By Terra Davis
Have your firm’s clients gone from gently nudging to now demanding you implement a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plan — or they might look for new outside counsel? Perhaps your firm is not as diverse as you would like it to be, but management appears to understand its importance to clients and employees and wants to move forward. However, your firm has never done this type of planning before and buy-in from management to successfully adopt and execute a DEI plan feels unsettling.
Where do you start when this all feels so far away or even inauthentic? Here are four key considerations:
1. Create a Safe Space
To develop a successful DEI initiative, firm leadership must be empathetic to the facts. For decades, the need for a safe space has been associated with those in marginalized and socially and economically disenfranchised communities. According to a 2020 report conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 35% of Black employees believe racial or ethnic discrimination exists whereas only 7% of white employees believe the same.
Creating a safe space at your firm not only invites such conversation but also promotes empathy and trust, which is an imperative. After all, conversations surrounding DEI can often be uncomfortable and there is no way around the pain it brings for those who have experienced being part of “the only” or “the first.”
2. Authenticity Over Replication
If you have started developing a plan built on the foundation of another law firm’s successes in this area, stop what you are doing. Instead, explore what you know about your own firm’s culture. If it is not already diverse, inclusive or equitable in its approach to leadership, client teams, rates or other business-related areas, then evaluate what must change for this to happen.
Think about what your firm does well. Perhaps your firm has discussed a pipeline program for new attorneys or changing its criteria for hiring associates — these are all things that should be recognized. Management buy-in is necessary for any actionable plan, but your firm’s goals must also align with that of the DEI plan at hand. Perhaps the firm’s traditional culture is not moving in the direction toward alignment — you have the power to change this.
Your firm’s North Star, so to speak, can be found in surveying its own diverse professional staff and attorneys to learn more about strengths and weaknesses in this area. In doing so, you will better understand their views on racial justice, equity and inclusive policies. For example, what do employees at your firm believe in and value? Once you identify said values, you can use them as a starting point.
3. Practice What You Preach
Therapists are known for challenging patients to look inward as the first step to confronting any outward challenge. Consider adopting the same when it comes to DEI initiatives and policies.
Are your firm’s management and leadership teams diverse? Or is there only diversity at the assistant, coordinator, specialist, administrative or associate levels? Who is in the room during decision-making discussions? Are they truly diverse (not just women, but Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latino, LGBTIA+)? And, if those are the people in the room, are they there for show or are their voices heard and valued? Is the firm practicing what it preaches with inclusion and equity?
4. Expand the Number of Seats
Before adopting any DEI initiative, take an inward look at your own firm. What statement is being made about how it values and views DEI in its hiring and willingness to bring those people to the table? Are those people consulted on messaging and action plans before they are made? Remember, you cannot start and lead a conversation about DEI with a room filled with only white men.
No DEI plan will ever be perfect or completely done. However, stepping out of your comfort zone to initiate one might help to bring a cultural paradigm shift to your firm.
Once you have asked the necessary and (somewhat) challenging questions of your firm, it is now time to turn your answers into action through policies and initiatives.
The Governing Body
Every firm needs strong, knowledgeable and passionate leaders who will continue the momentum. DEI experts refer to this group as the governing body.
First, determine who will be in the governing body. If your firm is smaller and held under budgetary constraints, consider a committee with both attorneys and staff. If it is midsize or large, create a task force or committee for collaboration and hire a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer (CDEIO) to oversee the charge. Not only does hiring this person demonstrate the firm’s commitment to this area, it also does not force others to split their time to focus. This body and leader will be instrumental in outlining what success looks like for your firm.
Use the Data
Around six months to a year of establishing this committee or hiring a CDEIO, look back at the goals set forth and use metrics and surveys to show the firm’s progress. You can then take this information and create internal and external reports.
The internal report can be shared with staff, attorneys and firm management to show where the firm is and where it would like to be. An external report can also be shared with clients to proactively respond to requests for diversity in addition to snippets that can be used in RFPs and pitches.
Leverage Existing Relationships
In June 2021, Pitchbook reported on the number of private equity firms partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to shed the private equity community’s reputation as the least diverse field in finance. In doing so, several reputable and nationally recognized private equity firms are working with HBCUs, such as Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, to bridge the gap and create employment opportunities for diverse candidates.
Consider the relationships your firm has with existing clients. How can you use these relationships to make thoughtful introductions and connections to reach your shared DEI goals? Perhaps it is through programming or employment opportunities or even in creating new policies.
The Road Ahead
No DEI plan will ever be perfect or completely done. However, stepping out of your comfort zone to initiate one might help to bring a cultural paradigm shift to your firm. Even if your firm is not there yet, it is acceptable to demonstrate to clients where you are and where you are headed. Also, hiring outside consultants such as Coston Communications, The Diversity Lab and Converge might be helpful to expediting.
Below are a few resources to help you get started:
Terra Davis is a business development manager at Winston & Strawn who supports attorneys with their initiatives in the corporate/transactions practices. While all business development team members within Winston work collaboratively, Terra specifically leads the efforts in the private equity, mergers and acquisitions, and capital markets practice groups. She is also the co-chair of LMA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Shared Interest Group (SIG). When she is not working with LMA she is leading the Howard University Alumni Association Dallas/Fort Worth Club as its president and spending quality time with her husband and one-year-old daughter. She is passionate about DEI, serving underrepresented communities and pushing the needle forward for change.