Business law

DEI’s key roles that are hard to fill amid wavering commitments and lawsuits

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Law firms struggle to maintain executive diversity, equity, and inclusion roles amid new challenges facing hiring programs that target candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I’ve watched people move from firm to firm and take their teams with them,” said Drew Levasseur, director of DEI at the National LGBTQ+ Lawyers Association and Foundation, which hosts the annual Lavender Law Conference on Legal Diversity. “It was alarming to see the turnover.”

About 80% of some top law firms have a full-time DEI senior role, according to a Bloomberg Law Survey. But companies have had difficulty finding and retaining diversity leaders, in part because they have not developed a clear outline of roles.

“There is no organization, especially in the big law world, where we can be like, ‘That firm figured it out.’” said Alexis Robertson, DEI director at Foley & Lardner. “Let’s take their playbook and play it.”

Roles can be read as not effective, Especially if they are vague or not fully thought out, which diversity hawks say discourages candidates. At work, DEI leaders face obstacles imposed by rigid hierarchies, lack of time for lawyers, and risk-averse leadership that make it difficult for them to survive.

Adding to existing challenges is the pressure DEI leaders are now facing as hardline conservatives target professional diversity programs in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn affirmative action in college admissions.

Founder of the organization The winning side in this case sued last week Two companies — Perkins Coe and Morrison Forrester — allege that their diversity fellowship programs discriminate against white students. The suit comes on Character heel From Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and a Republican member of the EEOC warn law firms that they can similarly be brought to court.

An affirmative action protest outside the Supreme Court.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“From where I stand, DEI is under attack,” said Levasseur, who advises on DEI corporate goals. “I think affirmative action cases have created a lot of fear in people.”

commitment questions

Legal diversity professionals worry that the latest blows to DEI will give reluctant firms a way to roll back their initiatives and make cuts to DEI’s budgets and roles — which already lack adequate support.

Many senior DEI roles in law firms remain informal and under-resourced, said Nikia Gray, executive director of the National Law Employment Association.

“Even companies that have been formalized tend not to have the power or resources to effect change,” Gray, who previously ran the Washington office of Quarles & Brady and led the firm’s hiring process, told Bloomberg Law. “At the very least, if a company is committed to making changes to DEI, it should understand that these situations must be evaluated.”

The firm’s DEI leader must have decision-making authority, access to a team to help implement initiatives, and an appropriate budget, according to legal diversity advocates.

“If you are a dedicated professional in this field, it can make you very nervous about taking on a position if you are not clear how committed the company is to it and whether the company will give you the authority or resources to be successful,” Gray said.

For a DEI CEO to succeed, the company must already have a strong appetite for advancement, according to him Lloyd Freeman, Ingersoll Buchanan and Ronnie Owl are full-time Diversity and Inclusion Officers.

“It’s one thing to say this isn’t nice, it’s a necessity,” Freeman said, “It’s another to be in a climate where people know that’s why this is a good thing.” “You are now at ground zero.”

Post-Floyd transformation

Candidates have more bargaining power over companies looking to adopt DEIs after the resurgence of social justice movements sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Finding qualified personnel is not usually the hurdle, according to Chantal Raymond, CEO of Inclusive Legal Search.

“Finding the candidates is the easy part,” said Raymond. “It’s finding clients (law firms) who feel so committed to the role that they’re willing to invest in it.”

Before the Floyd-inspired push for social justice, corporations were often A partner is assigned to focus on DEI initiatives, in addition to their billing. Many companies, such as Ferrell of New England, still use this strategy. The firm appointed its first diversity partner, Jeffrey Why of the Communications Law Practice Group, this month.

Verrill’s managing partner, Scott Anderson, said the company decided to select an internal candidate after hearing about the challenges of hiring a DEI leader at other companies. He said the job required someone who could get partners on board.

“The person must have the skill of being able to communicate goals and objectives to work collaboratively with partners to get them to understand why we need to do something differently,” Anderson said.

Some of the nation’s largest law firms have hired a full-time DEI chair for the first time over the past year. Ackermann in May hired Cassandra Caldwell, who has held diversity-focused positions at Visa and General Electric. In November White & Case enlisted Fakhriyazidi’s gift from Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

Buy at the top

John Harmon, chairman of McGuireWoods in Virginia, said the companies have tried to set aggressive targets for DEI — including hiring senior DEI officials — amid the social justice upsurge in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

Harmon is a veteran litigator who consults organizations on their DEI efforts. He was the only black attorney to hold the top 100 law firm in the country when he was named to the position in 2017. The firm, which has roots in the 19th century in Charlottesville, Virginia, has had a senior DEI official for more than a decade. of time, according to Harmon. Atlanta partner Ken Niebuhr is the current chair of the company’s Diversity Committee.

Some organizations that rushed to boost their diversity programs after Floyd’s death didn’t take the time to think about what they wanted to achieve first, according to Harmon. Some warned that their DEI goals did not match the resources they were willing to commit, or were simply not sustainable.

Harmon said acceptance at the summit was essential. Public support from the company’s other C-Suite leaders and influential partners can set the course for the rest of the company.

“It’s important that they have a voice and access to senior leadership,” Harmon said.

Being a lawyer also helps.

A leader at Foley’s DEI, Robertson was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis and Seyfarth Shaw before turning to the recruitment and legal diversity business. She said this background made it easier for her to get the attention of partners.

“I will sometimes “I joke that the lawyers can’t hear me until they know I also have a JD,” Robertson said. “The whole way a person carries themselves changes.”

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