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December 01, 2021 Diversity & Inclusion

Can C-suite diversity officers really make a difference?

By Cynthia L. Cooper
What exactly is the job of a CDO or a CDIO?

What exactly is the job of a CDO or a CDIO?

Illustration by Sara Wadford/ABA Journal.

The press releases from law firms rolled out one after another, month after month in the last year and a half, heralding the appointments of chief diversity officers. Sometimes the announcements were about a new person taking on a preexisting position, but often it was a newly created title altogether.

The notices are from big firms with multiple offices and recognizable names: Sidley Austin in February 2020; Davis Wright Tremaine in October 2020; Morrison & Foerster in December 2020; Hanson Bridgett in January 2021; Husch Blackwell and then Milbank in June; Jones Walker and Kramer Levin, along with Venable in July—among others.

Precipitated by the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in May 2020, anti-Asian violence, antisemitic incidents and national protests against racism, the rise of the chief diversity officer in the legal industry has become another marker of national reckoning.

“It’s a growing trend that’s going to stick,” says Sylvia F. James, chief diversity and inclusion officer for the international firm Winston & Strawn. In October 2020, James was promoted to the chief title, the first at the firm, after serving as the director of diversity and inclusion for three years. “I think it sends a message both internally and externally about the importance that the firm places on the position. It adds a certain amount of weight and gravitas. So I do think that the title matters,” James says.

But what exactly is the job of a CDO or a CDIO? And will the role have an impact on improving the diversity record at law firms or in addressing the systemic racism that has become an open wound in American communities?

Diversity elevated amid stunted growth

Approximately 16 to 20 people in the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals have “chief” in their title, according to its president, Lia Dorsey, who is the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart. According to Dorsey, ALFDP, founded in 2006, has 250 individual and institutional members—approximately 130 law firms are listed on its website.

“Now people are adding ‘B’ into the title, as in ‘belonging,’” says Dorsey, referring to a newer term in the diversity lexicon that emphasizes the need for individuals to feel respected as full participants in the community or organization.

Whatever letters are in the chief title, the challenges those in the positions face are daunting. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s latest annual Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, released in February 2021, progress for women and people of color has crawled forward glacially. Women accounted for only 21.3% of equity partners in 2020. Total female law partners were at 25.05% in 2020, an increase of less than 6 percentage points from 19.43% 10 years earlier. Black lawyers—and particularly Black female lawyers—also have seen their numbers grow at a snail’s pace. In 2020, only 2% of law firm partners were Black. Latinas and Black women represent less than 1% of all law firm partners; in the past 11 years, Black or African American women at the associate level increased by only one-tenth of a percentage point. Asian lawyers filled 4% of the partnership roles, but Asian women had a mere 1.62% representation among partners. Lawyers with disabilities accounted for less than 1% of partners. An area of slight expansion is found in the number of LGBTQ lawyers: The percentage of partners grew to 2.19% in 2020 from 1.47% in 2010.

The 2020 Model Diversity Survey Report, a three-year study of more than 370 law firms completed by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and released in February 2021, provides additional insight. Only 1% to 2% of lawyers in the firms surveyed were LGBTQ+, and LGBTQ+ hires constituted between 0% and 5% of attorneys, depending on firm size and year. While the growth rate for LGBTQ+ attorneys at the associate level was slightly higher than that of other attorneys, “at the partnership levels (both nonequity and equity), LGBTQ+ attorneys show significant decline,” the survey said. The ABA also found that lawyers with disabilities constituted only 1% of associates and one-half of 1% of partners, equity or nonequity.

“Across the myriad of tables and analyses in the report, a fairly blatant pattern emerges,” the survey notes. “While there is budding diversity and growth at the lower levels of law firms (i.e., associates), the diversity tends to bottleneck as the analyses move up the chain of command.”

Stagnant growth on diversity also shows up in the 2020 Law Firm Diversity Survey Report by the Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Based on information gathered from 233 firms in spring 2020, the survey found that 75% of law firm partners are male and 89% are white. Retention of diverse attorneys is particularly weak.

“Not only do female and attorneys of color leave their firms at a disproportionately high rate, but the numbers are rising. This is particularly notable among women of color, African American/Black attorneys and Asian American attorneys,” the survey stated.

The Vault/MCCA survey did find that 75% of the firms have hired or plan to hire a director of diversity or other full-time professional to address diversity.

Access and visibility are crucial

The actual job description of a chief diversity officer varies widely. “I don’t think there is any consistency in terms of what the role is going to entail. It can vary dramatically from one firm to another. There are no clear lines of demarcation,” says Sandra S. Yamate, CEO of the Chicago-based Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, which conducts research on law firm diversity.

“If they are going to make this role effective, they’ve got to have the authority to take action. It should be a position that has a direct line of reporting to whoever is at the head of the firm. It should be envisioned as a role that has a lot of strategy components to it and big-picture thinking,” Yamate says. CDOs also need budget and staffing support, she adds.

The position roughly divides into internal and external activities, including high-level strategy and day-to-day implementation with a D&I team. Internally, that might involve recruiting; training; setting performance benchmarks; designing retention programs; preparing policies, goals and targets; client reviews; town halls, listening sessions, retreats and programs; affinity group coordination; marketing; individual counseling; working with leadership and diversity committees—sometimes involving dozens of people worldwide; empowering and inspiring stakeholders; and serving as a role model.

External engagement might mean public messaging; participation in coalitions; pro bono and grant research; fellowship assignments; and involvement on panels, with associations and with community leaders. Psychology, sociology, history and theories of change filter in at all levels.

Action within the firm

Diversity directors and officers first entered the law firm scene in the early 2000s, according to Paulette Brown, who in 2015 became the first African American woman to serve as ABA president. “It was not a priority for a lot of firms. When the recession hit, they were gone,” Brown says.

Now senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Locke Lord, Brown is a member of her firm’s executive team and has one DEI staff person, with two more to be added. As ABA president, Brown formed the Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission that administered the 2020 Model Diversity Survey Report.

“Firms are now realizing that this is something important that they need to do in order to be successful. More leaders are actively involved. Firms have to be hyperintentional about these issues of diversity and inclusion,” Brown says.

The first known chief diversity officer, Carl G. Cooper, held the position with Pittsburgh-based firm K&L Gates from 2003-2007. Now, the sizable majority of CDOs are women, and the positions have particularly attracted Black women, according to James.

“There’s something about having gone through the experience of being a minority woman or a Black woman in a large law firm, of people thinking, ‘I made it through this process, I have something to give back, and I’m passionate about it,’” explains James of Winston & Strawn. She comes from a background as a labor and employment lawyer, a not uncommon entry point for D&I professionals.

James divides the position into four “buckets”: client engagement, such as responding to surveys and planning proactive programs; recruitment and retention; internal programming and training; and marketing and public relations to make sure the firm’s diversity message is integrated into communications.

The work on retention of diverse lawyers, often an invisible endeavor, led to James’ launch of the Diversity and Inclusion Associate Sponsorship Program. It pairs every member of the executive committee for one year with a fifth- or sixth-year associate, known as a protege, who falls into a diverse category—women, LGBTQ or of a racial or ethnic minority.

“We weren’t sure if that was going to work when you take the firm’s busiest partners, who have so many other responsibilities, and you say, ‘Do this,’” James says. The pairs participate in structured activities, including regular “virtual power hours,” in which executive committee members meet with proteges.

The program is paying off. “It has been so good in building relationships where none existed, and it’s nice to see the cohorts who have been through the program now being elevated to partnership,” James says. Three former proteges—one African American woman and two Latinas—were made partners last December, she says.

James reports to the chief operations officer, a switch from her prior reporting as diversity director to the chief talent officer. Two of the firm’s top leaders actively participate on her diversity committee.

“I cannot overemphasize what it means to have leadership involvement in the diversity committee. In our firm, we’re divided into litigation department and transactions, and everything else falls into one of those two. It really helps to have the heads of those departments involved on the diversity committee, instead of us coming up with things and then someone going to the leaders and trying to get buy-in,” James says.

Dorsey agrees that the building of trust with firm leaders is crucial. “At the end of the day, I’m going to ask you to do something different, I’m going to ask you to do something unfamiliar,” Dorsey says. “People can only do that when they trust you,” she adds.

Dorsey moved to Ogletree in March 2021 to head a team of four diversity professionals. She has worked at law firms since 2006 and in D&I since 2016, even though, unlike most chiefs, she is not a lawyer.

“The skill that really sets a good chief diversity officer apart is their ability to establish relationships, their ability to be politically astute and to read tea leaves within an organization and navigate different situations,” Dorsey says.

Like everyone in the diversity space, her team is grappling with an uptick in client surveys. “Our clients are really pushing the DEI narrative now. They are leaning on their law firms,” Dorsey says. “So it’s not just the lawyers saying, ‘Oh, of course we have diverse people working on the matters.’ The clients are now saying, ‘I want their names.’ They are holding firms to account,” Dorsey says.

Building new bridges with clients and diverse firm lawyers is a key strategy in the portfolio of Maria D. Melendez, who became global chief diversity officer at Sidley Austin in May 2020. Melendez came to the role after serving as a litigation partner at the firm for 18 years, taking over from a predecessor of eight years standing. Melendez oversees a team of 10, and she reports to the two executive officers of the firm and works closely with two dozen partners around the world who serve on diversity committees.

“With the pandemic and the biggest racial social justice movement in modern history, the hardest part has been navigating all of that and having conversations with colleagues who were in pain. But so many more people are engaged around what they can do. That’s been the great plus,” Melendez says.

As a guide for her CDO initiatives, Melendez uses three “pillars”: global mindset, inclusion and impactful relationships. It is the last that led her to develop a cross-mentorship program called Advancing Diversity & Inclusion to the Next Level with Impactful Relationships. The plan pairs five women and diverse lawyers at Sidley with client decision-makers. At the same time, five client lawyers who are women or lawyers of a diverse background are matched with senior Sidley partners. The goal is to create meaningful relationships between firm talent and client decision-makers. Quarterly meetings address a substantive issue, such as a cutting-edge legal decision, with the diverse Sidley lawyer making a presentation on the topic.

“We want to give them the opportunity to be on their feet in front of a major client and to demonstrate their skills,” Melendez says. The early results have been “phenomenal.”

“We’ve been doing the same thing for 30 years. We have to do something different. It’s a paradigm shift,” she says.

Going beyond the firm environment

Chief diversity officers are also called upon to shape firm responses to external events on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

At Baker McKenzie, developing the public response to issues around the country is seen as a vital component of the work of the diversity chief, according to Global Chief Operating Officer Kate Stonestreet.

In January 2021, Baker McKenzie named Anna Brown as its first chief inclusion and diversity officer. Brown, a Howard University School of Law graduate, previously held the titles of global director and North America director of diversity and inclusion at the firm. She is co-author of Diversity in Action: A Manual for Diversity Professionals in Law with Theresa D. Cropper, a trailblazing law firm diversity director and the former chief diversity officer at Perkins Coie.

Baker McKenzie’s decision to create the CIDO position came about during a review of firm strategy, Stonestreet says. “Diversity and inclusion became a much more visible component of the initiatives we drive, the expectations we set of our people and how it fits or is positioned in our firm. Diversity and inclusion really goes across all aspects, from our clients to our people to our financial management and performance,” she says. One immediate change: Brown, with a staff of 12, now has a reporting line directly to her as the COO, Stonestreet says.

Among other roles, Brown is called upon to develop the firm’s public response to social issues, such as the George Floyd murder, Stonestreet notes. “Public statements mean a lot to our people but also to our communities, and they drive behavioral change. Whether it’s on the fact that we are anti-racist, whether it’s our global aspirational statements for gender, whether it’s our commitment to the Mansfield Rule [on interviewing diverse candidates], these are public statements that we hold ourselves to account on. Because we’re not just saying we hope we get there, we’re saying that’s a line in the sand. And Anna has pushed us to do that—she’s forced us to be bold,” Stonestreet says.

Because the firm operates in 47 countries, these public commitments must also reflect the concerns of international communities where social topics may resonate in differing ways. “The skill that the CIDO has to have is the ability to take a nuanced approach to the implementation of critical diversity and inclusion initiatives and policies, and to make sure that they land and are appropriate for the many markets where we operate,” Stonestreet says.

Creating a slate of initiatives that address external communities has been a center of attention for Genhi Givings Bailey, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Perkins Coie. Bailey, a former music lawyer who moved to diversity 15 years ago, became the second CDIO at the firm in October 2018. She has a staff of seven working with her, and she has plans to add more.

“The most dramatic shift for me over the past year or so has been that there is an urgency around what we are doing. There is elevated interest and intentionality across the board,” Bailey says.

In the wake of public demands to end systemic racism, the firm developed a Commitment to Racial Equality with six initiatives that are aimed at having an impact external to the organization.

“We looked at the community and set out to identify places where we, as a law firm, could bring value. So we looked at how we could leverage our expertise, our experience, our talent to support communities of color,” Bailey says.

One initiative in the works is supplier diversity with the goal of increasing the “spend” and the number of diverse and women suppliers for firm projects and purchases. Working with a consultant, the firm has formulated a strategic plan to implement a program of diversity in the firm’s buying practices.

Another initiative now being launched is an entrepreneurship program to support Black and Latino startups. “Looking at Black and brown entrepreneurs who are trying to break though in the capital space, we realized that we know the decision-makers in that space. It’s a very closed space, so we are trying to open it up to more Black and Latinx founders,” Bailey says. The firm will help entrepreneurs prepare a pitch, gather resources and develop relationships with people inside Silicon Valley.

“We can be a conduit, a liaison, between the people who have the money and the people who are seeking the opportunities,” Bailey says.

Can CDOs effect change?

Will CDOs be able to bend the arc of diversity and inclusion inside law firms or in the wider community? Law firms, Winston & Strawn’s James says, “are quite a few years behind corporate America. They are catching up.”

Yamate is cautiously optimistic. “But if firms try to get away with hiring people as economically as possible, then, yeah, this is something we’ll be talking about in the future as ‘another trend after the pandemic,’” she says.

There are hopeful signs: In fall 2021, Yamate is teaching the first law school seminar in the country on diversity,
equity and inclusion in the legal profession at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, along with co-professor Josie M. Gough, assistant dean for inclusion, diversity and equity at the school.

In addition, the ABA Diversity and Inclusion Center and Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council sponsored its first Equity Summit, a four-day virtual conference that featured a conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, CLEs, TED Talks-style discussions and workshops—all designed to share insights and innovations on DEI.

The last year was hard on DEI chiefs, Ogletree’s Dorsey says.

“After the murder of George Floyd and all that followed, a lot of organizations looked to their chiefs and said, ‘Help get us out of this.’ Like, we need to solve this problem right now. We didn’t get into this problem overnight, so we’re not going to get out of it overnight. But that was the pressure that a lot of us were under,” she says. “This is the long game that we are playing. The successes, they come. But it is not instant gratification.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist and lawyer in New York City.

This article was originally published in the December 2021-January 2022 issue under the headline, “Inclusion and Equity: Can C-suite diversity officers really make a difference?.”