Practical Steps for Engaging White Male Attorneys as Champions for Diversity and Inclusion

September 11, 2014

Kathleen Nalty is a diversity and inclusion consultant in Denver, Colorado.

White male executives who engage in diversity-valuing behaviors are given higher performance ratings by their peers, according to a new research study. While a career boost is certainly beneficial, it is the least compelling reason driving the white male champions I have worked with to advance diversity and inclusion in the legal industry.

When asked why they advocate for greater diversity and inclusion, white male allies and champions point to different reasons. Some are innately motivated because it is the right thing to do. A few have experienced exclusion themselves and have greater empathy for others who are marginalized. Others have experienced “aha” moments through exposure to colleagues who changed their worldview, research studies documenting hidden barriers in the legal profession, the bottom-line business benefits of diversity and inclusion, or the simple fact that their clients value and require it. Still others are involved because they see how their spouses/partners and children are impacted by inequities in the workplace. 

However they arrive at this position, white male champions are absolutely indispensable in diversity and inclusion efforts, and they should all be more actively involved.

A few years ago, I wrote an article listing eight practical steps for engaging white men in diversity and inclusiveness efforts for NALP. Kathleen Nalty, “Practical Steps for Engaging White Men in Diversity and Inclusiveness Efforts,” NALP Bulletin, September 2010, pp. 15–16. The steps outlined were based on my work with many white male attorneys and are still relevant today. I have personally witnessed the transformative impact of these steps on many white male lawyers. 

1. Include White Men in the Process of Uncovering Instances of Hidden Barriers in the Firm
Hidden barriers that disproportionately impact attorneys in underrepresented groups are usually completely invisible to those in the majority, which is why so many white male attorneys aren’t fully engaged in diversity and inclusion efforts. According to several national research studies, there are hidden barriers to success for female, LGBTQ, disabled, and racially/ethnically diverse attorneys. These groups are disproportionately excluded from opportunities that are often intangible but critically important in any lawyer’s career development. Hard work and technical skill are the foundation of career progress, but without these intangible opportunities, attorneys simply cannot advance in their firms. 

According to the research studies, these opportunities are shared unevenly by people in positions of power and influence, often without realizing that certain groups are disproportionately excluded, which causes them to remain on the margins in the firm. Specifically, the research reveals that attorneys in underrepresented groups (female, LGBTQ, disabled, and racially/ethnically diverse) have less access to the following benefits:

  1. Networking opportunities—informal and formal

  2. Internal information or intelligence

  3. Access to decision-makers

  4. Mentors and sponsors

  5. Meaningful work assignments

  6. Candid and frequent feedback

  7. Social integration

  8. Training and development

  9. Client contact

  10. Promotions

The studies all point to bias as the major cause of these hidden barriers.  Certainly, discrimination still exists and contributes to this dynamic. But it turns out that a specific kind of unconscious bias plays the biggest role.  Affinity bias, which is a bias for others who are more like you, causes people to develop more meaningful work relationships with those who have similar identities, interests, and backgrounds. When senior white male attorneys gravitate toward and share opportunities with others who are like themselves, they (mostly unwittingly) leave out female, LGBTQ, disabled, and racially/ethnically diverse attorneys.

Tracking who gets these opportunities makes inequities visible—who gets to go on client pitches, who receives the best work assignments, who is serving on committees that lead to promotion, who gets invited to client meetings and networking opportunities, who has influential mentors and sponsors, and who has access to leaders more often? Affinity bias is a very powerful form of unconscious bias—you don’t have to do anything bad to people who are different from you; you can unintentionally disrupt their careers just by doing more favors for people who are like you. 

Light Bulb Moment: After a meeting on diversity and inclusiveness for 35 law firm managing partners (more than 95 percent of whom were white and male), one white male managing partner took me aside and said his outlook completely changed when I explained how affinity bias causes hidden barriers that disproportionately impact the career paths for attorneys in underrepresented groups. He said, “I never thought about it that way before. I can really see that happening.”

2. Change the Discussion
Stop talking just about diversity. Adding inclusiveness to traditional diversity efforts fundamentally changes the conversation. Inclusiveness is about everyone in the organization and focuses on maximizing everyone’s access to the opportunities they need to do their best work. When white male allies understand that inclusiveness is about them too, they are more inclined to participate. While research studies demonstrate that hidden barriers in law firms disproportionately impact the careers of attorneys in underrepresented groups, these barriers can impact white male attorneys as well. Allies and champions recognize that removing the barriers to increase utilization, engagement, productivity, and commitment is in everyone’s best interest.

3. Ask White Men to Participate
Oftentimes, white male attorneys stand on the sidelines, wondering whether and how to participate in the firm’s diversity and inclusiveness efforts because they aren’t diverse. Simply being asked to be involved is just what many are waiting for. Converting white male attorneys from passive bystanders into active participants is actually critical to the long-term success of any diversity and inclusiveness initiative. They can be particularly effective with their peers in discussing the “why” of diversity and inclusion.

4. Leverage White Males in Influential or Leadership Positions
Nothing changes in law firms unless influential leaders are on board.  Because white men comprise 74 percent of equity partners in U.S. law firms, diversity and inclusion initiatives must focus on leveraging the power of white male allies and champions in order to make the requisite structural, cultural, and behavioral changes. The best way to leverage their positions and power is to make sure they have important roles in the change efforts.

Real Life Example: In my former role as executive director of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, I oversaw a pilot project through which several law firms, corporate law departments, and government law offices started inclusiveness initiatives. The heads of many of these organizations (mostly white male attorneys) “walked the talk” by using their positions of influence to drive their organization’s change efforts.   

5. Include White Men on the Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee
Inclusiveness is about everyone, including straight white men, so their voices must be included in the firm’s diversity and inclusiveness strategy.  As I wrote four years ago, “[i]f you can persuade powerful white men to play an active role on the . . . committee, that alone will send a strong message to the rest of the organization about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness.”

Real Life Example: One law firm’s white male managing partner decided that every attorney in the office would be required to serve a term on the diversity and inclusion committee at some point (and he had the influence to enforce this requirement). A white male partner, viewed by his peers as a skeptic, was asked to fill a vacancy on the committee. The chair asked him to review background materials on diversity and inclusion before his first meeting. Everyone was surprised when he shared a creative idea for changing the work assignment system to help interrupt unconscious bias in the firm’s free-market system. He later became the chair of the diversity and inclusiveness committee.

6. Educate White Men about Why Inclusiveness Is a Business Imperative
It is true that “[p]eople are more apt to change if they perceive a personal benefit in doing so.” Many white male attorneys have not been exposed to the research on how diversity and inclusion improve the performance of decision-making groups and adds to the bottom line. Corporate counsel are generally more knowledgeable about this research, which is one reason why they insist on diverse teams of lawyers on their cases. That’s the external business case for diversity—meeting client’s expectations and desires for greater diversity—which necessarily requires creating the inclusive environment that leads to sustainable diversity. 

But the internal business case for diversity is just as compelling. Research studies published in the past two years clearly document the link between greater diversity and inclusion and essential components of the bottom line, such as engagement, productivity, team commitment, and retention. Law firms that don’t address the hidden barriers through inclusiveness initiatives are simply leaving money on the table. 

7. Give White Men a List of Tasks and They Will Help
If you ask them, most white male attorneys will say they want to help foster a more diverse and inclusive workplace, but they just don’t know exactly what to do. When I wrote on this subject a few years ago, I suggested a to-do checklist. Several law firms have also developed extensive lists of activities that everyone in the firm can engage in to advance diversity and inclusion. 

However, I have found that this “activities checklist” approach conflates “activity” with meaningful “action” and results. 

If an attorney can complete his/her checklist on the day of the deadline, that is not inclusion. An authentic inclusiveness initiative is about embedding inclusive behaviors and practices into what people do every day as a part of their jobs (much like ethics, cost control, efficiency, quality, revenue maximization, and other behaviors that underlie people’s daily behaviors and decisions).

The better course is to develop diversity/inclusiveness-related competencies, which help people incorporate inclusiveness into their job duties and responsibilities, for which they are held accountable in evaluations and compensation decisions. When the competencies are related to accomplishing the firm’s business goals, inclusiveness is seen as an integral part of doing business rather than a side issue that involves just a few people in the firm.

Real Life Example: Within one year, the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company formed a diversity and inclusiveness committee that includes himself, several top leaders, lawyers, and staff from his global team. This committee held training programs, formed subcommittees to start and expand programs and communications, and created a comprehensive list of diversity- and inclusiveness-related competencies that spell out behaviors in three categories—“unskilled,” “skilled,” and “highly skilled”—so all employees know exactly how to incorporate greater diversity and inclusiveness into what they do every day. These competencies are part of a set of “critical success factors” that are incorporated into individual performance evaluations.

8. Provide Incentives to Sustain Diversity and Inclusiveness Efforts
Sustainability requires recognition and rewards. Even the most ardent advocate will get burned out if his or her contributions are not acknowledged in some way. As I wrote previously, “organizations that are serious about change and sustainability provide credit toward billable hour requirements, offer awards or bonuses, and/or otherwise include individual efforts in job duties and responsibilities that factor into the compensation system.” The latter is the real key to success because the end game for inclusiveness is embedding it into what everyone does every day to make the firm more successful. 

Inclusive behaviors, endorsed and modeled by law firm leaders, “unlock” the diversity in the organization, allowing the full potential of the firm and its diverse composition to be brought to bear on driving greater levels of organizational performance. Going all in is the only way to achieve genuine success in diversity and inclusion efforts. Adoption of diversity and inclusiveness competencies and organizational competencies—not just by leaders but by everyone in the firm—will embed diversity and inclusion into the structure, culture, and behaviors of the firm and lead to real change and results.


Copyright © 2014, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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