Login | December 13, 2018

Conference explores diversity hang-ups and how to move forward

Law Bulletin columnist

Published: February 28, 2018

At the end of January, I had the privilege of speaking at Legalweek 2018. The conference, focused primarily on larger law firms, is a reimagining of the traditional LegalTech conference started in 1982. This version of Legalweek started in 2017 and now includes conferences addressing other parts of the legal profession beyond technology, among them is legal diversity and talent management.

Both topics featured speaker panels from various sectors — law firms, companies, startups, bar associations and the government. Being surrounded by legal innovation and discussions of the future of our profession, it was inevitable that these two areas of the law focused on the future of diversity in that industry as well.

What did I learn? Well, quite a lot as it turned out.

Clients are leading the change for diversity in large law firms. American Bar Association Resolution 113. The Mansfield Rule. The HP (Hewlett-Packard) Diversity Mandate.

Each of those initiatives uses client pressure on large law firms to increase law firm diversity. Over and over again, panelists hammered home that clients can run the show when it comes to improving diversity at law firms.

Panelists also cautioned that law firms should do more than simply have diverse attorneys show up at the pitch. Clients want to see that those diverse lawyers are staffed on the matter and that they do quality work on that matter as well.

Law firms need more diversity competencies. These days, law firms are laser-focused on competencies; the specific knowledge, skills and abilities attorneys need to succeed at every level of their career.

Legal diversity and talent management panelists encouraged law firms to utilize competencies when it comes to diversity as well. If a law firm wants its lawyers to be more inclusive and culturally competent, it needs to outline how precisely its lawyers are going to achieve that.

What are the specific results the law firm wants? What are the tasks that need to be done? How many of those tasks should an attorney do per year? What are the routes to achieve that?

Millennials have some good ideas, too. Yes, I was a millennial speaking about millennials on a millennial panel. However, it is always worth noting that what millennials want and what lawyers of all generations want are not necessarily opposed. Millennials are well-known for seeking more work/life balance, flexible work arrangements, greater transparency, alternative career tracks and perks other than an end-of-year bonus.

As my panel and other panels pointed out, those are all benefits that many people in other generations — Gen X, baby boomers and the soon-to-arrive Generation Y — want as well.

Start using metrics to measure diversity success. Since we were in a future law focused space, the conversation inevitably turned to data and the importance of acquiring data. Panelists argued that diversity leaders in law firms need to do more than measure the number of diversity initiatives and list those initiatives on their website or annual report.

Instead, they need to measure the impact of those initiatives. Without metrics, it’s hard to say you’ve moved the needle on diversity. As the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Track your diverse associates from the beginning of their career through to the end. As one panelist explained, whenever an associate leaves her firm, she can go back through the associate’s entire career at the firm and point out exactly where the associate’s career started to detour.

If firms are committed to increasing diversity and inclusion, they need to look at their diverse associates and determine exactly why they succeeded or did not succeed at the firm. What assignments did they have? How many business development opportunities did they take? Which partners did they work with? What reviews did they get? How many associates were given bonuses? How many were promoted? And if and when they left the firm, where did they go?

Thanks for the feedback

According to the panelists, a common refrain among departing women and minority associates was that they never heard relevant or helpful feedback from their supervisors. (Millennial associates often say the same as well). Feedback matters. Law firms should train partners on how to deliver feedback and train associates on how to ask for feedback, how to receive feedback and how to incorporate that feedback into their future work.

Bias matters

Every panel had one common theme — if we want to improve diversity and inclusion, then we need to keep addressing implicit bias. (My organization, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, recognizes that too, which is why we created our first free diversity e-learning module on implicit bias in the legal workplace found on our 2Civility website.) Implicit bias comes into play in recruiting, hiring, training, mentoring, promoting and on and on and on.

Law firms need to recognize the biases inherent in their systems and explicitly work to correct them, including addressing what assignments are given, discussing which partners are working with which associates and why, articulating competencies and promotion expectations and providing candid and real-time feedback from supervising attorneys.

Law firms committed to diversity and inclusion should take on that challenge, otherwise we’ll be right back here in 10 years talking about the same issues that affect the legal profession.

Let’s continue to change the dialogue and try innovative and new ideas to improve the future of diversity and inclusion in our profession.

Michelle A. Silverthorn is the diversity and education director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. Prior to that, she worked as a litigation associate at Schiff, Hardin LLP in Chicago and at Latham & Watkins LLP in New York City.