When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the legal sector is a bit of a slow mover. Diverse groups and women are still notably underrepresented at law firms and within legal departments — especially when it comes to leadership roles. Obstacles standing in the way of advancing DEI can range from implicit bias and aversion to change to a lack of proactive, purposeful efforts to hire and retain diverse lawyers.
However, in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the surging racial justice movement that followed it, the legal industry saw flickers of progress. According to the 2021 Diversity Scorecard, the total number of diverse attorneys ticked up to 18.5% from 17.8% in 2020. The number of diverse partners also rose slightly, reaching 10.9%, up from 10.3% in 2020.
Whether these increases were a direct result of explosive protests that shone a spotlight on racial and social inequities — or just signs of the industry's evolution — they were welcome news, especially amid a global pandemic. For many firms and legal departments across the country, cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace has become a renewed priority — one that is also starting to be translated into action.
Dedicating resources. For some legal departments and law firms, they have either created a diversity-focused committee, or ensured the assignment of dedicated diversity resources. Some have done both.
For instance, Ling-Ling Nie, GC and VP for Ethics and Compliance at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designates a person within her 50-person legal team to perform a range of DEI-related functions, such as ensuring sufficient staff training; examining the team's demographic data; leading monthly focus events; and ensuring all relevant DEI information is cascaded into legal staff meetings.
This department-level DEI point person also partners closely with the Institute's chief diversity officer so there is a committed loop of action and accountability for DEI information and initiatives.
At Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, a redesigned DEI structure places DEI leadership in C-level positions and gives them direct and impactful access to firm-wide leadership.
Carlos Dávila-Caballero, the firm's Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, emphasized the importance of adding DEI leaders to senior leadership levels, which allows them to engage individual leaders of their Executive Committee directly about strategic DEI objectives, such as accelerating and achieving greater promotion for attorneys of color and other lawyers from underrepresented groups and utilizing quantitative and qualitative metrics to enhance professional development efforts.
Training. As the DEI conversation evolves, the traditional diversity trainings offered within organizations, such as unconscious bias training and allyship training, have also undergone changes. While these trainings are important for establishing a common framework for staff, there is a danger of these programs becoming "one and done."
Truth Initiative has worked to continue its dialogue following implicit bias and allyship training. It has started to incorporate diverse speakers into its quarterly staff book talks and has expanded its external programming to support members of the African American and LGBTQ+ communities who want to quit smoking or vaping.
Microsoft, on a company-wide basis, provides a common curriculum of D&I trainings that it makes available to all employees. In addition to this offering, Microsoft's Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA) department hosts monthly D&I "Unplugged" events, which are open to employees around the world and convey how DEI concepts are brought to life in the organization.
The discussions are led by CELA department leaders and engage community members on range of topics including intersectionality, code switching, covering and allyship. Additionally, CELA hosts a regular D&I speaker series which has featured celebrities, industry leaders and high-profile politicians. The CELA D&I Leadership team also just hosted a day long D&I Leadership Summit. Microsoft focuses on ensuring DEI is embedded in all it does.
Engaging in conversations.Many organizations are bringing in external speakers to lead conversations with their staff about sensitive topics. At LexisNexis Risk Solutions Group, Courageous Conversations™ has helped the organization engage in more open dialogue. These typically involve facilitated discussions that encourage open discourse about issues of bias, race, gender or even ageism and active listening, so a new shared understanding can emerge.
Giving employees a voice.A true key to improving inclusion has been putting the power into employees' hands. To that end, the LexisNexis Risk Solutions Group legal team started the Powered by People initiative, which includes four work streams covering different aspects of DEI, from mentorship and professional development of diverse talent to allyship.
The work stream leaders are volunteers who in addition to the company's 35 employee resource groups help build additional awareness on key issues, increase sensitivity and encourage sharing among various diverse groups.
Ensuring employees have a voice in the room even when they're not present is another way to propel diversity initiatives. That's the principle behind Winston & Strawn's sponsorship program, which pairs high-potential women, diverse and LGBTQ+ fifth- and sixth-year associates with a sponsor from the Executive Committee.
Leadership realized underrepresented attorneys sometimes lacked the critical opportunities to build visibility in the firm and with clients, and often did not enjoy meaningful relationships with senior law firm leaders.
In the first iteration, seventh-year associates and above who fell into underrepresented categories were invited to participate said, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer Sylvia F. James. Last year, three of the senior associates who participated in the first diverse associate sponsorship class made partner.
The program has since been tweaked to involve associates earlier in their career, but its success cannot be denied. It has served as a retention and advancement tool, and several former proteges are up for partnership consideration this year.
Maximizing DEI impact through partnerships.Collaborations with external partners provide an additional means to elevate DEI priorities when layered upon other diversity-focused tactics.
An event or panel discussion among a law firm, a key corporate client and a legal diversity organization can provide a platform to showcase the expertise of attorneys of color, differentiate an organization through its prominent support of legal diversity organizations, and position the law firm or organization as a resource for diverse attorneys and viewpoints.
While the actions above are merely a few ways legal departments and law firms are focusing on improving DEI within their organizations, the possibilities for improvement in these areas are never-ending.
It's all about maximizing the talent, innovation and rich perspectives that a heterogeneous workforce brings to an organization. Diversity efforts are not a "nice to have" — they are essential to enabling a company's commercial objectives.
Many of the successes to date were an outgrowth of a detected need and could be uniquely tailored to reflect the voice and culture of each organization. As companies and law firms consider their own diversity needs, authenticity and relevance must be paramount. A DEI program that satisfies the interests of varied internal and external stakeholders will support sustainability and inspire — rather than obligate — meaningful organizational change.