February 24, 2014

Taking the Lead: Embedding Diversity and Inclusion Within Firms

Law Practice Magazine | March/April 2014 | The ABA TECHSHOW 2014 IssueIF YOU ARE READING THIS, you already know that diversity and inclusion are important. I am going to skip Diversity and Inclusion 101 because I don’t need to preach to the converted. Rather, I offer some practical tips and ideas that can be accomplished with ease, no matter the size of your firm, no matter your budget.

The first and most important job is yours. You must be clear to everyone that you believe diversity and inclusion are core issues for your firm’s success. They cannot be mere lip service, and there can be no excuses. Listen, do not presume. When firm leadership proves it values diversity and inclusion, everyone responds more positively.

Your support for diversity and inclusion must be apparent to the staff as well as the lawyers. Making this evident reinforces your message and helps break down the divide between lawyers and staff. Be sure to create diversity and inclusion programs for your staff. Start a staff committee dedicated to this issue, and be sure it meets regularly. For example, staff members can share cultural events with the entire firm. For Black History Month, our staff Diversity and Inclusion Committee arranged for a special screening of a locally produced documentary about African-Americans in the U.S. Another event we’ve sponsored was a lunch for everyone, where staff members introduced and explained the food representing their various heritages. During National Hispanic Heritage Month, our firm’s luncheon was linked with a fundraiser for a local Hispanic charity chosen by the staff. The food was delicious, and we came together for a great cause.

You, your lawyers and staff likely support all types of community organizations. Be sure to consider sponsoring groups such as minority and LGBT bar associations, and minority and LGBT chambers of commerce. In my firm, our lawyers and staff also attend special events sponsored by local nonprofits dedicated to diversity and inclusion. These nonprofits can provide many meaningful pro bono opportunities as well. Sponsorships for local organizations have a larger impact because the money stays within your community. Your lawyers may be surprised when all these activities also bring new business opportunities. You won’t be surprised, but you will be pleased at how your diversity and inclusion efforts are being reinforced.

Besides being a purveyor of services to clients, every law firm is a consumer as well. Start a supplier diversity program to ensure that the playing field is level when you buy goods and services in the community. Introducing your firm and your staff to new suppliers will also open doors to new business opportunities and referral sources for your lawyers.

Most firms write and distribute newsletters for their clients and friends. Consider a diversity and inclusion newsletter. You can highlight your firm’s contributions to the dialogue and feature others in the community. Don’t forget to post your newsletter on your website, and allow others to link to it from their websites. I am very impressed with a newsletter written in Japanese by one of my colleagues. It is read by lawyers and potential clients in Japan as well as on this continent.

Many communities have pipeline programs for young people considering a career in the law. You can make a difference in young people’s lives by inviting them into your firm to speak with lawyers and support staff. Our program features a tour of the office, a luncheon, and presentations from lawyers and paralegals. We also participate in a pipeline program for diverse first-year law students, offering them a paid summer clerkship. After this experience, the vast majority of our first-year students are successful in getting paid law firm clerkships again following their second year.

If you have enough lawyers in your firm, create groups bound together by a common experience, be that ethnic group, sexual preference, gender, etc. If not, be sure you form a lawyer diversity committee or group that meets regularly, or encourage your lawyers to participate in minority bars.

It will help uncover any issues diverse attorneys may be facing, so problems can be solved. The committee will also unify your diversity and inclusion program, and strengthen your culture and expectation of inclusion. Larger firms are well served by associate diversity affinity groups and diverse attorney retreats.

Training all your lawyers and staff in diversity and inclusion is not prohibitively expensive. Small firms can do this, too. It shows you are committed to a positive experience for everyone in the workplace. The training should be ongoing, not simply a one-time event. Easy examples of these efforts are “lunch and learns,” or portions of in-house memos to the firm.

You can easily introduce these programs, and others, into your firm. They are fun. They are inclusive. They are good for business. With these programs, you will be rewarded with less attrition and better morale among all lawyers and staff.