Law firm diversity: The new standard of workplace excellence
What is Diversity?
Diversity means different things to different people. For the purposes of this article, when we use the term diversity, we are not just talking about hiring minorities or women. Nor are we talking about affirmative action. Rather, when we now speak of “diversity,” we really mean “inclusion.” Our Firm defines diversity as follows: “Diversity at Franczek Radelet P.C. means inclusion of employees of different race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religion, cultural and ethnic background, ability, nationality and other unique attributes that do not interfere with effective job performance and superior client service.”
By no means is ours the only way a diversity policy can be written, but we believe it reflects the latest trends in this area. For example, the policy specifically includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees and part of our diversity commitment involves fostering an environment in which LGBT employees have the opportunity to thrive. We fully support those who wish to self-identify. But we also respect those who wish to uphold their right to privacy and we are committed to maintain confidentiality.
Our definition, moreover, incorporates both universal concepts of diversity along with principles relevant to our particular culture and practice. The latter point is often by-passed by many institutions, simply adopting canned marketing products. It is important not to overlook this step so that your diversity initiative is consistent with your business and your own culture.
As you might imagine, our policy did not start this way. It evolved over the years. Like with any good policy, a diversity policy and its components should be revisited periodically and updated. Further, diversity can, and should, be considered a standard of workplace excellence. As with any application of workplace excellence, best practices are evolving. Sometimes when viewed in this business practice context, the ever-evolving nature of diversity can be more easily understood by all employees.
Why Diversity Matters
While the business case for diversity can clearly be made, and will be discussed below, the more important reason to adopt a diversity and inclusion initiative is because it is simply the right thing to do. Fairness, respect, equal access and opportunity are fundamental principles to the legal profession. So it should not be a stretch for lawyers to utilize those principals in their own workplace. We must lead by example. But how? There is no one size fits all. This article describes what one medium-sized firm has done, and provides suggestions about how others might benefit from undertaking similar initiatives. Certainly firm size, resources, and location can play a role in what type of diversity initiative you can undertake. And the results from any undertaking initially may be disappointing, or may not even be quantifiable. But that should not be an excuse for inaction; as that is the only true failure. So don’t be afraid to take the plunge.
The Business Case for Diversity
A concept often used as a justification for diversity initiatives is the “Business Case for Diversity.” The Business Case for Diversity is how such an initiative or program will help the bottom line of a company of firm.
For example, demographics have and are changing the clients (businesses or individuals) we serve. Clients are looking for attorneys who speak their language, or understand the cultural or gender idiosyncrasies of their business. Some clients believe a firm with diverse experiences and perspectives is advantageous.
More pointed, many of the clients you serve—corporations (for and not-for-profit) or government—increasingly serve more diverse populations themselves. And they want their vendors to reflect their client base. Although firms might not be asked to exactly mirror their client’s demographic make-up, they will need to show they are making efforts. And in order to do so, they will need to know what diversity looks like in the legal market place.
In fact some clients are demanding reports on diversity efforts. Many major corporations want reports from their law firms on their effort to increase diversity. Some are specific; seeking a report on diverse attorneys assigned to individual matters, firm diversity make-up, and diversity in firm leadership positions. Some government agencies request information on diversity efforts in their RFP process for legal work. This is a trend we see continuing to expand and trickle down to smaller companies and businesses.
Practitioners must understand that diversity can be defined in many ways. We must be ready to respond to these inquiries, or lose in the race for business, indeed not even get in the door. The issue of diversity in firm leadership marks one of the newest trends in the evolution of diversity and inclusion. Not only is the market demanding a diverse workforce, it is demanding that everyone has an opportunity for inclusion at every level of the business, especially diversity in leadership. DiversityInc. magazine, an excellent diversity resource periodical, dedicated much of its Early Fall Edition 2012 to the concept of talent development programs, the next level on the continuum of inclusion efforts.
Another example recognizing the significance diversity plays in the legal profession is when, in 2009, a group of CEOs from a number of national corporations, in conjunction with the Chicago Bar Association, formed the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP). Its board of directors includes representatives from Phillip Morris International Inc., HSBC North America Holdings Inc., Office Depot and State Farm Insurance Companies, among other notable companies and legal institutions. See . IILP states: “IILP takes a real-world, common-sense approach that aims to acknowledge, understand, and address the reality of diversity in today’s legal profession.” See . IILP serves as a great resource for law firms in their efforts to achieve best practices in legal diversity.
Even small steps matter. From simply expanding your list of vendors and service providers to include diverse business, to disseminating information about certain groups’ commemorative days and observances, these measures provide positive momentum upon which you can continue to build. Perhaps the most important initial step is to get buy-in from everyone in your organization: partners, associates, and staff. Educate and train everyone. As noted above, there are many civic and professional groups who would be more than happy to discuss their particular roles and the challenges that their members or group face. Just because you may not be able to have a broad based diversity and inclusion program is no reason not to have one at all. Make yours as comprehensive as you can.
The efforts at Franczek Radelet began with the adoption of our Firm Diversity Policy, now entitled Diversity and Inclusion Policy. See <. Law firm, government and corporate diversity policies are readily available on-line and it is recommended you review various policies to find one that you can model your own after and which fits your firm’s or office’s culture and objectives. Once a draft policy is prepared, management should meet to ensure that buy-in at the highest levels is confirmed. The draft policy should be shared with staff for their input as well. Once the policy is agreed upon, a point person or committee should be tasked with its implementation.
Although a point person for the initiative is recommended, the appointment of a firm diversity officer is not essential for smaller firms. For informational purposes, Franczek Radelet determined in 2006 to appoint a Firm Diversity Officer. Our Firm’s Diversity Officer was charged with, inter alia, community outreach and research on best practices; efforts to enhance recruitment, retention and advancement; and diversity and inclusion training among all employees. We later determined that the issue was too significant and would benefit from additional input and guidance. So we appointed a committee, headed by our Diversity Officer, to lead our program.
As noted above, our policy at Franczek Radelet has our diversity definition along with statements of principles and how we achieve diversity. In total this represents our Diversity Initiative foundation. How our firm addresses and achieves diversity can be a road map for your program too. Here is how we defined that process.
How We Achieve Diversity and Inclusion
Maintaining and expanding the diversity of the Firm’s attorneys and staff is a central tenet of this Policy and will be achieved through:
• Training and compliance—Regularly communicating this policy and its underlying rationale and values to all shareholders and employees; Full compliance is a condition of employment by the Firm;
• Recruitment—Actively recruiting from a diverse attorney and staff pool;
• Retention—Maintaining an effective orientation program and mentoring practices for all new attorneys and staff;
• Work Assignment—Ensuring that all attorneys and staff receive challenging work assignments and that all attorneys receive client exposure opportunities consistent with their demonstrated skill and ability; and
• Firm Leadership—Seeking to include a diverse group in Firm leadership and management.
Each part above is important to our program. What follows is a discussion of some of the particulars of how we implemented these concepts.
A key item in any diversity initiative should be the recruitment of qualified diverse individuals. We are fortunate to have one of the premier job fairs for diverse candidates right in our own backyard. It is coordinated by the Cook County Bar Association (“CCBA”) - the largest African American Bar Association in Illinois, and one of the oldest in the country, being founded in 1920. Its founding members C. Francis Stradford, Wendell E. Green, and Jesse N. Baker were also among the founding members of the National Bar Association, America’s leading National African American Bar Association. Of course, CCBA is not the only African American Bar Association in Illinois, the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Illinois is another well-respected organization serving minority women lawyers. CCBA’s job fair, however, is the gold standard for attracting diverse candidates. This year’s job fair will be held at the Embassy Suites in Chicago on August 8, 2014 and registration for employers begins in the Spring. See . Diverse candidates from all over the country attend this event. Though smaller in size, local law schools also hold similar job fairs.
Another way to recruit diverse individuals is to advertise in the various affinity groups’ magazines and support these organizations by sponsoring or attending their events. Our Firm has supported many diverse groups for a number of years and has been able to make contacts to call upon when we do have hiring needs (or simply have questions).
While these recruiting measures are part of our diversity initiative, we found they did not, by themselves, consistently provide us with a qualified pool of diverse candidates. The reasons for this are varied; sometimes it was simply a matter of timing, other times it may have been too many competing firms for too few candidates, or because our practice is limited to labor and employment and education law our needs did not match the interests or experiences of the available candidates. But whatever the reason, we looked for other ways to find talented people. So in 2011, we came up with what we believed to be a creative and exciting pipeline program we call LEADS. LEADS stands for Legal Education for the Advancement of Diversity and Scholarship. We feel this fellowship program to be unique in terms of its focus and structure.
The LEADS eight-week summer program is designed for diverse first and second year law students with an interest in pursuing a legal career in private practice representing employers in labor and employment matters. This is a group of candidates historically underrepresented in this practice area. The goal of the program is to provide concentrated labor and employment legal experience while developing a pipeline of highly qualified, diverse candidates for future employment in the legal profession.
The LEADS curriculum is comprised of six specific learning and experience modules aimed at exposing the Fellows to the core elements of our firm’s labor and employment practice. Each module includes different substantive activities, such as attending or participating in an arbitration or negotiation for the Collective Bargaining/Grievance Procedures module, completing a substantive assignment in that particular sub-specialty, and collaborating with the other Fellows on a presentation for all Franczek Radelet attorneys. Additionally, to convey our Firm’s culture, each module is supported by a team of lawyers (partners and associates) who serve as a resource to the Fellows and provide more detail about the nature of our practice in that module topic. Furthermore, we have successfully partnered with some of our clients to assist us in providing experiences at the clients’ places of business which allows our LEADS Fellows to gain a unique perspective on what clients need and seek in terms of legal services.
While this kind of program may not be right for your firms or practices, the point is to inspire lawyers and firms to come up with their own ways to meet and recruit qualified diverse candidates if existing avenues are not sufficient or successful for you.
Once you have your diverse talent bases, you have to be able to retain them. This often proves as, if not more, difficult than recruiting the employee in the first place. For this purpose our Firm developed another (and complementary program to LEADS) called LAUNCH. LAUNCH picks up where LEADS left off. It bridges the gap between our standard new employee orientation efforts and the work undertaken by our Associate-Paralegal Development Committee by ensuring that all new lawyers in their first year of practice receive the assistance they need for development including mentoring, general practice and professional skills, and training in a cross-section of focused legal subject matter.
While the dual purposes of this article is to help make the case for diversity in law firms and to be a resource as you contemplate your own diversity initiative, there are a wealth of other resources to consider (several of which we have already mentioned). Many of the affinity bar associations have collected numerous written resources in addition to publishing their own articles. Other organizations such as the Institute for Inclusion, Equality Illinois (focusing on LGBT issues) <, the Illinois Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois < and the Indian-American Bar Association of Illinois < hold events and seminars that discuss the latest diversity developments and trends.
But what has diversity done for us lately? Has it improved us as a firm? As people? We think it has. In terms of economics, having diverse attorneys has allowed the firm greater access to communities and individuals who eventually became clients that we would not otherwise have been able market our services to. In particular, the growing legal needs of the Latino business communities have been a particular focus of some of us who have ties to those communities. And it has enhanced our reputation. Perhaps less quantifiable but no less important is that diversity has allowed us to deliver higher quality legal services to our clients and function better as a business by bringing together different experiences and perspectives. Drawing on this broader base of experience forces us to look at our client’s legal issues from different angles which we believe provides a fuller analysis of their problems, particularly the implications and practical affects our legal advice has for their business and employees. At the end of the day, diversity has enabled us to deliver higher quality legal services to our clients while at the same time enriching us as individuals. What could be a better result than that? ■