State seeks to promote diversity with special-counsel contracts.

 
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Byline: WISCONSIN LAW JOURNAL STAFF

The next time your law firm is enlisted to provide special counsel to the state, you could find yourself having to furnish information on just how diverse your staff is.

Within the past few months, the Wisconsin governor's office of general counsel has modified the state's special-counsel contract to require firms to furnish numbers and percentages regarding their total numbers for attorneys, non-attorneys, equity partners and directors. Firms must also supply specifics on staff members' race and ethnicity and their identification with the LGBTQ community. The goal, says Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel to the governor, is to begin a conversation about diversity and prompt law firms to take a closer look at themselves.

Nilsestuen describes the new requirement as being a "straightforward and easy to understand action (that) can still have significant impact."

Special-counsel contracts now include a paragraph and attachment devoted to diversity. A copy of the revised document, titled "Special Counsel Contract Template," states: "The State of Wisconsin is committed to retaining high quality law firms that are committed to increasing the diversity of the legal profession in Wisconsin. To that end, the Attorney shall complete Attachment 1 and return it to the Office of Legal Counsel within thirty days of the effective date of the contract."

Nilsestuen said the state's revised special-counsel contract in many ways borrows from practices used by the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel.

"They've been at the forefront of this process," he said.

According to the governor's office, various firms have been retained on contract since the new requirement was added this past spring. Nilsestuen said he and his colleagues expected that many law firms would respond defensively and were instead happy to see that, in a handful of cases at least, the attachments were completed and returned quicky.

That said, some firms have been not forthcoming. And even with its recent revision, the document still lacks inclusion initiatives or percentage requirements.

Nilsestuen noted that he is not aware of any other state that uses special-counsel contracts to elicit diversity information from law firms. Wisconsin, he says, will have accomplished something with this first step if it merely forces firms to take a hard look at their own makeup.

Beyond that, state officials are hoping to see both increases in diversity numbers and...

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