Why Global Law Firms Should Care about Diversity: Five Lessons from the American Experience
David B. Wilkins
Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession
W.G. Hart 2001 Legal Workshop
Globalization has finally hit the legal services market. Not surprisingly, lawyers in Britain, Europe, Asia, and other commercial centers who seek to take advantage of this trend frequently pattern their efforts on American law firms. Lawyers from around the world, however, should pause before uncritically accepting the self-interested claims of US lawyers about the competitive and professional virtues of American-style legal practice in a global marketplace. To be sure, the fast paced, entrepreneurial, and business oriented style of lawyering pioneered by US law firms is at the heart of global legal practice. What is less easy to see - but no less true - is that the "Cravath System" which most American firms employ also contains structural and ideological features that will make it difficult for firms embracing this system to meet the challenges of globalization.
To see these limitations, the world's aspiring global legal elite would do well to look carefully at the record of US law firms on what might at first seem like an unrelated issue: the attempt by women and minority lawyers in the US to integrate elite law firms. Globalization and diversity are almost never expressly linked beyond the trite (albeit true) observation by diversity advocates in the United States that the majority of the world's population is neither white nor male. This truism, and the corresponding claim that "diversity is good for business," however, obscures as much as it reveals about the important connection between these two concurrent trends. Whether or not the world's undeniable demographic diversity will be good for the business of global law firms depends upon whether these institutions learn how to compete in a global arena in which many of the conditions that spawned the American model of legal practice have been fundamentally transformed. Specifically, in order to be successful, global law firms must confront five interrelated challenges: growth, cultural conflict, institutional innovation, fluid career paths, and the transformation of professional ideals. In this paper I will argue that efforts to diversify American law firms cast important light on each of these important issues. A careful review of this history, I submit, yields important lessons about the limitations of nineteenth century Cravathism as a blueprint for twenty first century global law firms.
Date posted: June 13, 2001
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