Leadership Through Inclusion: Driving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

By Litera on October 27, 2020

Moving the needle on creating a more inclusive workforce requires communication, collaboration, data, and support.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is top-of-mind in every industry today, including the legal profession. Paladin co-founder and COO Kristen Sonday spoke with three panelists at The Changing Lawyer LIVE! about why it is crucial to have a diverse and equitable company culture and how legal organizations can work toward achieving it.

The legal industry is increasingly becoming more diverse.

“Those who are entering the profession today have grown up in a more inclusive and accepting environment and will expect that will be the case with their employers,” said Nirvana Dove, Manager of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Thompson Hine LLP. Firm profitability also is impacted positively by having diverse teams. “When profitability is involved, that means our clients are demanding that we move the needle. …They are investing their time and resources in evaluating our diversity metrics and our efforts, so we want to make sure we are able to have conversations with our clients and within the industry that shows year-over-year progress. The level of intensity around this is growing and we really need to step up and meet the challenge.”

Some assume that you can create diversity by just hiring more minorities into those roles, but it often runs deeper than that, Naomi Oforiokuma, Global Business Development Manager at Concep, pointed out. In the U.K., for example, minorities made up 40% of law students but data shows a huge disparity in the number of diverse populations in roles from junior level up to senior level. “You need to look specifically at what you do for your firm and then it’s about developing policies, processes, management, and framework to ensure that for example, a black female associate will have same access to opportunities and freedom from discrimination as a white male associate.”

How do you transform your company culture to one that is more inclusive?

Leadership needs to set the tone at the top, explained Nita Sanger, CEO, Idea Innovate Consulting. Make sure your C-suite or firm partners are comprised of diverse individuals. Organizations also have to realize that becoming more diverse is not a “one-and-done” activity. “Any of the firms that have actually created diversity have been doing it over a while.” Research shows that inclusive leaders can drive feelings of inclusion (e.g., respect, value, fairness) among colleagues by up to 70 percentage points.

Yes, there are often biases to overcome. That’s where training for leadership comes into play, so that everyone has equal access to the same opportunities. Oforiokuma described a scenario of promoting a male lawyer to partner over a female lawyer. While, both have families, leadership assumed that because of the long hours or travel required, the woman would need to have the time to be with her children.

“Those kinds of assumptions, those kinds of biases need to be almost ‘educated out’ of the management team, at different levels of the structure. Alongside mentorship, incentivizing people to do these things will truly make a difference.” Sanger said it is difficult to get some people to change their mindset, but it is important to have an open dialogue about privilege and bias and find ways to work together to solve the issue.

By establishing concrete diversity goals that can be tracked and measured, leadership can enact positive change and move an organization’s culture forward. Dove’s firm created a three-pronged recruiting process in 2017 that sought to remove bias from their efforts. One aspect is employing blind structured panel interviews, where the interviewers did not receive any demographic information ahead of time and were required to stick to provided questions. The results? Thompson Hine recently had its most diverse summer associate class. The firm also has increased its diverse attorney population by 50 percent and doubled its black lawyer population in that time. “Being able to implement a process that is measurable but then also marrying that process with the metrics and being able to see year over year what you are doing is really critical.”

Law firms need to focus their diversity efforts beyond just recruitment to include retention and advancement.

The American Bar Association recently noted that women of color compromise 14 percent of all associates, yet women of color make up less than 3.5 percent of partners. Sanger says firms should create an ecosystem that supports people – including mentorship and sponsorship – that will encourage those in leadership to pound the table for the minority and fight for opportunities for that person. “That is the single most important thing that any business should be doing.”

What does success look like for DE&I within an organization? It becomes the fabric of how the firm operates and no longer requires separate education or efforts. Oforiokuma explained, “When it becomes part of the DNA – not a special one-off session talking about diversity and inclusion, (but) part of what (we) do every day and how we work – that’s when you know you are really going in the right direction.”

Watch the full conversation here.

Key Takeaways:
  1. Leadership needs to set the tone by having more diversity at the table and encouraging mentorship and sponsorships of up-and-coming lawyers.
  2. Establishing concrete goals and measuring data will help drive the conversation and culture forward.
  3. Clients are demanding their vendors move the needle on diversity and will seek to work with firms that are inclusive.

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