January 01, 2014

Building Ecosystems of Legal Diversity

Paula J. Schauwecker

I was drawn to the practice of environmental law for many reasons. I grew up during the dawn of our awareness of the impacts of human actions on the environment. I witnessed such notable events as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Love Canal disaster and the first Earth Day. I watched the news when the Cuyahoga River was on fire and dark smog choked out the skylines of major cities. I also grew up during the debates and passage of the major environmental statutes: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (aka Superfund), the Endangered Species Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to name a few. Life had a slower pace and the practice of environmental law grew as the complexity of environmental issues became more apparent and as the law cleared a path toward fashioning solutions. Environmental practitioners found their way into law firms and legal departments the same as other types of practice; and some firms that focus solely on environmental law were created. Thus, in revealing my age, I take my place in the generation in which the practice of environmental law began and come to it from that perspective and experience.

The next generation of environmental practitioners, however, will have grown up in a different world; one in which environmental awareness is taught as early as preschool and in which recycling, conservation, and restored waterfronts and industrial sites are commonplace, whereas rivers on fire are not. Life is complex and fast-paced. The next generation is accustomed to corresponding with people and gathering information from across the globe instantly. It has witnessed the most tragic events ever on American soil, the September 11 attacks and the meltdown of our national economy. As the economy struggles to find a “new normal” we are apt to hear more about how much the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) budget is being cut than the progress it has made. Young people today do not expect to work at the same job for a lifetime, and they seek flexibility, self-direction, work-family balance, and meaningfulness in their careers.

How do we engage this generation and chart a successful path for environmental practice? More specifically, how do we get young lawyers to want to practice environmental law? What is the relevance of our practice to the next generation and how do we create the types of firms and companies that this generation will want to work in? How do we show, in real terms, that our profession is relevant to some of the biggest concerns facing the future and that we are building a thriving incubator of thought, innovation, problem-solving skills, and creativity? In my opinion, increasing diversity in the profession is a critical step.


Diversity, as I refer to it here, encompasses diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, talents, and interests as well as racial, ethnic, cultural, and other more talked-about types of diversity. This article takes a different look at how important diversity and inclusion (D&I) is to our profession and how we might shift some of our focus from looking outside our firms to find and recruit diverse talent to inside our firms to create a practice that invites diversity. Here is where we might learn a lesson from the environment itself.

Thinking back to my science training and background, I am reminded that central to the understanding of the environmental sciences was the concept of an “ecosystem.” Loosely defined, an ecosystem is the complete environment including all the living and nonliving physical components in which organisms interact. Thus, an ecosystem includes the organisms, and the soil, water, and air in which they live. Another key concept in environmental science is that of biological diversity, or biodiversity. Ecosystems with greater diversity can be more complex, productive, and resilient when change in the environment occurs. Diversity within an ecosystem is thought to be important to the overall health, stability, and longevity of the system, and rain forests are often cited as examples of some of the richest and most complex ecosystems on earth. Species of plants and animals interact in a complex relationship that thrives in a balance supported by every part. There are many places for species to make a home and contribute to the whole. So, what can we do to create ecosystems of environmental practice that are inviting to the next generation of environmental lawyers and more resilient in the face of a rapidly changing world? In other words, how do we create a law firm ecosystem that resembles a rainforest instead of a cornfield? I suggest that the more we prepare our work and professional environment to welcome and nourish diverse talent, the more likely it is that they will come and stay. But how do we do that?

In her presentation for the 2013 Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) Academy for Leadership & Inclusion, “Cultivating Diversity & Inclusion: Insights & Actions for the 21st Century,” Dr. Arin Reeves, of Nextions, provides a metaphor in understanding the Diversity & Inclusion concept: seeds and soil. The seeds represent employees and the soil the culture in which they are cultivated. The legal industry overall has done a much better job of finding more and different seeds. As a matter of fact, we focus most of our resources on hiring. However, the crops of practicing employees from these seeds are not as abundant or as healthy as we would like them to be. When things go wrong, we blame the seeds and look for other seeds. The problem, however, lies in the soil. If the soil is enriched, then the seeds will grow. Fix the soil first—make it more nurturing and inclusive, establish the basics, then bring in more seeds. Dr. Reeves’s concept of soil goes hand in hand with that of an ecosystem in that diverse ideas, perspectives, and people create a richer “ecosystem” culture, where all parts add to the richness of the whole, a synergy where everyone functions at their highest level. An ecosystem approach to diversity involves engaging with others and collaborating to create the right environment. As Dr. Reeves points out, what is needed is a shift from individual knowledge to collective intelligence; from right vs. wrong to multiple rights; from competition to collaboration; from cruise control thinking to “active driving” thinking; and from tolerating or respecting difference to seeking differences. If we wish to attract diverse talent, we need to create environments that are rich, fertile, inviting, and resilient. See Dr. Arin Reeves, “The Next IQ: The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders,” American Bar Association (2012). Greater diversity of personnel that generates better outcomes for clients should lead to continued growth for the firm, as a more diverse community of species provides a more stable natural ecosystem.

In my recent conversations with diverse interns at environmental law firms, they have voiced their concerns about joining the environmental legal practice area because it is so nondiverse. It is a conundrum: diverse candidates are reluctant to join the practice because of the lack of diversity, but we can’t create a diverse practice until we are successful in getting diverse talent to join our ranks. In other words, we can’t just plant a few rose bushes in a corn field and hope more will follow. We need to remake the field; change the soil, the nutrients, the mix of plants, and the way they are planted so that they are functioning and working together to contribute to the whole. Toward this end there are a number of things we can do: involve diverse talent in the conversations about how we might make our firms more inviting and supportive; reach out to diverse talent and let them know the door is open and we are trying; create more opportunities to share ideas; look at every aspect of the firm, from the way the offices are set up to the way people are able to communicate internally; create teams instead of silos; and think “outside the law-firm box” for alternative practice structures. This includes developing more and different paths to partnership and leadership positions so individuals have a choice and taking a longer view of career success, respecting work and family balance and alternative or flexible hours work arrangements. We can’t keep building the same firms and expect to attract and retain different types of people.

Dr. Reeves and other diversity professionals can help firms and legal departments learn how to change and create a rich ecosystem that invites and sustains diverse talent. As Dr. Reeves points out, we must evaluate firm processes and find ways to create structures that break up opportunities for implicit bias: we should examine such things as the interview process; the feedback and evaluation process; recruiting and hiring; advancement and leadership; and client development and service. Cultivate the soil and nourish the ecosystem; make it inviting. And once people are there, we need to involve and integrate everyone into the ecosystem of the practice, each with an important role in supporting the whole. In this way, we can start transforming our cornfields into rainforests.

Paula J. Schauwecker

Ms. Schauwecker is a shareholder at Beveridge & Diamond, P.C. in New York, New York, and is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment.