A note to leaders in law firms: This is how you frustrate diversity efforts


This summer marks three years since presidents, managing partners, and executive teams declared that diversity is a critical mission, and committed boldly and publicly to unequivocal change. Three years later, the index has barely moved, and it is often left to the diversification professional to get ahead with limited resources, decreasing subscription while making the work harder and shrinking teams. This approach does not achieve the executive leadership’s claimed investment in the mission, nor does it take into account the cost of making mistakes. More importantly, this approach contradicts the foundations of justice on which the legal industry is based.

This article is for current and aspiring leaders of companies, practice groups, and business functions who are frustrated by a lack of progress and who are committed to partnering as inclusive leaders to drive long-term, transformative change. As a DEI professional with over a decade of experience building and leading DEI programs at multiple firms, as well as serving on the board of directors of the Law Firm Diversity Professional Association, I have discussed and faced many of the challenges described below along with my own experience. peers. The challenges that diversity professionals face are common across companies, with all-too-familiar themes emerging regardless of the company’s name and location. Here’s a candid look at the barriers that, if corrected, will lead to greater success in your diversity efforts and, as a consequence, the organization you lead now or in the future.

I use “we” and “us” in the group on behalf of diversity professionals in law firms.

Believe us

Much time and energy is spent defending our professional observations and recommendations. As attorneys, there is an expected and worthwhile level of questioning and discussion, but diversity professionals experience that too much and get the job done. When we detect a potential issue or recommend next steps, this is backed up by our experience, professional expertise, and, often, direct feedback from employees. As professionals, we stay up to date with the latest trends, research, and best practices (as you would expect from fellow attorneys). Unless you are hiring talent you expect to fail, partner fully with us as trusted advisors.

Our inclusion

Stop forcing us to beg for a seat at the table, or worse yet, asking us to manage the fallout after flawed decisions where justice is not fully considered. The best leaders know that they are not equipped with the skill set to decide at what point a conversation calls for a diversity specialist. We do not require that our recommendations be taken without a shadow of a doubt and without input from various disparate stakeholders, but we do ask that you consider our professional opinions as you would any other member of the executive team. Remember, as with the relationship between law and business, if it has an impact on business, it has an impact on equity. If it has an impact on people, it has an impact on inclusion.

educate yourself

Engage in self-learning before you hire us as private trainers. We do coaching because we care, we’re excited about our role, and we know these subjects benefit from the human touch. However, not only is it taxing, it is not scalable without you also doing the work. Resources are plentiful – use them, engage in critical thinking, and then reach out. This applies not only to how you treat your diversity professionals, but also to your underrepresented talent.

Do not kill the messenger

Unlike many of our fellow lawyers, we are hired to uncover and present hard truths. These hard truths can be uncomfortable, and they often highlight inequalities in the organization you lead, which often result from decisions you have made or have been involved in. By the same token, there will be leaders who willfully or unintentionally make mistakes. Governance with diversity effects. And they will not forget those who hold back. Remember that more often than not your variety is the leader. Consider whether you judge your professional diversity by the opinions of those in authority, or if you consider the entire ecosystem that a professional works alongside to evolve. We have all experienced this phenomenon as counselors. Think of some customer interactions you’ve had that involved delivering difficult news or receiving an angry call after a less-than-ideal outcome. Although uncomfortable, we know deep down that the messenger was not the one who caused the underlying problem.

be brave

As a leader, you hear from many naysayers when it comes to efforts. It’s important to realize that there are often many diversity advocates who may not feel completely confident speaking to you directly. This is the beauty of our role, as we deal with issues from different perspectives and relationships. Even relatively senior partners are often aloof from the company as a whole and reluctant to speak out, but they often share their opinions with us. The views leaders must hear for the company’s long-term success. Think about the amount of time and energy you give to the loudest complainers in your ear, and those are often the best representatives in the organization. What power do they have to drive your decisions – consciously or unconsciously? Who do you talk to most often and who do you say enough to? What values ​​would you compromise to appease a vocal minority? Expectations have changed over time. Gone are the days of silence on what some might consider difficult, political, or taboo topics. Gone are the days of letting profitable partners get away with behavior inconsistent with the culture or broader corporate strategy. This work is difficult. This work is inconvenient. Driving with conviction.

Support us

It is critical that you consider the ways in which your diversity leadership defines, and in turn, co-opts diversity for long-term success. This is centered on both personal involvement and structural design. On the personal involvement front, we ask that you consider how often you engage in one-on-one discussions with us. Ideally, at a regular pace, as well as at times of important strategic decisions. And just as importantly, do you make sure that others in your circle know that you trust and depend on us? Other functions and leaders throughout the company should be expected to cooperate closely with us and take responsibility if they do not.

Structurally, it is critical that the diversity team sits separate from the talent, people, or HR function and reports directly to the managing partner. A diversity leader’s compensation and job position must match that of other senior decision makers in the organization and their team size must be sufficient to drive change, while also responding to the onslaught of customer surveys, planning programs, and conducting trainings. The budget should reflect the strong mission at hand. After all, did you make promises when times were good and stick to them quickly as business cycles change? Business is cyclical, and tough decisions often have to be made about where to direct limited resources – and slashing an already tight budget for equality work shouldn’t be one. Finally, we require that the costs of working be recognized with benefits including ample support for professional development, and mental health and wellbeing resources including normalized sabbatical leave. This work is difficult. Don’t make it more difficult.

Watch yourself

Evaluate your own relationships. Do a self-check of who you surround yourself with, whose advice you take into account, what calls and meetings you prioritize, and what diversity conversations you have with fellow leaders. Review the people who have been identified as future leaders and examine who might be missing. While it’s easy to expect your fellow leaders to attend trainings and programmes, mentor diverse groups of developing talent, develop a personal understanding of the challenges of diversity and observe fair opportunities, right? As a leader, embody the change you want to see and partner with us to make it happen.

Think holistically

Strong diverse leadership is not the magic bullet that comes with all the answers. Change does not happen in one department or with one person. Until every leader in the organization integrates fairness into their day-to-day responsibilities and holds accountable through transparent compensation, progress will continue at a very slow pace and your diversity leader will keep going in circles. Equal Employment is not just a talent function, it is a large component of marketing, strategy, policy and finance functions. It also includes a group of often overlooked business professionals who are central to the success of the law firm and its culture. Diversity is the job of all of us and should be translated as such throughout the company.

While the regulatory focus on culture and equity efforts continues to be very cyclical, diversity professionals are moving from firm to firm at alarming rates and eventually leaving the legal industry. We get frustrated with broken promises and commitments to change. We need your hand in hand partnership to succeed. Your company needs your end-to-end leadership to deliver the results you are so committed to in 2020. Most importantly, the profession demands revolutionary change, which many of you are preparing for, as the next generation of leaders is ready to demand and implement. We are eager to cooperate closely with you. While this work is very hard, it is also very rewarding.

Amy Santos has over 15 years of experience in diversity, client service, talent management, and professional development functions covering multiple Am Law 100 firms. For the past eight years, she has built and led the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion division of an Am Law 20 firm. With her background in change management , passionately working alongside business, departmental and talent leaders to build and promote just cultures. She is a former board member of the Association of Law Firms Diversity Professionals and a current advisor to Practice Pro, a firm committed to improving the legal profession by training lawyers better prepared for the true practice of law.

If you would like to supplement this list or see other topics related to equality, inclusive leadership, and culture covered, please contact Amie Santos, as this work is always evolving. If you are a diversity professional in a law firm looking for community and support, please consider joining the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals.


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