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How Law Firms Can Create & Communicate Successful DEI Initiatives

With law firms beginning to return to in person work following the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal industry is facing a number of challenges surrounding diversity and inclusion. As workers return to the office, law firms are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to create more inclusive workplaces. However, simply creating a DEI initiative isn’t enough to truly spark change within a law firm.

To discuss these topics, GCC Portfolio hosted a webinar on DEI & E-relationship building  moderated by Deb Knupp, Managing Director at GrowthPlay, featuring panelists Tasneem Khokha, Managing Director at GrowthPlay and C.L. Nathanson, Founder and President of GCC Portfolio.

For law firms looking to create DEI initiatives, it’s important to understand the current state of DEI in the industry, how to engage employees when creating initiatives, and how to communicate these initiatives to clients.

What is the Current State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Law Firms?

There are three key issues that are top of mind for law firms as people return to the office, including the impact of the pandemic on staff and attorneys of color, Ms. Khokha said.

“There is clearly a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color. It’s very likely for firms that have diverse talent pools that their staff and attorneys of color will have been disproportionately affected,” Ms. Khokha said. Related to that, Ms. Khokha said firms must recognize how working from home during the pandemic disproportionately affected women and primary caregivers.

“The second thing I’m seeing is that firms over the last year have had to really get their arms around the impact of the racial upheaval in our country over the past year, and the particular impact of that on black and Asian American communities,” she said. “Thinking about that impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our colleagues is important as well.”

Even though law firms are facing challenges surrounding racial diversity in the workplace, the COVID-19 pandemic created opportunities for firms to approach talent development in new ways.

“Some of the old ways of thinking about face time in the office have been really challenged in the past year. We have some ways to think about talent development in a way that may be truly more equitable,” Ms. Khokha said. “On the one hand there are some real challenges. There are informal communities and structures within law firms that don’t always include diverse populations the same way they do majority counterparts.”

Ms. Khokha explained that even though working from home created new challenges for law firms during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some new opportunities created by remote working as well.

“Firms are really thinking about what working from home has taught us about talent development and management,” Ms. Khokha said.

Even with the improvements remote work brought to talent development, it’s also important for firms to remember that not all employees will have the same experiences returning to in-person work.

“Returning to the office won’t be a one size fits all,” Ms. Knupp said. “People will be bringing different experiences. Setting the conditions for looking at the impact on professional development and some of those more informal relationship building channels will be critical things to see with fresh eyes and empathetic hearts.”

In addition to empathy, law firms must also consider how DEI may impact client relationships. Law firms that invest in DEI initiatives will not only see an impact on employee wellbeing, but on the firm’s bottom line and its relationship with clients as well.

“The business case for DEI is stronger than it ever has been,” Ms. Khokha said. “Diverse teams create better outcomes for clients as well as more employee engagement. Notwithstanding, the progress on DEI in the legal industry has been really incremental. Now more than ever, we’re all focused on DEI as a part of our businesses as a factor important to our success.”

How to Create Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives at Law Firms

Ms. Khokha said a pitfall for firms to avoid is undertaking a DEI initiative as a performative act rather than a strategic one.

When creating diversity initiatives, firms need to ground DEI efforts in a thorough assessment of where the firm is, and create goals around what the firm needs and the issues that need to be solved for. Firms also need to center DEI initiatives around the firm’s values to ensure they are long term solutions, and commit to allocating resources to support the initiative.

“When I see firms getting this right, a few things that I see [firms doing] is to commit the adequate resources. Too often we see firms investing in DEI efforts because there’s some impetus that creates a desire to engage in these efforts,” Ms. Khokha said. “And yet, if we don’t adequately commit the resources necessary to do that well, it’s likely our efforts won’t be strategic or sustainable.”

What Questions Should Law Firms Ask Themselves When Developing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Program?

Ms. Khokha said firms need to recognize the complexity surrounding DEI initiatives and address them in a multifaceted way. This includes thinking about the way firms communicate these initiatives, and ensuring they’re sustainable. Specifically, Ms. Khokha recommended firms ask themselves the following questions when developing a DEI strategy:

• Why is this important to us?

• Who are our key stakeholders?

• What are our key messages?

• How are we going to communicate this in a way that reflects our values and priorities?

“The best firms recognize that DEI is not something that simply stops with those who have a JD,” Ms. Knupp said. “You see stellar results when your firm has the capacity to embrace [diversity].”

How Can Firms Connect & Communicate DEI Initiatives to Employees?

When engaging employees through DEI, law firms need to recognize that DEI initiatives are an ongoing commitment rather than a one size fits all solution. Additionally, when recognizing diversity efforts at a firm, highlighting success through including diverse groups is important.

Specifically, Ms. Nathanson highlighted Barnes & Thornburg’s efforts to focus on diversity through its holiday card selection. The firm’s BTBlack Talent Resource Group commissioned two black artists to create an image for the holiday cards. The firm also established a nonprofit foundation funded by employee contributions to focus on social and racial justice issues, and raised over $300,000 this year so far.

“Talking about [DEI] and going in with total empathy to the group you’re speaking with and listening gives you the opportunities to hear what the differences are,” Ms. Nathanson said.

However, even when firms have successful DEI initiatives, there’s often a push and pull between law firms and their clients on the ability of DEI to support diverse lawyers, Ms. Kohkha said.

“We see effort after effort among law firms to increase diversity, to support their diverse lawyers, and we’re consistently seeing clients saying that law firms aren’t doing enough. The progress is too slow and incremental and they want to see more,” Ms. Khokha said.

To solve this, clear communication about DEI efforts is key between law firms and clients. Additionally, to engage employees, firms must create buy-in for the opportunities that exist, Ms. Khokha said.

“It’s so important to explain what [DEI] is,” Ms. Nathanson said. “It’s also bottom-line improvement.”

Rachel Popa contributed to this article.

Copyright ©2022 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume XI, Number 193

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