Hiring diverse individuals is the easy part of the equation. Encouraging people to stay and thrive in their environment is the trickier part. Sarah Morgan reports.
For Brent A. Hawkins, Partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP (USA), who spoke yesterday at CSU02 The Times They Are a Changin’: Maximizing the Perspectives Around Us, the focal point of diversity efforts should be on retention and opportunity.
“It’s easy to think about recruitment: that’s the lazy perspective. People want to feel like they’re part of something. But, how do [diversity committees in law firms] make an environment where people can thrive and are exposed to the same opportunities [as everyone else]?”
Liisa M. Thomas, Partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP (USA), added: “We often get lost in the world of creating committees and having an infrastructure. It is so important to remember why we’re doing that—retention. It doesn’t matter how well we improve on recruiting if we can’t keep people.”
The panelists agreed it’s absolutely vital to have leadership buy-in—fostering diversity in both recruitment and retention is much easier with the support and involvement from senior management.
“If the organization doesn’t recognize the goals and doesn’t hold itself accountable to the broader objective, it’s difficult to be effective,” added Mr. Hawkins. “The participation of leadership, allies, and people who are not typically in the diversity arena is critically important to achieving the objective but also to holding the enterprise accountable to the goals.”
Jennifer Mikulina, Partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP (USA), and panel moderator, cited her firm’s women’s initiative as an example of senior leadership’s participation. The initiative has a number of male senior equity partners on the board who “challenge us but also support us,” she said.
While committees are a good start, law firms and legal departments need to push further in their diversity efforts.
Education is key to ensure firms are achieving their diversity goals, according to Mr. Hawkins. “You have to make everybody feel like there’s an important goal and not feel demonized that they’re the ones preventing ‘us’ from reaching objectives,” he said.
Beyond education, Monique E. Liburd, Trademark Counsel at Google (USA), recommended including in this work those who are typically less involved in diversity efforts.
Ms. Liburd said: “It’s really difficult when you’re tasking something so large to people who [also] have a day job,” since people who take the lead on diversity issues in their organization don’t normally get to reduce their regular workload.
Ms. Thomas echoed those sentiments, saying that while the opportunity to participate in diversity efforts is “phenomenal,” it becomes a problem “if you’re doing that to the detriment of getting your work done.”
“I have seen people get really excited about diversity initiatives to the detriment of their growth as a substantive lawyer,” Ms. Thomas added.
Ms. Liburd pointed out that in January, U.S. in-house counsel at more than 170 companies published an open letter to law firms, urgently demanding more focus on diversity.
Letters like this are only effective if backed up with robust action.
“What all these letters are doing is identifying the problem and pointing the finger, but it’s not a concrete strategy,” she said. “We should not be just making a call for it, but [we should be] doing things internally to collect and making sure these firms are following through.”
Some legal departments now require information on the diversity of the law firms soliciting their business, according to Ms. Liburd.
“I’ve seen many in-house departments [set out the] criteria they expect a firm to meet, and firms will put that pitch together, but when it comes to doing the work, those are not the [same] attorneys doing it,” she warned.
That’s why it’s imperative for in-house legal departments to ensure that the people included in a pitch are actually doing the work.
Ms. Liburt said that in-house departments should make it clear to law firms that they will only get the business when their teams are genuinely diverse. “You need to be prepared to walk away” if firms don’t meet expectations, she said.
Law firms have their own nuances. “No matter how cohesive we are as a brand and firm, ultimately we are made up of bunch of partners with their own practices and own way of doing things,” said Mr. Hawkins.
He concluded: “Institutionally, we buy in as a notion to the idea of diversity. We know our clients are demanding it, but how do we get the partners to act on that broad ideal? That’s the biggest challenge.”
Diversity, retention, diversity and inclusion, INTA 2019, Google, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, McDermott Will & Emery, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius