It’s a program Don Liu — executive vice president, general counsel and secretary for Xerox globally — introduced after arriving at the company seven years ago.
Liu was speaking in Toronto last week to the Internationally Trained Lawyers Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. The program was created to aid foreign-trained lawyers seeking accreditation to practise law in Canada.
“As good as we were on diversity when I arrived at the legal department in 2007, expecting law firms who did work for us to be diverse was not a high priority at the time,” he said.
So Liu introduced a new program designed to “lean on” law firms.
“It’s a delicate situation because you don’t want to say that only diverse law firms can do work for Xerox. But what about the non-diverse law firms — when do they become diverse since no one is leaning on them?”
Liu says he saw his job as one of figuring out how to compliment law firms that are doing well on diversity and to “nudge” non-diverse firms to become more diverse.
Every two years, Xerox in the U.S. conducts the survey of law firms to assess how well they are doing in terms of diversity and then ranks them.
“For the law firms that do well we congratulate them, publicly announce how they do and how proud we are of them. The ones who don’t do well — the bottom five per cent — we start weaning off,” he said.
But Xerox gives those lower-ranking firms a few chances before they are cut from the roster.
“We had a firm who kept ignoring our survey — they just wouldn’t respond because they knew their numbers were bad. We finally said: ‘If you don’t respond to our survey you can’t do work for us until we get your information.’”
After three years of failing to provide information to the Xerox law firm diversity survey, Liu says the relationship with the firm was terminated.
“I actually desperately wanted them to join in the efforts,” he said.
In Canada, the diversity survey is not distributed to external firms used by the company here, but vice president and general counsel for Xerox Canada Dorothy Quann says she is looking at implementing it in the future. For now she says she uses Liu’s approach “orally in speaking with Canadian law firms on their diversity commitments.”
“As president of the Legal Leaders for Diversity, I engage LFDIN [Law Firm Diversity and Inclusion Network] member firms in discussions on measurements used by the firms,” she says.
Xerox has a large legal department of 150 lawyers and Liu manages a department of 350, including paralegals, administrative, and non-legal staff. Xerox has a presence in 167 countries and his job is to manage the legal operations in every country in the world.
“I have the best job I can imagine as a lawyer,” says Liu. “I get to work directly with my CEO on strategy — whether to buy or sell a company. I get to think about what kind of business we should be in.”
The company also has a diverse executive team that includes CEO Ursula Burns, who is black and rose up through the ranks in her time at the company. Burns came out of school as a summer intern at Xerox and the company invested in her and her career.
“The company understood that a diverse organization creates a better work product for a number of reasons. It creates different views. If you create an organization that is not diverse there are going to be people who leave because they don’t feel comfortable — it’s called loss of talent,” said Liu.
“I wanted to work for a company where my background was not going to be an issue. I’m just another person who looks like many other people at Xerox,” said Liu. “It was a company in which my progress upward was not going to be hampered by what I look like.”
Xerox is no longer a copier/printer company. That portion of its business represents only 20 per cent of its $22-billion revenue. The other $18 billion comes from services ranging from highway tolls, it is also the largest administrator of student loans in the United States and is the largest administrator of government health plans in the U.S.
Liu’s talk at U of T followed the theme of “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” referring to the challenges of Asian Americans in the U.S. He says he tries to educate people on the “insensitivity” of the question many often pose to him: “Where are you from?”
“If you’re Asian you always get asked, ‘Where are you from?’” says Liu. “I usually say I’m from South Jersey. Where are you from? I give people a hard time just to make them realize they are making a presumptuous question only because of my ethnicity.”
Liu is known for speaking candidly to the issue that Asian Americans tend to be too shy to speak up in organizations and therefore tend to get passed over for promotions.
In large law firms in the U.S. the odds of an Asian American becoming a partner are low. The average firm converts one out of every four white lawyers to become partner, one in five African Americans to partner, and one in eight Asian Americans. During the recession from 2000 to 2009 more Asians were laid off in large law firms than any other group.
“The cultural environment we grew up in does not lend itself nicely for us to succeed in a corporate setting,” he said. “So when you combine a stereotype with some of the cultural tendencies we grew up in it’s not a formula for success in large organizations.”