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Law Practice Today


Back to Basics

Judith H. Katz and Frederick A. Miller


  • Tips for leaders who want to create higher performing, more inclusive organizations
  • Organizational diversity efforts that focus solely on hiring result in a revolving door with frustratingly painful and expensive regularity. 
Back to Basics

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Many law firms today are focused on the challenge of becoming more diverse. Not enough are focused on the greater and more consequential challenge of becoming more inclusive.

While many are trying to address diversity issues in their hiring practices—which is certainly important for building a pipeline to a diverse pool of talent—a more important area of attention needs to be the development and retention of talent, which requires an organizational culture that is truly inclusive and supportive of the contributions of all its members. Two critical elements are needed to create that inclusive organization and key roles for leaders in achieving it.

Compliance is not inclusion.

Organizational diversity efforts that focus solely on hiring result in a revolving door with frustratingly painful and expensive regularity. It is hard enough for fresh-out-of-law-school recruits to find their way in a stressful, competitive, and unfamiliar environment. It is exponentially harder for new recruits who may be one of the few representatives of their gender, ethnicity, or skin color to succeed within a firm. Even if a firm provides proactive mentorship programs, it is hard for such recruits to find mentors who look like them, or who truly understand their challenges and actively support their success.

Organizational preparation for an influx of diverse talent often includes an emphasis on compliance, with guidelines for preventing workplace discrimination and harassment. Creation of a few hotlines and “thou shalt nots” may prevent lawsuits, but it does not guarantee acceptance or inclusion of the new more diverse members. “We won’t hurt you” is a far cry from “Welcome to the family.”

Culture is key.

In a recent article in Fortune, Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and co-founder of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, commented on how focusing on diversity numbers won’t really make organizations more inclusive: “Part of the problem is that the fixation on diversity numbers dominates the dialogue around diversity and inclusion…The fact is, business leaders should balance their approach by paying more attention to company culture.”

A firm’s culture is an amalgam of its default mindsets, behaviors, and accountabilities. Most firms’ cultures have long histories developed by their founders and are geared to accommodate their predominant and longest-standing members, which almost by definition does not include the diversity of its newest hires. Unfortunately, few leaders and senior partners are working to change their organizations’ mindsets, behaviors, and accountabilities to engage effectively across differences, and to leverage the possibilities that diversity can bring in terms of creativity, effectiveness, and overall higher performance.

Many law firms today are talking more about wanting a more inclusive culture, but creating it becomes a real challenge. For us, Inclusion in the organizational sense means people have a sense of belonging; they feel valued, respected, and seen for who they are; and most importantly, supportive energy from colleagues, leaders, and others means that, individually and collectively, people can do their best work (Katz & Miller, 2017).

To achieve that kind of supportive environment in which individuals from all identities and backgrounds can thrive takes a conscious effort, planning, and strategy. Many organizations assume the basics are in place, but unfortunately, that is often not the case. A starting point and foundation for creating such an environment is the most basic element of organizational culture, and indeed of organizations themselves: the interactions between people.

You cannot get more basic. Improve your organization’s interactions, and you improve everything about your organization. For best results, we recommend working to improve your organization’s individual and team interactions in two essential (and highly interrelated) ways: 1) Improve their interaction safety, and 2) Improve their productivity.

What is Interaction Safety and why do we need it?

"Interaction Safety" is an environment in which people feel secure enough to interact freely with their colleagues so they can share ideas and information, collaborate quickly and whole-heartedly, and support one another to maximize everyone’s individual and collaborative contributions. It is an environment that makes people feel safe enough to share not just their best ideas, but their still-in-formation ideas (Miller & Katz, 2018).

Understanding where your firm is with respect to interaction safety is key. Taking actions to move to greater interaction safety is critical for creating a more inclusive environment. We have identified four levels of interaction safety in organizations. Where does yours fit?

Level 1: On your own.

The organization pays little attention to interaction safety. Sarcasm, ridicule, bullying, verbal or nonverbal harassment are common strategies to look good while putting others down. Trust is rare. Standing out is dangerous. People keep their heads down and develop a thick skin.

Level 2: Lip Service.

The organization may say people should speak up, but it is little more than lip service. Few policies or practices actually support interaction safety. People are wary of others and often feel judged. Leaders are promoted with no regard to their ability to create an environment of interaction safety. While less toxic than Level 1, people still tend to look out for themselves and be cautious.

Level 3: Islands of Safety.

Many but not all leaders see greater interaction safety as a key component of higher performance. New policies support the creation of a more welcoming environment. Many people experience support and trust with their immediate team members and see that as an island of safety. Interaction safety, however, is not the norm throughout the organization—people must still test to see if other individuals and teams are working toward the same interaction safety objectives. Individuals have shifted from looking out only for themselves to thinking about how to support others they work closely with.

Level 4: Interaction Safety as a Way of Life.

Interaction safety is in the fabric of the organization, and a foundation that supports competitive advantage in productivity, collaboration, innovation, and people doing their best work individually and collectively. People feel free to bring their full skills and talents to the workplace, to contribute, to grow, and to partner without reservation. Policies and practices fully support an environment of interaction safety. Leaders see this as a critical element of their role and performance measures.

Joining leads to more productive interactions.

The second essential step in enhancing interactions to create an inclusive environment is to move from a judging culture to a joining culture. This can be especially challenging in an industry and profession based on a foundation of critical judgment. One of the greatest barriers to building an inclusive culture in which people can do their best work is the default behavior of judging the differences in others.

When people feel judged, they often are wary of speaking up and can be physically and psychologically incapable of performing at their best (Aronson, Burgess, Phelan, & Juarez, 2013). When interactions begin with judging, trust is withheld until the judged person (or idea, policy, or practice) has been deemed worthy. When people feel judged, time is wasted. Information, collaboration, and possibly critical actions are withheld. Opportunities are lost. Judging cultures also lend themselves more easily to manifesting biases, as people make immediate or inappropriate assumptions about others, and limit others’ ability to bring different experiences, points of view, and ideas to the table.

Contrast that with a culture in which people start from a joining mindset, in which the assumption is that the other person has something to offer. In a joining culture, when a new idea or different perspective is offered, the response is curiosity rather than skepticism, exploration rather than evaluation, building upon and spring-boarding from rather than undermining, quibbling and nit-picking. A joining mindset does not mean ideas and individuals are not assessed, but the default assumption is one of value to be appreciated and maximized rather than threat to be forestalled and minimized. In a joining mode, individuals can learn and grow, feel heard and listened to, and collaboration flows. The greater the diversity of the organization, the greater the need for a culture in which people feel joined rather than judged.

Six things leaders can do to support inclusion.

In addition to fostering interaction safety and a joining mindset, here are six key actions for leaders that can transform your firm into a higher-performing, more inclusive, and more productive workplace:

  1. Identify why greater diversity and inclusion are important to your organization’s success, mission, and strategy, not as a “nice to do,” but core to organizational success.
  2. Ensure senior leaders and partners are invested in and accountable for changing the culture.
  3. Create policies, practices, regular feedback sessions, and mentorship programs that support an inclusive environment… and ensure they are applied fairly.
  4. Make sure your new and diverse talent is getting meaningful work that provides visibility (including with clients) and sharpens/expands their skills.
  5. Conduct diversity and inclusion education to develop new competencies for interacting and partnering across differences.
  6. Hold leaders accountable for successful retention and progression of a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

No magic wands.

There is no magic wand for creating a more diverse and inclusive organization. It starts with a clear understanding that diversity is essential to the firm’s success. It takes leadership commitment, strategy, and action. And most importantly, it requires a strong foundation to help people feel that sense of belonging, and experience the supportive energy needed to bring all their skills, experiences, and backgrounds to do their best. In that way, individuals and the organization can soar.