Wal-Mart's Legal Chief Talks Diversity

This article was emailed to me by the manging partner of a law firm client:

Wal-MartWal-Mart's chief attorney, Tom Mars, was on a plane with company President and CEO Lee Scott several years ago when Scott sat down across from him and told Mars something that later led to Wal-Mart having a more diverse legal staff.

"Like most of Wal-Mart's success stories, this one started with Lee. Our diversity program began with Scott's vision," Mars said.

He made his remarks at Wal-Mart's second annual Legal Department Diversity Conference held June 5 at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers. Attending were attorneys from the top 150 outside law firms that do business with the world's largest retailer.

Wal-Mart began a company-wide diversity program several years ago with goals of hiring and promoting more women and minorities. The Bentonville-based retailer is now spreading that diversity gospel to suppliers and other companies with which it does business.

Mars joined Wal-Mart in 2002 after heading the Arkansas State Police in Little Rock. He has also served as a prosecutor and once worked for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where his "mentor" was Sen. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., former first lady of Arkansas and now a presidential candidate.

Scott had told Mars on the plane that day that he would some day find he could use Wal-Mart's considerable influence to change the world. Mars said he discovered that mission when he started promoting a diversity program among the company's own legal department and in its outside law firms.

When Mars joined Wal-Mart, the company had 56 attorneys -- 20 of them women and six minorities, said Susan Klooz, vice president and division general counsel. Today, Wal-Mart has 158 attorneys -- 44 percent of them women and 33 percent minorities, she said.

"Diversity became a passion for (Mars)", Klooz said.

Mars also began pushing his diversity program among the top 100 law firms Wal-Mart did business with -- most of them made up of "white males," Klooz said -- using the $170 million in business Wal-Mart brought to these firms as an incentive.

Mars said he has told skeptical attorneys that adopting diversity is a way they can distinguish themselves from other law firms, and that Wal-Mart is not the only client that is pushing diversity in the workplace.

In an interview following the meeting, Mars said the only resistance he has run into at law firms is from older law partners who find it difficult to "go through this paradigm shift."

Mars noted that an unprecedented meeting will be held in Phoenix next year of Fortune 500's top law firms, and the topic will be diversity.

"You could say this meeting is a pilot for that," Mars said. Wal-Mart's influence as a business leader has never been stronger than it is today, and the company "understands the compact we have with society as an agent of change," Mars said.

Wal-Mart held its first diversity conference in 2005.  Attorney Carl Singley of Wolf Block law firm in Philadelphia served on a panel at Tuesday's meeting, which discussed ways to reach diversity in the workplace. He said what Wal-Mart was doing is "rather profound," and he praised the company for not resting on its laurels but "using its muscle" to promote diversity.

Wal-Mart regularly assesses the companies and law firms it does business with to track their diversity numbers, said Esther Silver-Parker, senior vice president of diversity relations for Wal-Mart.

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