Research And Communication Drive Diversity Initiatives - A Roundtable

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor invited the following spokespersons on behalf of diversity to provide their organization's view in regard to our questions: Laurie Nicole Robinson , Founder and CEO of Corporate Counsel Women of Color; Carol Ross-Burnett , Manager of Diversity & Inclusion and Dianne Smith , Chair, Diversity & Inclusion Committee and Partner, Labor & Employment, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP; Patrick C. Dunican Jr ., Chairman and Managing Director of Gibbons P.C. and Stephanie Cohen , Diversity Partner, McCarter & English, LLP.

Editor: Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) recently launched research on the experiences of women of color working in corporate legal departments. What can law firms learn from the research?

Robinson: We surveyed over 800 women of color attorneys who work primarily in-house at Fortune 1000 and Forbes 2000 companies. Over 75 percent of them started their careers at a law firm. Through the research, we asked them to compare their experiences at a law firm to their experiences at a corporation. The majority of respondents rated the experience of working in a corporate legal department better than the experience working in a law firm in six key areas: (1) interfacing with senior management, (2) interfacing and working with clients, (3) quality of work assignments, (4) atmosphere of inclusion, (5) upward mobility, and (6) training and development opportunities.

Overall, respondents found the corporate environment more welcoming. They perceived that they were part of the team, had ownership of their projects, had their opinions heard and felt valued.

Interestingly, some respondents shared stories of their time at a law firm and being invited by partners to serve on the "pitch" team for business. However, when the law firm was awarded the work from the corporate client, the women of color on the pitch team were not included in the work assignments. Additionally, some shared experiences of being assigned non-billable pro bono work and other low-billable work, while their colleagues had more substantive projects such as writing legal briefs, taking depositions and serving as second chair. Thus, they struggled to fulfill billable hours.

Many law firms have diversity policies and often good intentions. However, the reality is that if diversity efforts are not measured, they simply do not make their full impact on the profession and the workplace. Consequently, law firms must set clear goals and objectives for a diversity program.

They should start by creating individualized development plans for all law firm associates, especially first- and second-year associates. Importantly, they should monitor and track the assigned work of law firm associates on a quarterly basis. These tools will provide accountability and transparency. They also will help firms pinpoint whether diverse lawyers are being under-utilized and marginalized. If so, firms can make the necessary adjustments to ensure equal opportunity.

Editor: Why is establishing clear goals and objectives for a diversity program a mandatory exercise?

Ross-Burnett/Smith: The success of an organization's diversity initiatives depends heavily on the core group initially charged with implementation (usually a diversity committee or council). It is the responsibility of this group to actively engage law firm leadership in and obtain firmwide buy-in for its diversity plan. A comprehensive diversity plan with a timeline of specific goals and objectives enables the diversity committee to (1) assign tasks and accountabilities; (2) systematically implement initiatives and monitor progress; (3) invite feedback and assure ongoing evaluation; (4) review and assess outcomes and make mid-course adjustments and (5) provide opportunities for continued diversity education and training.

Editor: How can a firm use internal communications to let its personnel know about diversity achievements and awards?

Dunican: As Gibbons celebrates its 85th anniversary, we are proud to reinforce our commitment to diversity. It is imperative that our personnel know the strength and details of our commitment, including the continued recognition our Diversity and Women's Initiatives receive. Our internal newsletter, the Gibbons Gazette , is distributed electronically to all employees each month and covers all recent firm honors and awards. The Initiatives themselves electronically circulate bi-annual newsletters to keep participants within and outside Gibbons abreast of recent achievements and highlights; statistics, trends, and current issues; and upcoming events. Separate event notices are emailed in advance of upcoming programs so that employees can strategically invite additional participants.

These newsletters and notices remain on our website as archived materials for reference by new employees interested in exploring the Initiatives' histories. The Initiatives also maintain specific, prominent sections on the website and intranet, which further detail their missions, goals, past successes and future plans. A comprehensive information packet about the Diversity and Women's Initiatives is included in all new attorney orientation materials.

This year, Gibbons has undertaken a major corporate identity program and rebranding around its 85th anniversary. The Diversity and Women's Initiatives have become key aspects of the firm's brand, given their impact on our success over the past 85 years. The firm's advertising campaign, which targets general and industry-specific business and legal publications throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, includes targeted ads for the Diversity and Women's Initiatives, which also feature prominently in the firm's 85th anniversary brochure, Gibbons P.C. 85 Years. 85 Reasons . Put simply, the firm defines itself to a great extent through the Women's Initiative, the Diversity Initiative and the other efforts that classify Gibbons not only as an eminent law firm but also as an outstanding corporate citizen and exceptional place to work.

Cohen: Informing personnel of a law firm's achievements and awards is critical.All personnel, not just those of diverse backgrounds, need to know that the firm values diversity and inclusion. In addition, diverse personnel need to feel that their firm is actually "walking the walk" and not just "talking the talk." To that end, there are various methods that a law firm can use to inform its personnel of diversity-related achievements and awards: (1) Announcements can be posted on the firm's intranet. At McCarter & English, LLP we have an "In the News" column to advise of achievements by our staff as well the firm. The site is continually updated. (2) Announcements can be made in newsletters circulated to the staff. At McCarter & English, the Women's Initiative Steering Committee prepares and circulates a quarterly newsletter to the firm as well as clients. One of the regular features in the newsletter is the "Achievements, Articles, and Accolades" column, which showcases achievements and awards received by women attorneys and staff during the past quarter. (3)E-mails from upper management (i.e., Executive Committee or Managing Partner) regarding pride in receiving diversity awards are particularly effective in sending a strong message that diversity matters and that the firm is committed to establishing a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Ross-Burnett/Smith: No diversity plan will be successful if it is not effectively communicated. The importance of sharing that message internally cannot be underestimated. An ongoing "top-down" expression by firm leadership to staff and attorneys - and especially to partners - of the firm's commitment to diversity and inclusion is critical.

The diversity committee may draft concise and inclusive mission and vision statements and make sure that they are widely disseminated in a variety of ways. The in-house marketing department is a valuable asset and can work closely with the diversity committee to develop intranet content, brand diversity and inclusion programs and activities, design electronic or print newsletters and reports, and publicize awards and recognitions, among other things. Law firm affinity groups have become a key tool for creating dynamic internal communities for women and diverse attorneys. Affinity groups serve as an important catalyst for internal communication, both with peers and with law firm leadership. The diversity and inclusion message must also be incorporated through training into the strategies and activities of other internal departments, such as those concerned with recruiting, professional development and advancement.

Robinson: I think diversity awards and achievements are nice representatives of effort, but at the end of the day, law firms must look around to see with their eyes how many diverse lawyers in the workplace are partners and on the management team. If the finding is none to very few, more work must be done. If the most senior diverse lawyer there is a fourth-year associate, more work must be done.

In order to have an effective diversity program, the tone must start at the top. The law firm's chair or managing partner must communicate to the entire firm - partners, associates, paralegals, and legal secretaries - that diversity is an imperative. The firm's management team and partners should all be held accountable on diversity. For instance, partners should have the utilization of diverse attorneys on projects and assignments and retention tied to their performance evaluations, compensation and bonuses.

The CCWC research indicates that there is a pipeline of talented women of color attorneys in corporate legal departments. These women are credentialed, highly talented, experienced, and possessive of subject matter expertise. Law firms should be open to the idea of looking at this in-house talent for their firms at the partner and/or counsel levels. This action will help to provide diverse opinions at the top and build the pipeline of diverse lawyers at the senior levels. In turn, these acquisitions will provide role models and mentors to young associates and strengthen the pipeline at the junior levels.