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January 31, 2019 Diversity

5 Tips that Law Firms Can Implement to Improve Diversity & Inclusion

By Brandes S.G. Ash and Maritza Rodríguez
Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance

Verna Myers, Founder and President, Verna Myers Consulting Group

Considering the fragile state of our country—from divided politics to, among other things, the ever-increasing publicity surrounding racial violence and intolerance—many law firms and organizations are choosing to take a closer look at their mission, best practices and goals and evaluating whether they truly promote diversity and inclusiveness.  To do so successfully requires much more than comparing the number of staff and leadership positions, from one year to the next, that are occupied by minorities.  Rather, implementing effective diversity and inclusion initiatives requires, for starters, a willingness and commitment to acknowledging and discussing the need for diversity and inclusion and, more importantly, why your organization could; benefit from such policies.

In drafting and implementing its Diversity Plan, as well as later adopting the American Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan (2017), the Family Law Section has remained committed to achieving diversity and inclusion by, among other things, increasing the participation of historically underrepresented lawyers in its activities, membership and leadership.  We identify below five (5) action items law firms and organizations can implement to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace:

Many law firms are taking a closer look at their mission, best practices and goals and evaluating whether they truly promote diversity and inclusion.

Many law firms are taking a closer look at their mission, best practices and goals and evaluating whether they truly promote diversity and inclusion.

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

  1. Encourage Volunteer & Pro Bono Opportunities and Reward Engaging in Such Work.  Lawyers are frequently reminded about the importance of performing pro bono work; in fact, several states have instituted mandatory pro bono reporting requirements in order to better track lawyers' contributions to various legal aid matters and organizations.  Notwithstanding the importance of such work, pro bono opportunities are not always readily available (or always encouraged). Thus, lawyers may be able to turn to their respective state and local bar associations for similar volunteer opportunities to assist persons who would not otherwise have the ability to meet with or retain lawyers.

    For example, in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center has, for many years, successfully run a monthly walk-in Advice and Referral Clinic for District of Columbia residents in need of information or services related to various legal issues including, without limitation: family law, employment law, probate law, housing law, and public benefits.  In New Jersey, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice hosts a monthly clinic for pro se parties who need help and information related to completing Court forms and paperwork.  The volunteer lawyers' services are strictly limited to providing general assistance and advice, not representation in any Court proceeding.

    Within the context of family law, many bar associations have established programs specifically intended for volunteer family lawyers.  For example, Seattle's King County Bar Association established a Family Law Mentor Program to help facilitate the representation of low-income clients in high-conflict family matters.  A pro bono lawyer, inexperienced in the area of family law, is assigned to work with an experienced family law attorney who commits to train, frequently monitor, and advise and support the volunteer attorney throughout a family law case. Similarly, organizations such as the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) are always in need of volunteer attorneys to mentor pro bono counsel from the beginning of a case to the end.  These types of volunteer programs provide opportunities for volunteer and pro-bono lawyers to work with, provide benefits to, and even learn from communities of underrepresented or unrepresented persons, which, ultimately, adds to their respective firms' or organizations' long-term efforts to achieve professional diversity.

    In sum, actively performing or encouraging volunteer and pro bono work communicates a much more powerful message than simply stating somewhere on your firm's or organization's website that diversity is important.  A commitment to this work may also be attractive to potential employees. A 2018 study by Deloitte found that millennials are making career decisions, including but not limited to accepting a job offer or remaining loyal to an employer for an indeterminate period of time, based upon the employers' commitment to those communities and volunteering and active engagement with surrounding communities.  Similarly, in evaluating potential career options, a recruit's decision regarding whether to join a particular law firm or legal organization may very well be swayed depending upon the strength of that firm's commitment to public service. To that end, firms and organizations may consider even making a portion or all of the hours spent on volunteer and pro bono matters count as billable time in an effort to acknowledge that causes related to diversity and inclusion contributes to their bottom line and the advancement of its attorneys.  In other words, actions speak louder than words.
  2. Encourage and Pay for Affinity Bar Memberships and Make it Part of your Ongoing CLE Benefits. There are so many great affinity bar organizations it is worth encouraging persons within your firm and legal organization to join one, in addition to maintaining their membership with the American Bar Association and/or state bar associations. Affinity bar organizations provide an opportunity to learn about and advocate on behalf of issues affecting persons from diverse backgrounds. They also provide great networking and leadership opportunities. A few examples of affinity bar associations include: The National Hispanic Bar Association, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, National Bar Association, National Native American Bar Association, and the National LGBT Bar Association.  Offer to pay for your associate to attend events sponsored by these organizations and/or consider paying for a membership, building such costs into your budget every year.  In addition, leadership should be sure to attend such events with their senior and junior level associates.  By doing so, leadership is demonstrating not only personal support of their associate's involvement and participation with affinity bar associations but also reflecting that such participation is valued.
  3. Encourage your firm or legal organization to participate in or start a Diversity Summer Associate /Internship Program.  Finding a job can be tough, especially one that is the right fit.  To that end, programs that afford law students opportunities to learn about and adjust to an organization's or firm's culture, well in advance of being hired, are invaluable. For instance, as part of its diversity initiative, Archer Attorneys at Law partners with several affinity bar associations and notable corporate partners, including the Hershey Company, for its Diversity Summer Associate Program. The Associate Program provides law students with financial and career-related support, and is committed to training, and hiring, qualified diverse law students to work in one of the firm's offices or one of the Corporate donors' legal departments.
  4. Create Work Events that provide a relaxed environment to discuss real life issues. Many firms and organizations have been successful in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse attorneys by creating a platform and safe space for engaging in open and honest dialogue about their concerns, including and any  (workplace) issues that may impact their progression and commitment to their work.  Along these lines, firms and organizations should commit to finding creative, and even fun ways to talk about issues that are relevant within and outside the workplace, including diversity. For example, a firm or organization may want to consider hosting a movie screening of "RBG" or bringing in a speaker to lead a discussion about the #MeToo movement in order to have any authentic and informed discussion about sexual harassment against women in the workplace, or the progression of women in the practice of law.
  5. Develop a mentorship program.   A 2016 ABA Journal article highlighted reasons why minority women were disappearing from Big Law firms.  In short, it is because they felt ignored and invisible. Any seasoned attorney will acknowledge how invaluable mentors were to his or her practice, whether just by receiving specific practice tips or career advice.  Thus, it is all but imperative for these same lawyers to give back and mentor others, and particularly diverse lawyers who otherwise may be silently suffering from feeling very different from everyone else in the office. The first step is to create a dedicated check-in schedule.  For example, sit down with women and minority attorneys early on and walk through their career goals with them. Ask how they are working towards these goals and offer advice on different networking and organization memberships that may be helpful. If needed, and depending on their goals, a suggestion could be that he or she improve their trial and practice skills by joining an Inn of Court, attending a Trial College or even sitting as Second Chair during an upcoming trial. Set a date to check in every few months to see what has happened since the last conversation. Make sure it is an ongoing conversation that can even be made part of the attorneys' reviews so that there is accountability and assurance, on both ends, that the conversation will happen.
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Brandes S.G. Ash

Esq., Washington, D.C.

Burr Law Firm

Co-Chair, ABA Section of Family Law Diversity Committee

Maritza Rodríguez

Esq., Newark, NJ

Rodríguez Law LLC

Vice-Chair, ABA Section of Family Law Diversity Committee