chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 14, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 3

A shared commitment to DEI: Bars offer joint training for staff and leaders

By Marilyn Cavicchia

It’s not unusual, especially in recent years, for bar staff and leaders to undergo training in diversity, equity and inclusion—in separate groups. At least two bars—the State Bar of Michigan and the Oregon State Bar—have taken the less usual step of conducting DEI training for staff and leaders together.

“We not only become a much stronger team through these deeper interactions,” says Helen Hierschbiel, chief executive officer at the OSB, which has had frequent joint trainings, “but we develop a common language, and a much stronger commitment to lifelong learning in this area.”

Janet Welch, who recently retired as executive director of the SBM, and Dana M. Warnez, bar president, note that the very act of getting everyone together for a training in 2019 made a positive difference. “The event was successful as an opportunity for leaders and staff who had never worked together to get to know one another, and to do so on a substantive topic rather than only through the small talk that happens before and after board meetings,” they say. “The format sent a message that the topic was important, and that every voice was equally important—state bar president, midlevel managers, technicians, and frontline staff alike.”

Hierschbiel, Welch, and Warnez recently filled Bar Leader in on how and why their DEI training was conducted jointly, and why they thought it was beneficial to have everyone in the same room. (Note: Interviews for this article were conducted via email, and Welch and Warnez collaborated on their answers.)

How the training came about

In 2018, the OSB Board of Governors adopted its second in what have so far been three Diversity Action Plans, each with a span of three years. In the 2018 plan, the bar committed to joint DEI training for board members and senior staff. Hierschbiel recalls that the first round of this training was “powerful and transformative,” involving 3.5 days of intensive work, for up to 12 hours at a time. Each day began with a group activity, she says, followed by personal reflection, group analysis, and discussion of how participants would put their learning in action.

“All of this work was intentionally focused on the individual—transforming one’s own heart and mind,” Hierschbiel says. “It felt like a real departure from some DEI work that looks at goals and targets.”

Similar training occurred in 2019 and 2020, Hierschbiel says. “The model of board/staff collaboration creates a strong through-line from year to year, so we do not lose our forward movement,” she notes, adding that attendees also commit to continued growth and to holding each other accountable.

Welch and Warnez recall that in 2010, the SBM Board of Commissioners—after determining that efforts to promote DEI throughout the profession are “germane” under Keller, a special concern for mandatory bars—created a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee as a standing board committee and promoted a Pledge to Improve Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession in Michigan.

In the years since, the bar has cosponsored DEI training with other legal organizations, including Michigan’s prosecutors’ association and local bars, conducted by Kimberly Papillon, a former litigator whose interactive training program focuses on the neuroscience of decision making. In September 2019, all SBM officers, most members of the Board of Commissioners, and most of the bar staff participated in 4.5 hours of implicit bias training, led by Papillon.

“Our format had intentionally mixed leaders and staff at all tables, assigning seats to avoid friends sitting together,” Welch and Warnez recall, adding that while a few staff members expressed discomfort with the mixed seating and said it might have put a damper on honesty during interactive portions, most participants approved.

Long-lasting benefits

The OSB’s approach to DEI training was to find a model that wasn’t “one and done,” Hierschbiel says, but “one that set us on a long-term path of continual growth.”

The deeper connections that began with the training in 2018 have paid dividends, she adds: “We have had some very difficult challenges in the years since we started this model of learning together, including some that may have had very different outcomes if we did not have this shared understanding.”

In the days and weeks after the SBM’s shared DEI training, Welch and Warnez note, it was not uncommon to hear, in casual office conversation, references to the substance of the training, including the role that implicit bias might be playing in a particular situation. “That was the outcome we were hoping for,” they say, “that the insights from the training would become part of conversations and discussions in our daily work.”

At the management level, the benefits have gone beyond conversation to action; for example, one lesson from the training was how unconscious bias can affect the hiring process and decisions. “We have made changes to the recruitment and hiring process that flow from the conversations sparked by the training,” Welch and Warnez say. “Those changes might well have taken longer and met more resistance without the common training.”

The bars’ other DEI efforts

The OSB has many longstanding programs that advance DEI, but Hierschbiel says it’s important that the bar not rely on the staff who manage those programs to be the only ones with a deep understanding of DEI principles.

“It is essential that we build both a depth of understanding and a strength of commitment across the staff and board leadership of the bar,” she believes. “These trainings are foundational to that goal.”

While the bar’s DEI work has intensified because of the national conversation about racial inequity, it was already on a productive path long before the shooting of George Floyd in 2020, thanks in part to the trainings that began in 2018, Hierschbiel says.

“We were, to some extent, emotionally ready to have difficult conversations,” she explains. “Which is not to say they were easy, or that we have answers. What we do have, I hope, is a lasting commitment to listen to all voices, and act with courage and intention within the scope of our mission.”

The SBM has discovered that its members, too, have a “huge appetite” for unconscious bias training: When the bar offered intensive, multiple-day online CLE on this topic in December 2020, registration had to be cut off at 1,000 people—and Michigan isn’t a mandatory CLE state, Welch and Warnez note, so that high number wasn’t driven by a need for credits. Additional sessions were held in February 2021, and those, too, reached nearly 1,000 participants each.

The SBM also leverages its convening power, Welch and Warnez say, including by creating a central, online home for advancing conversations throughout the profession and for showcasing the work of local and affinity bars and external stakeholders. The bar has also developed an ongoing series called Critical Conversations, where attendees learn about and discuss issues of race within the justice system.

Can mandatory bars do that?

With the spate of First Amendment cases against bars that are mandatory (or integrated), especially after the Janus ruling, some may feel hesitant about DEI-focused activities that some members might think are “ideological” in nature. But Hierschbiel, Welch, and Warnez all say that their bars’ DEI training and other efforts are comfortably within Keller’s guidelines for what is germane to their bars’ purpose.

Welch and Warnez cite McDonald v. Longley—against the State Bar of Texas—not as a reason for integrated bars to feel wary, but to the contrary, as a reason to feel confident that DEI work is within their scope. In July 2021, notes Welch (who has spoken frequently on First Amendment challenges and other issues facing integrated bars), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly rejected the claim that the Texas bar’s DEI expenditures and programming were unconstitutional. 

“We center our work on the bar’s mission, ensuring a clear link to regulating the legal profession, improving the quality of legal services, and advancing access to justice,” Hierschbiel says. “We believe that this work is essential to our public service obligations.”

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.