Strategies that Work to Enhance Legal Office Diversity

Diversity and inclusion in the legal sector -- increasingly, it’s a topic that’s being discussed and addressed by legal leaders, law schools, news media, and other sources.

For too long a wall of uniformity has defined the legal profession. A wall that limits entry and advancement based on race, ethnicity, color, culture, gender, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, geography and age . . . .  A wall that has left the legal profession an anachronism in an increasingly diverse society.
-- Excerpt from homepage of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession
To gain insights on diversity and inclusion in the law profession and strategies to enhance legal workforce programs, we talked with Liz Mikos, Diversity Strategist at Nesso Strategies. With knowledge and expertise on the impact that changing global attitudes and the multicultural workforce in the U.S. are having on business, Mikos partners with clients to develop diversity and inclusion practices to enhance organizational effectiveness and business success.

Can you describe why diversity and inclusion are essential to the success of legal organizations today?

MIKOS: Diversity and inclusion are part of the moral climate we live in today; they impact the way business works and particularly, how the business of law works. Right now, we’re seeing the strong influence that diversity is having on client demand. Clients are feeling pressure to look for supplier diversity; and that translates to how they pursue counsel for complex legal matters.

Diversity and inclusion are also relevant today due to changes in our national demographics and the makeup of our professional workforce. So the question becomes how law firms and legal departments will become culturally fluent to respond to and leverage these demographic shifts. Consider the value an organization derives from a diverse staff -- the innovative potential of having people with different life experiences, who come to the table with varying frames of reference and cognitive approaches, working to develop effective solutions for client challenges.

Have you seen progress with respect to diversity and inclusion within the legal profession during the past few years?

MIKOS: While there’s been significant progress, I believe considerable progress remains. As I often say, diversity is a process, not a destination. Because concerns about retention and attrition are mounting, organizations are increasingly addressing how they can enhance diversity and inclusion within the workplace. That’s progress -- 30 or 40 years ago, the topic wasn’t even on the table.

However, many firms operate in what I call a “comfort zone” regarding diversity and inclusion -- on their websites, they note they’re an EEO employer; demonstrate their diversity/inclusion pro bono or corporate social responsibility activities; promote sponsorship of diversity/inclusion initiatives. Such efforts are good, but I consider them just outward facing, conveying an image those organizations want to project to the outside world. Many firms are more hesitant to hold up the mirror and self-examine their internal practices -- for example, what are their hiring and promotion policies, who’s getting the highest raises, which associates are receiving the strongest developmental opportunities? It’s often a struggle to convince firm leaders that beyond recruiting and marketing positioning, diversity and inclusion practices can positively impact the operation and culture of their organization and the delivery of services and client relationships.

What’s the biggest obstacle to adopting diversity and inclusion behaviors within the legal workplace?

MIKOS: Diversity and inclusion are still difficult topics for many legal offices to discuss. It takes “courageous leadership” to raise and address the issues, develop goals and timelines and implement concrete steps to achieve identified objectives. And it’s critical to have a realistic perspective, understanding that progress won’t be achieved overnight. For example, if an objective is to attain greater diversity among the partner ranks -- you need to first define exactly what that means and develop measurable, incremental steps and a timeline to get there. Build discussion on the objective into partner meetings to check progress. And if a key associate being groomed for partner status resigns, don’t get discouraged. Have an extensive exit interview and learn from that feedback. 

One of best practices I recommend is to have regular “stay” interviews. Don’t wait for an exit interview to learn from a resigning associate what the organization could be doing better. Instead, check in with current employees to find out what’s important to them; in one-on-one or group settings, ask them directly what the organization is doing or should be doing to strengthen job satisfaction, particularly with regards to diversity and inclusion practices.

What are some other best practices that encourage a culture of diversity and inclusion within legal organizations?

MIKOS: Organizations need to regularly hold up a mirror -- dig into their metrics and identify their successes and their weaknesses. Unless you do that diagnostic, you’re spinning your wheels. I often see organizations make the mistake of thinking about diversity and inclusion purely from a top-down perspective. Instead, ask for feedback from all members regarding diversity and inclusion practices -- what’s important to them, where do they see biases -- with project assignments, promotions, compensation, developmental opportunities?

I also emphasize the importance of establishing smart, realistic goals. Be systematic and organized in implementing action plans; build in accountability measures; establish follow-up plans. We recognize the business of law is hectic -- so it’s critical you build in reminders and checkpoints to ensure incremental steps are taken and progress is achieved. 

I also encourage clients to develop a one-page marketing brief on their diversity and inclusion programs, strategies and long-term goals. Communicate this regularly with employees, potential job seekers and clients to demonstrate you do care about the diverse/inclusive culture of your office, that you know where your weak spots are and are doing something about them. That’s going to bring people in, keep them in the organization. 

Another proactive strategy is to implement a sponsorship program. A sponsor is a senior leader in an organization, someone who’s powerfully positioned, who can direct the path a protégé travels. Somewhat like a mentor, a sponsor offers advice but also creates and provides developmental opportunities, actively advocates for the employee, and campaigns for the employee during the review process, promotional discussions and salary treatment considerations.