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VOL. 124 | NO. 108 | Thursday, June 04, 2009

Baker Donelson Beefs Up Diversity Initiatives

By Rebekah Hearn

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The Memphis office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC recently began beefing up its diversity initiatives by adding a pipeline program to encourage minority undergraduate students to consider law school, offering help with law school admissions and other related issues along the way.

The firm has a Diversity Committee headed by shareholder Mark Baugh at the Nashville office, and Ben Adams, the firm’s chairman and CEO who works at the Memphis branch, sits on the Diversity and Women’s Initiative committees. Several other attorneys from the Memphis office are members of the firmwide Diversity Committee.

The pipeline program, called Bringing Back Diversity Boldly from our Colleges to our Businesses (BBDBCB), is in its pilot phase. The pipeline program will be launched at two schools this fall.

Adams said the pipeline program is particularly geared toward minorities.

Ben Adams

“Minority enrollment in law school has dipped,” Adams said. “It makes it hard for us to improve the minority statistics and participation for our lawyers if there are fewer minorities going to law school in the first place.

“It wasn’t a big pool to begin with, and the pool’s been dropping, so the whole idea behind this initiative is to make people more comfortable and more knowledgeable about going to law school, and encouraging them to do that.”

Adams said the plan is to “see what works and what doesn’t work,” and then the firm will expand the pipeline to include more universities and colleges.

The firm’s diversity efforts are being recognized. Baker Donelson was named in “Multicultural Lawyer’s” Top 100 Firms for Diversity and the Top 100 Firms for Women in 2008, and the firm recently learned it’s on both lists again this year.

Guiding light

The pipeline program is the newest initiative of the Baker Donelson diversity program. Marlene Bidelman-Dye at the firm’s Chattanooga location and Natalie Bolling in the Birmingham, Ala., office co-chair the pipeline program. Baugh chose both of them.

“The idea was to launch pilot programs in our respective cities, and to get and give feedback on how successful this program can be,” Bolling said. “It is our full intention to pull attorneys from all of our offices to assist in our effort to expand the College Outreach program.”

The program involves getting attorneys from various Baker Donelson offices to visit schools each year to hold question-and-answer sessions for students who have “even a scintilla of interest in going to law school,” said Bidelman-Dye.

“Of course, our target audience (is) minority students and women students to develop a stronger and better pipeline into law schools and then into firms.”

Bidelman-Dye and Bolling said the firm has partnered with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Miles College in Birmingham for the pilot year.

“The programs have really already been implemented at both schools,” Bolling said. “We held informal interest meetings at the schools earlier during the school year, but plan on kicking into full gear when the students return in the fall.”

Long reach

Rather than create individual committees at each location, Baugh said the diversity program “really (tries) to make sure that we’re coordinating our programs firmwide.”

The Diversity Committee works closely with the recruiting director of each office. The recruiting officer for summer and incoming associates at the Memphis office is David Bearman.

An example of firmwide participation is the mandatory inclusion training the firm began last year. It brought an outside consultant to Nashville to train 28 attorneys from various Baker Donelson offices, including Memphis. Those 28 attorneys then went back to their respective offices and trained more than 1,100 people. This training sometimes required attorneys to travel to other offices to train colleagues.

Mark Baugh

“It was designed by our consultant to be interactive rather than just someone standing up there and lecturing about inclusion,” Baugh said.

Baugh also said the attorneys who participated in the process, which he called “training the trainers,” received work credit for their time and efforts.

The inclusion training is designed for attorneys to “foster dialogue about our differences and learn how to work most effectively with people who are different from us,” Baugh wrote in the firm’s spring diversity newsletter.

Unique approach

Baugh cites the spread of training and diversity initiatives and the process of making mandatory the diversity inclusion training as two unique aspects of the firm’s diversity program.

“Some firms … break their committees down by offices; we try to not do that,” Baugh said. “We try to ensure our committee is doing what it can across the firm, so we don’t get a hodgepodge of activities and it’s not uneven. That’s not to say it works perfectly, but we try to make sure that it is even and consistent.”

The separation of the Diversity Committee and the Women’s Initiative is another aspect of the program that’s distinctive, Baugh said.

“We try not to group (those committees) together, because some of the issues for women are different from the issues for minorities,” he said. “For example, women make up 50 percent of law school students now, so the issue on recruiting and trying to encourage women to go to law school is not as strong an issue as trying to recruit minorities.”

Bidelman-Dye and Bolling said they want to track the success rate of the pipeline program to see how many participants attend law school – and how many others follow back up with Baker Donelson.

“It would be considered a great success to find out how many people we helped,” Bidelman-Dye said. “Plus, I can’t think of a better compliment than to have a student who we helped come back around to Baker Donelson and want to be an intern and/or an attorney.”

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