Law Practice Magazine
Every law firm has an incentive to show its best side in the area of diversity, to appeal to prospective minority hires, to appease corporate clients who have diversity requirements, and to assuage their own concerns over implicit racial and gender bias. Yet with all the external pressure to look good publicly, one might ask privately if these efforts are really making any difference. Are we really doing the right kinds of things to change the diversity levels in law firms in sustainable ways?
The legal profession has seen quite a bit of activity and publicity centered on diversity. Despite the lofty activity, however, the participation of African-American and Latino lawyers in leading firms has not improved, the percentage of women partners seriously lags the percentage of incoming women, and Asian-Americans are concerned that increased numbers at junior levels don’t seem to be resulting in corresponding increases at the senior levels of firms. All the while, firms keep going to extreme efforts to show the investment they have in structured diversity programs. Why the difference between efforts and results?
Assuming that a firm wishes to not just appear to be making progress, but to actually make a material improvement in the representation of successful minority and women lawyers, there are ways to separate the low-probability efforts from those that have a greater chance of making a persistent difference at all levels and in all practice areas.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, whether as an individual or metaphorically as an organization, it actually takes some effort to see the person looking back at you. Day by day, year by year, you see the same figure in the mirror and, even though you’ve matured, you may still see your more-youthful figure. Firms that have origins as entrepreneurial, egalitarian teams continue to see a similar youthful image in the mirror, even after they’ve grown, become institutional, and resemble the old guard more than the sharp and open entity they once were.
When you look in the mirror, you only see the surface, and not the health of the person beneath it. You clean up and shine the appearance to make favorable impressions, but that doesn’t change the condition of what’s beyond the surface. It is always surprising when you think you’ve got your game face on and you run into a colleague who notices that you look tired or uninspired. They’re not commenting on the blemish you covered up, but on your whole demeanor. They are seeing your health.
If you wish to look in the mirror at your organization’s diversity efforts, what will you see? There are ways to sort out what you see—and to assess whether or not your efforts are biased toward appearance or toward overall health.
Common Logics and Their Risks
Firms begin diversity efforts with a recognition that they have to do something, but how to decide what should be done requires some organizing principle. Let’s look at some common approaches firms use in deciding what to include in diversity programs, along with their likely contributions to success.
▪ Emulating best practices. This is an implicit consensus approach in which the community of practitioners recognizes that some methods are inherently more propitious than others. This logic received a great boost when Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman published In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, featuring businesses that had persistently good results and describing the management practices they had in common.
The risk of this approach is that when you emulate the behavior of other firms, you don’t necessarily bring along all the underlying causes that made that process successful elsewhere. It’s much like all the companies that spent great effort in writing mission statements because they read that excellent companies had mission statements. They missed the point that the mission statement is the end product of having profound knowledge and passion about why the organization exists. A genuine best practice is hard to copy because it lives in a context that’s pretty tough to capture and emulate across firm cultures.
▪ Concentrating on outreach. Firms with active diversity programs often step up their focus on outreach activities. They sponsor diversity conferences, scholarships, bar association events and minority outreach efforts. So what’s the drawback? If the emphasis is on this class of effort, it is about communicating a diversity message, but it should not be expected to materially impact the actual diversity of the firm.
▪ Depending on diversity heroes. There are genuine heroes in the effort to bring minorities and women into full participation in the profession. You may even have such an individual in your firm—if you’re lucky, more than one. They may have remarkable stories of overcoming adversity, responding to social and moral challenges, making significant contributions by their own example, and by tireless efforts to provide mentoring and outreach to bring others into the fold.
But if your efforts rely on these heroic individuals, here’s the downside: The heroes are typically going above and beyond the organizational success requirements, and often working despite rules and norms. They may well mentor another generation of heroic change agents—just as likely, however, they may leave behind a community of admiring and grateful recipients of their efforts, but a rate of change that diminishes as their own contributions do. Recognition of our heroes is a necessary thing, but it often has transient impact.
▪ Relying on checklists. They are so seductive. An expert prescribes a list of things a diversity program should do. Have a diversity committee, implement affinity groups and so on. It’s nice that people before you have figured it out and written a recipe. Just follow the recipe, right? You can’t be criticized for your efforts because you’re following the experts’ guidance, as are many other firms.
The problem is that it’s a no-think approach. Checklists lead to a focus on activities, not on the logic you may need to abandon to obtain sustainable results. If improving diversity were that easy, you would see results as widespread as the checklists. This class of approach answers the urgent question, “What do we do?” and not the more challenging, “How should we think differently?” Change always requires a new cognitive framework, and that is never on the checklist.
The Missing Effort: Process Management
The common organizing logics just described might be summarized as emulation, communication and saviors. They all miss the key dimension: Does your firm operate in such a way that healthy diversity is a natural outcome of your management? Are your efforts changing the way your firm runs, or are they add-on activities that sit on top of your normal routines? Do they really reflect the health of the person in the mirror or simply focus on covering the blemishes?
Process management is the discipline of how. Good process management requires that every process in an organization is challenged to be the most effective and efficient it can be. Every process has “owners,” and the owners are responsible for the health of that process. The process is challenged to prove that it has several key attributes—including that it has sound logic (based on facts and analysis), is systematic (detailed and complete), is preventative (versus reactive), has tracking metrics, and is integrated with other processes.
What can this possibly have to do with diversity? First of all, each process gets a requirement: that it prove there is no adverse impact on diversity. For example, if the associate assignment process results in minorities and women getting the kinds of assignments that prevent them from developing and appropriately specializing, it has a bias. That doesn’t say the people involved are biased, but the process has a built-in bias. The process owners are then challenged to figure out what produces the bias and to change the process such that the bias goes away.
The performance management process, the recruitment and training of new associates or lateral hires, promotions to partnerships, all of these are processes. Whenever any process in a firm has disparate outcomes, it should challenge itself to explain and resolve the causes of those outcomes in a systematic fashion. Here’s a clue: Most processes that haven’t been subjected to rigorous process management have biases. Practices that have been handed down from generation to generation without scrutiny contain the implicit biases and assumptions from generations long gone. They are just so embedded into the system that we no longer see them as biased.
Looking good is important; it’s sometimes even necessary. Being healthy, however, is much more important in the long run. When a firm, large or small, looks at its diversity efforts, asking hard questions about the core health of management practices is the first step to making a difference. Have you noticed that the very healthy just naturally look good?
Roland Dumas, PhD , is Director of Diversity and Marketing for Major, Lindsey and Africa, a global legal recruiting firm. His background includes psychophysiology research at Stanford and the University of California at San Francisco, creation of management development programs, research and consulting in competitive management practices.