When Wal-Mart’s top lawyer, Tom Mars, started demanding more diversity in the company’s legal department and from its outside law firms, Jeff Gearhart was not entirely on board.
“I was probably one of those people that was a skeptic of it,” the general counsel and VP of the retailer's corporate division admitted Friday at the ABA “Talking About Race” panel. “I remember raising my hand and saying ‘I would recruit diverse lawyers, but I just can’t find any.’”
|The ABA in SF |
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He said that Mars shot back, “You’re not trying hard enough.”
Gearhart, a white Arkansas resident, said that understanding the value of diversity wasn’t something that came naturally for him. But recruiting lawyers of color in earnest and attending more minority lawyer events, Gearhart said he had an “epiphany…I was missing a whole vast group” of high-quality lawyers.
The retailer, he notes, scores outside firms not only on the diversity of the specific teams that work on Wal-Mart matters, but on the diversity efforts within the firms themselves. While the company does give outside law firms a chance to shape up before they ship them out, it has drawn a line in the sand.
Lawyers in the sparse crowd agreed that law firms will become more diverse only when their clients demand it. And Wal-Mart is — Gearhart said the company has fired four firms for lack of diversity. Gibson Dunn reportedly got the evil eye from the company, but shaped up and saved the relationship. (Gearhart declined to name the four that were axed, but anyone in the know can feel free to do so in the comments below.)
“I think you have to make the business case for diversity,” Gearhart said. “We’ll make it easy: You can do it and if you don’t want to do it, we won’t be your customer.”
— Zusha Elinson