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Taking Everything Into Account: Getting Serious About Diversity

Posted by José Cunningham on Jul 11, 2018 9:40:14 AM

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Insights from the 2018 NALP/AFLDP D&I Summit on creating a more diverse law-firm workforce

Having a diverse team has proven to be good business sense time and time and time again.

No longer is the pressing question “why?” Instead, it’s “how?” At the 2018 NALP/AFLDP D&I Summit, this concept was a key focus for law firm professionals. The summit provided a forum for exchanging information about the current challenges and innovations surrounding diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the legal arena. 

Here, we cover a few key takeaways from the summit on the topic of D&I and how to actively incorporate it into your professional world today.

Take Into Account: Unconscious Bias

Traditional diversity efforts tell us we’re making very little headway, despite increased efforts among law firms. What gives?

The short answer is affinity bias. Affinity bias is part of everyone’s general unconscious biases: It occurs when we see someone with whom we feel we have an affinity (e.g., we went to the same school, grew up in the same town, etc.).

We naturally gravitate toward people like us; homogeneity is not an active effort, but rather the result of comfort and implicit trust. Seventy percent of partners in law firms are white men, which can have dual negative effects on D&I efforts first by helping increase the number of white males in the profession because they see people similar to them in legal roles, and at the same time making other demographics feel unwelcome.

At the Summit, Goodwin Procter led a session titled “De-biasing in Action: Consciously Overcoming Unconscious Bias.” They offered some advice for firms looking to tackle unconscious bias:

  • There must be top-level focus and strategy. Top executives must be responsible for leading and sponsoring D&I efforts.
  • Behavioral standards must be put in place, along with diversity metrics. Leaders must be held accountable for results.
  • All firm members must be trained on unconscious bias. This gives line of sight to an invisible force that traditionally weakens D&I efforts.
  • Firms must embed D&I strategies in recruitment, performance management, leadership assessment and training. This should a part of your firm’s culture and day-to-day operations.

On your firm’s website, try the following:

  • Change up the language in job ads.
  • Include explicit D&I messages from firm leaders.
  • Include videos featuring diverse male and female lawyers describing the firm’s value and why they love to work there.

To minimize unconscious bias in the interview stage, all firms should be doing structured interviews. This is a programmatic method of interviewing that provides precision and reliability in assessing a candidate’s capabilities while mitigating unconscious bias. It requires using predetermined (consistent and relevant) questions tied to our competency and leadership models so we can best evaluate a candidate’s potential for success. Apply the STAR method to dig deep with a candidate. Ask about:

  • Situation: What was the project, assignment, or circumstance?
  • Task: What was your role?
  • Action: What steps did you take? How did you manage obstacles?
  • Result: What was the result? What lessons did you learn?
Take Into Account: Intersectionality

In many organizations, D&I initiatives and women’s initiatives are on parallel tracks. As a result, women of color who sit at the intersection of the two often feel that their needs, interests and concerns are not fully addressed by either initiative. 

Hopefully, it isn’t too difficult to promote and market the number of women partners and diverse partners you have, but how about women of color? As we learned in the session “Getting Results for Women of Color,” led by D&I consultant Monica Parham, the numbers at your firm are probably dismal.

Women overall make up 23 percent of partners. Attorneys of color represent 8.42 percent of partners. Women of color represent just 2.9 percent of partners and are in the most underrepresented group at the partnership level. The increase in overall percentage of minority partners has been driven by ascendancy of Asian and Hispanic male partners, and 85 percent of women of color leave their law firms within seven years of starting their practice.

To hire and retain more women of color in your firms, try the following:

  • Build intersectionality into all women’s initiatives and discussions, and track data reflecting the experiences of women of color.
  • Reframe diversity initiatives to business-focused success and training. Invite heads of women’s initiatives to diversity summits and vice versa.
Take Into Account: Employee Resource Group Customization

Most organizations have either a “get-together”/social group or a business development-oriented group. Is your organization best served by its current system, or is it time to reevaluate?

The session “ERG, Outlaw, WIN: Designing an Effective Employee Resource Group” taught that an effective employee resource group (ERG) must have the following three elements:

  1. A sense of community. Let them give feedback about what works and does not work in your firm.
  2. Leadership development. Celebrate successes by having individuals send their successes to the group leader in advance of each meeting, and then start each meeting with those successes.
  3. Metrics and measuring. Make sure there’s some connection to firm leadership with the group to build a tie to the management committee.

To figure out what kind of ERG your firm needs, ask yourself, first of all, “What is the intent of the group?” Some organizations do “inside interviews” or focus groups to see what the real problems are that need to be addressed. Consider if your group is being formed for organizational reasons or for individual professional development?

If you move forward with ERG implementation, consider the following:

  • Different structures depend on the size of your firm.
  • It’s good to have a partner and associate lead the ERG, but sometimes there are associate-led ERG networks — no partners allowed, by design.
  • Each group may have a dedicated budget so they have some autonomy/ownership. There’s more engagement and empowerment when the individual groups have independent budgets.
  • ERGs should not happen in silos. They need to share strategies and best practices with each other.
  • Once a month is too often. Quarterly feels comfortable.

Each ERG should have an executive sponsor, preferably not an executive from that same ERG; don’t match. The executive sponsor should do a readout regarding their ERG a couple times a year with the executive or management committee.

Moving Ahead

We hope you utilize these insights to begin implementing successful D&I initiatives within your own law firms. Effort is involved, but from a personal and business standpoint, there’s nothing more worthy of your time and energy.


Jose Cunningham headshot

José Cunningham is the chief marketing and business development officer at Nixon Peabody, and the Legal Marketing Association Diversity Committee co-chair.

Topics: Marketing Management and Leadership

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