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August 24, 2022

Quantifying Diversity Assumptions: Why Law Continues to Lag

Bias in the workplace is a business problem.

Pamela Hernandez
For law firms to make meaningful strides in their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals, they must be willing to do the difficult work.

For law firms to make meaningful strides in their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals, they must be willing to do the difficult work.

Bunhill / Getty Images

The interest in improving diversity in the legal profession appears impressively high, yet the progress in doing so lags other professions. Even well-documented facts about the competitive, financial and hiring benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce have barely budged the diversity needle in law firms. Why? Rather than answer that question with more statistics and yet another diversity to-do list, I propose a deeper approach—one that is proven to create meaningful, lasting change. Like all change, it can be uncomfortable, but the results are well worth it.

Teams, like individuals, can have Immunity to Change, which is the title of a book by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey where they explore the topic of how to make change stick. Leaders across most industries commit to improvements they genuinely want and need to increase their effectiveness, and yet they act contrary to those intentions. Sound familiar?

By using a tool Kegan and Lahey developed called an immunity map, law firm leaders can delve into some of the hidden reasons their well-intentioned diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t delivering the results they want. The theory behind the immunity map is that even though we truly want to make a change, we have hidden competing commitments that get in the way. By bringing these hidden competing commitments to the surface and determining the assumptions that are driving them, we can begin to make lasting changes. Immunity maps are often done by individuals to jump-start change, but they also can be done by teams. This type of map is called a collective immunity map.

Let’s walk through an example. Let’s assume a medium-size law firm has done a pretty good job of hiring women, people of color and a variety of ages and abilities, but these very people seem to be leaving before they are partner-ready. The leaders of the organization sincerely want to improve this metric and have decided to have a qualified immunity map facilitator guide them through the creation of a collective immunity map. An immunity map has four columns that are completed from left to right. In column 1 the partners put a collective improvement goal that they all agree on. They complete this sentence:

“We are committed to getting better at: _______”

When developing the collective improvement goal, it’s important that it meets these criteria: It’s important to the participants (on a 5-point scale, it’s a 4 or 5); it implicates them; it’s something they can change; it’s stated as a positive (something we want to happen, not something we want not to happen); it’s not an outcome, it’s a behavior; and finally, there is room for improvement.

In column 2, the partners list the things that they are doing or not doing that get in the way of accomplishing the improvement goal. The list should be as long and exhaustive as possible. During exit interviews of the women, people of color and other individuals who were different from the dominant culture, a variety of reasons were given for leaving (all statistics are from The Center for WorkLife Law and

  • Lack of glamour work. The desirable assignments are given to white men instead of to the diverse workforce. More than 80% of white men, but only 53% of women of color, 59% of white women and 63% of men of color, report the same access to desirable assignments as their colleagues.
  • Office housework. Women are given more of the “office housework” than men. Almost 50% of white women and 43% of women of color reported that at work they more often play administrative roles such as taking notes for a meeting compared to their colleagues. Only 26% of white men and 20% of men of color reported this.
  • Meetings. Not feeling comfortable speaking at meetings or getting interrupted or not being invited at all, or meetings being scheduled at times difficult for parents and caregivers.
  • Stolen ideas. Research shows that women and people of color report that others get credit for ideas they originally offered much more than white men do.
  • No allowance for flexible schedules. If one does work flexible hours, there is a stigma and no chance of a partnership.
  • Expectation to work 60+ hours per week. Recent studies find that working less than 40 hours a week can increase productivity. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who pretended to. 
  • Unequal compensation. A 2010 study found that almost three-fourths of men (71%) but less than half of women equity partners (47%), and about one-third of women income partners and minority partners, were satisfied with their compensation. Another study found that women equity partners often earned less even when they billed the same number of hours, generated the same levels of origination, had the same level of law firm tenure and worked in the same size of law firms. One commonly hears that women earn less because they do less rainmaking, but studies show that women and people of color often offer different explanations. Nearly one-third of women income partners, over one-quarter of women equity partners and 84% of partners of color reported that someone had tried to intimidate, threaten or bully them out of origination credit.

The partners decided the aforementioned behaviors were ones they all exhibited and entered them in column two of their immunity map.

Column 3 is where it gets a little more difficult. The way to arrive at your competing commitments is to ask: “What if we didn’t _______ (fill in the blank with one of the column 2 behaviors), what would be uncomfortable for us or what would worry us about that?” Once we know what makes us uncomfortable, we can articulate our competing commitments. For example, what if we didn’t give the more visible, important assignments to the white men? What would be uncomfortable about that? Answer (if being honest): We might lose the business since they’re more qualified. We might make less money. We might lose power and status.

So, if the partners are being honest, they will realize they have competing commitments. They are committed to maintaining their power and status in the firm, they are committed to keeping the big accounts to themselves to ensure their compensation remains high and they are committed to ensuring others see them as the more qualified associates. These competing commitments are all about self-protection. If we are honest in filling out column 3, it becomes clear why merely trying to eliminate the column 2 behaviors is not going to work—because these behaviors are serving a very important purpose (maintaining the status quo).

The conflict between our sincere commitment and our competing commitments can be compared to having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. We truly want to retain a diverse workforce (the accelerator), but we have a host of competing commitments designed to keep us safe (the brake).

Finally, we come to column 4, collective big assumptions. Our big assumptions drive our competing commitments. Like our competing commitments, they are often hidden from us. To articulate these assumptions, fill in the following blanks.

“If we _______ (fill in the blank with one of the competing commitments), we must assume _______; then, if we are committed to maintaining our power and status in the firm, we must assume that giving others opportunities is going to diminish our power and status; and finally, if we are committed to keeping the big accounts for ourselves to ensure our compensation, we must assume that success in our firm is a zero-sum game. Any success for someone else is a loss for us.”

If reading this caused you to flinch a bit, take heart. It’s a good thing. One of my favorite (unattributed) quotes is “People don’t change because they see the light, they change because they feel the heat.” For law firms to make meaningful strides in their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals, they must be willing to do the difficult work of unearthing their competing commitments and big assumptions and addressing them. The cost of changing must be less than the cost of maintaining the status quo, and for many people in positions to make these changes in law firms, the cost of changing is still greater.

Pamela Hernandez

CEO, The Right Reflection

Pamela Hernandez is the founder and CEO of The Right Reflection, a coaching firm specializing in helping leaders achieve their highest potential. She is certified by Minds at Work as a Qualified Collective Map Facilitator. [email protected]

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