another local seminar some time in the first quarter of 2007.

But for Wade, her diversity won't stop with attorney, marathon runner, cancer survivor, mother and wife. She plans to add mountain climber to that list in 2007.

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