Using A Diversity Assessment To Fuel And Guide Diversity Training And Other Lessons Learned

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 01:00

Diversity, inclusiveness and collegiality are core values and a source of
pride at Holland & Knight LLP. Attracting, retaining and promoting diverse
lawyers and staff are part of the firm's Strategic Vision. Like other successful
businesses, we know that diversity makes us a better and stronger firm, spawns
innovative thinking and understanding that provides better solutions to address
the concerns and the needs of our clients, and makes us more reflective of the
communities in which we live and work.

These values have been promoted within Holland & Knight since its
inception and the results are visible at the highest levels of our firm today.
More than 30 years ago, Chesterfield Smith, the firm's founding father and a
former President of the American Bar Association, sometimes known as "America's
Lawyer," hired and mentored the firm's first female attorney, Martha Barnett.
Martha went on to emulate Chesterfield and also become President of the American
Bar Association, and now serves as Chair of the firm's Directors Committee (our
firm's highest policy-making body). Not too many years later, Chesterfield also
hired and mentored the firm's first African-American attorney, Marilyn
Holifield, who is now widely recognized as one of the leading lawyers in the
United States and is a former Director of the firm. In addition to their many
other accolades and achievements, both Martha and Marilyn have been among the 18
recipients of the "Chesterfield Smith Lawyer Award," which is our firm's highest
honor.

Diversity is evident among the leadership of the firm in other ways as well.
For example, La Fonte Nesbitt, an African American partner, is the Executive
Partner in charge of the firm's Mid-Atlantic offices located in Washington,
D.C., Northern Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland. In March 2005, La Fonte was also
named the firm's inaugural Diversity Partner. Janis Schiff, also resident in the
Washington, D.C., office, is the firm's Marketing Partner. Adolfo Jimenez, a
Cuban-American Partner in our Miami Office, is the firm's Professional
Development and Recruiting Partner with responsibility for associate and lateral
hiring, mentoring and professional development of our lawyers and other legal
professionals. In addition, minority and women partners head a number of other
offices and practice groups and serve on the firm's Directors Committee.
Diversity is also evident among the highest levels of our staff, as among other
things, women serve as our Chief Professional Development Officer and business
managers for a number of our offices.

Our efforts and accomplishments concerning diversity have been recognized for
many years in numerous ways, including for example, receipt in 1999 of the
Thomas L. Sager Award from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association in
recognition of the firm's success in recruiting, retaining, and promoting
minority attorneys; the 2003 Defense Research Institute Law Firm Diversity
Award; the 2005 Spirit of Partnership Award for Commitment to Diversity from the
Sodexho Law Department; and the award in June 2005 of the Harmony Award from Gay
Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., for pro bono work on behalf of gay, lesbian,
bi-sexual or transgender persons seeking asylum in the United States. The firm
has also been recognized with profiles and high rankings with respect to
diversity in such publications as the American Lawyer, Minority Law
Journal
and Multi-Cultural Law Journal.

But we are taking a series of steps to do even better in coming years and at
the top of that list is diversity awareness training for our entire firm.

In 2005, Holland & Knight completed a nine-month comprehensive assessment
to evaluate the firm's performance and attitudes on diversity through extensive
interviews, office visits, focus groups, surveys and other data collection
methods. The Diversity Assessment was performed by our firm's Corporate
Diversity Counseling Group1 at the direction of our Managing
Partner. Our goal was to garner participation from as many attorneys and staff
as possible, and we were able to reach over 50 percent of both our attorneys and
staff. The Diversity Assessment collected information on multiple diversity and
inclusion dimensions, including: (i) level of leadership commitment to diversity
and (ii) work environment/ firm culture. The results of our assessment confirmed
broad support among all levels and in all offices of our firm for diversity, but
it also identified opportunities for improvement.

One of the key recommendations from our Diversity Assessment was for
comprehensive diversity awareness training for our lawyers and staff. However,
rather than just proceed with generic diversity training based on standard
approaches, we have created a diversity training program tailored to a
professional services firm generally and specifically to a law firm. In order to
make it even more relevant, we have also molded the training in part to address
and build on information gathered about our firm through the Diversity
Assessment.

Our training efforts have been led by our Diversity Partner and Corporate
Diversity Counseling Group working with an outside diversity training consultant
and our Chief Professional Development Officer and her staff. We do not utilize
a rigid "this is the only right way" approach. Instead, our strategy is to
provide each of the training participants with an understanding of our firm's
broad definition of diversity, inclusiveness and collegiality; a common
diversity vocabulary; an understanding and appreciation of how and why people
from different backgrounds and cultures and with different attributes can and do
see and experience the world differently; and, perhaps most important, license
to engage in discussion and debate on diversity issues. Within that common
framework, however, we have structured somewhat different training modules for
(i) firm leadership, (ii) other attorneys (partners, senior counsel and
associates) and (iii) staff, based on what we have learned from and about them
and their concerns through our Diversity Assessment.

Training is mandatory to demonstrate the level of our firm's commitment to
diversity, but frankly people have been clamoring for it and many have
re-arranged their often complicated schedules to participate. Sessions have been
a full day for our firm's senior management, four hours for all other lawyers
and two hours for staff. Sessions for all have generally involved 30 or fewer
people to facilitate participation.

We have prepared a number of activities, exercises and filmed scenarios that
are reflective of some of the specific concerns and comments we received from
different constituent groups in the firm. For example, we explore the
attorney/staff and supervisor/employee relationship and scenarios from differing
perspectives depending on the audience. We interject into the discussions
information about the community in which the office is located and diversity
issues occurring outside of our doors, as well as discussions of the aggregate
responses by members of the office or other group being trained to the Diversity
Assessment. By so doing, the training has been made more relevant to the lives
of the people being trained - both their lives inside and outside of our firm.

As is especially necessary in a business with a highly skilled and vocal
workforce - like our lawyers and staff - we have made every attempt to make our
diversity awareness training fast-paced and highly interactive. We have used a
combination of an outside diversity trainer and our Corporate Diversity
Counseling Group, who are skilled trainers in their own regard, to conduct the
training. We have also taken very seriously the formal written evaluations and
verbal feedback we have received. We have even become adept at making "half-time
adjustments" between morning and afternoon sessions in the same office, if we
determine (or are told) that something is not working in that market.

Finally, we have been careful to establish realistic objectives and goals for
our diversity awareness training. Several hours of training, no matter how good,
can obviously only be a beginning towards understanding and exploring a subject
as rich and complicated as diversity. So, among other things, the firm has
established local office diversity committees and other avenues through which
both staff and lawyers can continue to explore and develop these issues in the
manners that best serve their local needs.

The circumstances of each firm, business, or government agency and the
diversity challenges it faces and opportunities it has will be somewhat
different. However, we believe our approach to diversity awareness training
which combines best practices coupled with a specific focus on those areas that
are identified in a comprehensive diversity assessment of the organization
involved can be successfully applied in virtually any
setting.

1 Holland & Knight's Corporate Diversity Counseling
Group assists clients in conducting diversity compliance reviews and legal
vulnerability assessments and also counsels and litigates on behalf of employers
in a variety of employment law matters.

La Fonte Nesbitt is the Diversity Partner for Holland
& Knight LLP. Paul M. Thomas is the Partner in charge of the firm's
Corporate Diversity Counseling Group. Sylvia F. James is a Senior Counsel
and Stacy L. Hawkins is a Senior Associate in the Corporate Diversity
Counseling Group. For more information, please contact Mr. Nesbitt at (202)
457-7047.

Please email the authors at lafonte.nesbitt@hklaw.com, paul.thomas@hklaw.com, sylvia.james@hklaw.com or
stacy.hawkins@hklaw.com
with questions about this article.