Jump-Starting Your Law Firm's Diversity Program

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00
The Diversity Training Group, Inc
Mauricio Velasquez

Do your clients see your firm as inclusive - promulgating diversity of thought, background, and legal problem-solving innovation? Are some of your clients beginning to suggest that they don't see representative talent from all walks of life in your ranks? I would call this a moment of truth!

Is it possible that you, your colleagues and your firm leadership have noticed this developing reality but haven't been able to effect change?

A formal inclusion strategy, the backbone of any diversity program, is the first place I look when hired to consult with law firms. The success of a diversity program is measured by several factors, including an inclusive workplace culture, growth in hiring, retention, promotion of all highly qualified individuals, and increased business with clients who value diversity. A successful program requires more than putting the key in the ignition; it takes a jump-start. A jump-start includes four essential components: committed leadership, an understanding of what constitutes a diversity issue, a challenge of the status quo, and a firm-wide assessment.

Committed Firm Leadership

If firm leadership is not committed to diversity issues in the short and long term, the program will not succeed. Committed firm leadership is accessible, wants to hold people accountable, asks difficult questions, and demands answers with solutions. Leadership must admit the firm needs to change certain policies, procedures, and business practices - those that are formal and, more importantly, those that are informal.

Diversity issues typically fester when not addressed and will eventually garner increasing client scrutiny.

What Is A Diversity Issue?

A firm has a diversity issue when:

A policy or business practice (formal, informal, internal, or external) has a different impact on a particular group (for example, do billable hour requirements disproportionately penalize certain associates?);

A beneficial firm practice happens more frequently to a particular group (for example, who meets with prospective clients or who receives real feedback on their work product);

The potential barrier is more difficult for one group to overcome (upward mobility for a particular group within a firm, including who is represented in leadership positions and who is not).

If a beneficial firm practice is inclusive - all highly qualified, talented individuals succeed.

Challenging The Status Quo

Adhering to the status quo but expecting better results is organizational suicide.

Challenge the status quo by first assessing where the diversity issues lie. Addressing the issues is part of a longer process. Keep no policy or process sacred.

Conducting A Firm-wide Assessment

A diversity audit establishes a baseline and defines the firm's current status on all diversity-related firm matters. The assessment gathers data through several methods: a firm-wide survey, individual interviews with partners and associates, and focus groups consisting of both homogeneous and heterogeneous participant groups.

I like reaching out to people in the dominant or in-group and comparing their answers to the same questions posed to individuals in the out-groups. What are the new associates saying versus partners to a particular question? Are the focus groups agreeing with comments made in one-on-one interviews? Comparing the interviews, focus group, and survey data will reveal what is consistent across the firm and what might be unique to a particular office or region of the country.

Once all of the feedback is gathered, I look for themes, trends, and recurring issues. These data points will form the design of the firm's inclusion strategy and plan.

Critical Success Factors

The critical success factors include developing and communicating an inclusion strategy and plan. Progress is measured through the business case - look at the impact inclusion programs have on the bottom line. These benefits include lowering turnover (and decreasing training costs), attracting new business, achieving higher billable hours, and even lowering health care costs.

Developing An Inclusion Strategy

An inclusion strategy outlines all of the internal and external issues that impact your firm's diversity. These areas typically include:

Firm image in local, regional, and national markets;

Recruiting of attorneys (first years and laterals);

Selecting attorneys;

Development of all attorneys (not just minorities or women);

Upward mobility of all qualified attorneys;

Developing an inclusive workplace culture; and

Marketing of diversity efforts internally and externally.

The accompanying plan is the detail behind the strategy and includes initiatives, activities, policies, procedures, and actions that the firm will execute to create a more inclusive environment.

I am often hired to present sample strategies and plans and I generally present successful nation-wide best practices both inside and outside of law firms. Remember, a look at the competition only tells you how they address their unique issues. Your issues may differ.

Communicating Firm Strategy And Plan

When your firm has completed its inclusion strategy and plan, it must be communicated internally and externally. Develop a brochure to use for new hires as well as for existing and prospective clients. Augment the firm's website. Produce a streaming video - a "fireside chat" with your managing partner - that can run on the website. While the plan itself will be more detailed, these products demonstrate that the firm has a strong inclusion strategy.

An inclusion strategy and plan is about creating a better firm for all attorneys and staff, not just minorities and women. The diversity journey is a long one, with a destination that may at times seem elusive. But the rewards are well worth it: a productive, passionate staff; a strong, growing bottom line; and recognition and admiration by clients and competitors. Jump-starting a diversity program ensures that a law firm's goals do not stall out in neutral.

Mauricio Velasquez is the President and CEO of The Diversity Training Group, Inc., in Herndon, VA, which specializes in workforce diversity, diversity marketing, executive coaching, and sexual harassment prevention. Mr. Velasquez can be reached at mauriciov@diversitydtg.com.

Major Myths About Diversity

Leaders committed to diversity are sometimes confronted with myths that challenge programs' worthiness. These myths must be debunked with passion and purpose.

Myth 1: Diversity is a problem. No, it is an opportunity. Your inclusion strategy and plan is an opportunity to differentiate your firm from competition.

Myth 2: Diversity is just about race and gender. No, it is much broader than that. The conversation has become about inclusion of thought and background.

Myth 3: Diversity is about exclusivity. No, it is about inclusivity. If you feel diversity is about attacking the white male, you are mistaken. Diversity means creating a culture where everyone can thrive and contribute to your firm.

Myth 4: Diversity is about lowering standards. Be very careful with this notion. Many people take great offense to this perception. Firms that are committed to diversity are not lowering standards, but are widening the pool of qualified individuals.

Myth 5: Diversity is another version of Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action. No, it is very different from EEO/AA. Diversity concerns all employees and customers. Minorities and women are the context for EEO/AA.