Making diversity and inclusion a priority, whether you’re just getting started or ready to move beyond the basics

by Holly Barocio /

In the past few years, we’ve seen a shift across the legal profession as lawyers wake up to the reality that their firms do not reflect the diversity of society and are increasingly motivated to act.

Firm leaders not only want to do the right thing, they also feel the pressure to respond to the demands of clients, who themselves are increasingly diverse and attuned to their diverse customers and clientele.

But what, specifically, should leaders be doing to make authentic change within their firms?

Stop ignoring the issue. Diversity and Inclusion 101 begins with acknowledging that the way things worked in the past—around hiring, distribution of work, promotion, and work-life policies (or lack thereof)—is not a sustainable model. It takes a multiplicity of viewpoints and experience to offer clients sophisticated, forward-thinking counsel. More diversity makes for better problem-solving. If you don’t make changes to your culture, you will not be able to attract and retain the talent you need to thrive now and in the future.

Make data your friend. Moving away from things like lockstep compensation and business development training that supports a “one-size-fits-all model of rainmaker” requires firms to articulate the benchmarks and competencies required for lawyers to succeed in areas like business development and client service in addition to honing their legal skills. Talent analytics can help you parse who is suited for certain tasks and assess work distribution. Who is being assigned which matters and why? Is work fairly distributed, and how can you create opportunities for lawyers you want to support and mentor into leadership roles down the line?

See training as a starting point—but only a starting point. The commitment to creating an inclusive firm has to go beyond periodic trainings that feel isolated from the actual culture of employees’ day-to-day lives. Seek to bring in quality implicit-bias training and programming to educate your team and foster authentic reflection and conversations. An easy place to start is encouraging folks to respond to the question, “what’s up” in a meaningful way. Rather than saying, “nothing much” or “same old, same old,” encourage people to share something that isn’t apparent on the surface. Inclusion begins by making a mutual connection—like discovering you like the same music or both play ice hockey. An everyday conversation could be the starting point for a long-term relationship.

Avoid diversity poster children. When, say, just 8 percent of your partner ranks are diverse, that means you may be asking a handful of people again and again to do speaking engagements, recruiting events, and other appearances outside their practice work to be representatives that show your firm is serious about equitable hiring. This can lead to burnout, or worse, could potentially backfire by creating the perception of tokenism—alienating the very people the firm is trying to attract and retain. Revisit who and why you tap for these activities and how you recognize this important work.

Commit to strong and inclusive leadership. Ultimately, it takes effective and visionary leaders to change a firm’s culture and model the behavior they want to see across their firms. People who already have a seat at the table must use their power to mentor the next generation of leaders, elevating them to higher positions, providing excellent training, and connecting them with the networks that will help them build their business and thrive.

Forward-thinking firms foster environments where everyone who works there feels welcome and valued. Whether in terms of personal expression, religious observance, or the flexibility to fulfill family obligations, healthy firm cultures allow people to bring their authentic selves to work, and healthy firms strive to support them because diversity truly does make firms better at serving their clients.