Sara Lee rewards panel firms’ diversity initiatives

US conglomerate Sara Lee has reorganised its legal panel, with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal promoted to ‘preferred partner’ status and Reed Smith regaining that status after a year’s demotion.

Sara Lee executive vice-president and general counsel Roderick Palmore has been a pioneer of diversity programmes in the US and has a three-tiered panel of law firms, which is ranked with particular emphasis on the firms’ commitment to diversity.

Palmore said: “We believe that performance should be rewarded. Consistent with that belief, firms that distinguish themselves in all service and performance categories will have enhanced opportunities to represent Sara Lee.”

Now in its fifth year, the preferred partner status is one of the many in-house programmes that focuses on developing firms’ diversity in terms of ethnic minorities and women.

Reed Smith UK managing partner Tim Foster said: “People say that this is client-driven, but I think you need to focus on why this is needed. It’s important to represent a range of views in a law firm. This improves the service for the client. Driving a culture change to improve diversity is definitely a positive thing.”

Other in-house teams have been particularly active in requiring panel firms to represent ethnic minorities and provide equal gender opportunities.

Last month JPMorgan invited 15 of its top panel firms by spend to talks with Stonewall, the gay rights activist group. The investment bank aims to bring its panel firms into line with its own policies on lesbian and gay issues.

Barclays began asking for statistics on gender and ethnicity from its panel firms in 2006.