Your role in driving more meaningful change to confront racial disparities in the workplace.
The last 18 months have exposed racialized events and disparities — from the murder of George Floyd and health inequities laid bare by the pandemic to anti-Asian attacks and police violence — in a way that nobody could ignore.
Freelance Writer and Editor
These events have moved legal organizations to be more intentional in understanding the impact of privilege and bias, to renew and reassess their diversity efforts, and to take action to create more equitable practices within their firms and the profession.
Truly addressing these issues and becoming an ally means legal organizations must be purposeful in their actions. A forceful, firmwide commitment and a combination of strategies focused on action-oriented solutions are helping more firms change the conversation and drive sustained change.
The days after the George Floyd tragedy played out repeatedly on people’s screens were heartbreakingly difficult. But it was more than difficult for those in the Black community — it was also triggering. Black friends and colleagues were dealing with a whole other level of trauma as they were reminded how it could be one of their loved ones in that position — or having known someone or having been that someone who had been singled out in a similar way just for being Black.
Stinson LLP understood it could not just be business as usual in the immediate aftermath. “[We] supported attorneys and staff persons of color by holding groups sessions with an outside counselor of color, performing one-on-one check-ins, offering trainings on allyship, racial trauma and launching discussion circles,” says Ann Jenrette-Thomas, Stinson’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.
Making personal connections during this period of racial tumult also was a key initiative at Ballard Spahr. The firm redoubled its efforts “to build a culture of support and empathy, and develop opportunities to be allies with marginalized groups,” says Virginia Essandoh, the Chief Diversity Officer. “[Ballard Spahr] held private sessions with African American lawyers and staff to provide a space for processing, dialogue and support. These meetings also provided an opportunity for attorneys and staff to express how they believed the firm should meet the moment.”
Hate crimes against Asians have also increased, according to research from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. They found that anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of America’s largest cities increased 145% in 2020, the first spike coming in March and April 2020 — which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and the negative stereotypes against Asians that ensued.
“The days after the George Floyd tragedy played out repeatedly on people’s screens were heartbreakingly difficult. But it was more than difficult for those in the Black community — it was also triggering.”
In response to these increasing attacks, O’Melveny & Myers LLP has offered safe space conversations for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) personnel, both privately and with U.S. colleagues. “And our Employee Assistance Program has created an AAPI mental health and self-care resources guide that we’ve shared with all U.S. colleagues,” says Mary Ellen Connerty, Director of Diversity & Engagement.
The firm hosted a program for employees, clients and alumni that examined the long history of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States, led by Russell Jeung, Chair and Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and Cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate. “Our U.S. colleagues also will be invited to read the award-winning book Interior Chinatown byCharles Yu, followed by an opportunity to join a video chat with the author,” says Connerty. “AAPI colleagues have also suggested other topics for training — like empowerment and dealing with microaggressions — which we plan to pursue.”
ASSIGNING NEW FIRM RESOURCES AND IDENTIFYING CAUSES
Responding to racial justice events prompted a renewal and rededication of resources at many legal organizations. O’Melveny & Myers responded in several strategic ways. The firm formed a Racial Justice Committee that “advises firm leadership on issues of racial justice and equity, promotes open dialogue, and seeks out a range of viewpoints regarding race issues inside the firm and in the community,” says Connerty. They took direct action to identify key organizations to support, including the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance; introduced a training session on implicit bias; and conducted mandatory training for partners.
Law firm foundations also assumed a more urgent and specific focus. At Barnes & Thornburg, firm management wanted “to activate our commitment to do something tangible to fight against racism,” says Dawn Rosemond, the firm’s Diversity Partner. “It goes without saying that 2020 was unprecedented in every sense of the word. Rather than just lament, our management committee wanted to do something bold.”
That decision yielded the creation of the Racial and Social Justice Foundation, which was funded by the firm’s entire management committee, lawyers and staff. By the end of the year, the foundation had awarded a total of $200,000 to nonprofits in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Indianapolis that were committed to combatting racism and stabilizing and empowering people and communities of color.
“The work through the foundation is a great source of pride and amplifies our position that our commitment to change is real,” says Rosemond. “We are just getting started.”
INCREASING COMMUNICATIONS WITHIN THE FIRM AND COMMUNITY
Reaching out regularly, consistently and clearly through various communication vehicles also is a key element in strengthening diversity and equity initiatives. Stinson created a five-episode podcast series, Big Law Success: The Inside Scoop for Law Students & New Lawyers, that provides an insider’s view of law firm life, including insights on recruiting, networking and interpersonal communications. “We realized that not knowing the unwritten rules often could foreclose opportunities for diverse lawyers and law students,” says Jenrette-Thomas. “Every year, I am surprised by the number of students and attorneys who express their appreciation for the podcast.”
“A forceful, firmwide commitment and a combination of strategies focused on action-oriented solutions are helping more firms change the conversation and drive sustained change.”
At Barnes & Thornburg, the firm’s Diversity Matters podcast “provides support and empowerment within our firm and our broader profession,” says Rosemond. “We want to make room for those courageous conversations necessary to move us forward both as a firm and as a profession.” Episodes have featured firm attorneys, outside counsel and corporate leaders discussing a wide range of topics, including the business impact of the pandemic on diverse practitioners and how the racial justice movement has transformed business priorities.
RECRUITMENT AND FELLOWSHIP PROGRAMS
To provide a richer work experience and practical training, many firms are developing formal relationships with clients to provide new opportunities, deepen work relationships and expand the pipeline of diverse attorneys.
McAndrews, Held & Malloy, Ltd., an intellectual property and technology law firm in Chicago, has a program for diverse first-year law student (1L) summer clerks, involving an eight-week internship at the firm plus a four-week secondment at one of the firm’s major clients. “[The joint program] provides a unique opportunity for summer clerks to understand patent issues from both the client and law firm perspectives and to network with and be mentored by diverse attorneys [and clients],” says Sharon A. Hwang, a Shareholder of the firm and current Vice Chair of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. “Our hope is that the summer clerk will stay with the firm and our client for two summers, and then eventually work at either the firm or our client.”
Fellowships also can be a way to build a critical mass of expertise in an industry. In a fellowship program introduced this year, Ballard Spahr aims to increase the number of diverse attorneys in the consumer financial service industry, an area with few diverse attorneys. This proactive effort is geared toward law students who have overcome one or more substantial obstacles during their career, come from a disadvantaged background and/or are underrepresented in the legal community. Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Consumer Financial Services Group will provide an overview of the practice, serve as mentors and facilitate introductions to clients and officials at regulatory agencies and trade associations. To expand the pool of top candidates, the firm has reached out to law schools seeking recommendations. “We asked them: ‘Who are your great 2Ls? We want to expose them to the practice,’” says Essandoh.
A TOOL TO HELP ELIMINATE BIAS
Racial and gender bias can hinder the recruitment process, limiting the pool of diverse candidates at all levels. In an effort to counter implicit bias that often seeps into the on-campus interviewing (OCI) hiring process, O’Melveny has incorporated the pymetrics assessment as a data point when assessing candidates. Currently, O’Melveny is the only law firm using this innovative tool in its decision-making, according to Connerty.
Pymetrics, which is based on behavioral science and uses artificial intelligence technology and machine learning, collects candidate information using 12 games to compare against an O’Melveny-specific model that has been audited for gender and ethnic bias. O’Melveny asks all of its campus recruits to play the games before interviewing. The games, described by recruits as “fun,” take 30 minutes to complete and measure various soft skills, including decision-making, risk tolerance, fairness and generosity.
“There are no right or wrong answers. Pymetrics measures how candidates play the game, and how their resulting traits will support future success at the firm,” says Connerty. “We’re looking at potential rather than pedigree. The results of the pymetrics assessment offer us additional, objective information for hiring decisions.”
“Recognize your privilege and use it to help — not diminish — those who are less advantaged. Lean in with honesty, and don’t assume you know what a diverse person wants or needs.”
Overall, feedback to pymetrics from recruits and management has been positive. Connerty reports that diverse recruits especially appreciate their use of a hiring tool that addresses unconscious bias.
MENTORING VS. SPONSORSHIP
However, once recruited, retaining and providing a career path for diverse attorneys remains problematic. In its latest report, the National Association for Law Placement found people of color represent 25.4% of associates and 9.6% of partners — a steady, but very slow, incremental increase over a 10-year period. To accelerate these numbers, mentoring and sponsorship programs are becoming more formalized and creative.
Stinson’s Accelerate sponsorship program is specifically tailored to diverse partners to equip them with new skills. Often, many think making partner is the end goal, but “it’s really just the start of a new journey,” says Jenrette-Thomas.
“Through the Accelerate program, a select group of diverse partners are paired with the firm’s top rainmakers and leaders. The goal is to help diverse partners build their books of business. But the program also has helped some sponsors develop a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by diverse partners, including the time commitment involved in recruiting and mentoring diverse associates,” says Jenrette-Thomas.
Ballard Spahr’s INVEST sponsorship program supports the retention and advancement of diverse talent. Now in its third year, INVEST supports a small class of fourth- through sixth-year associates. Partners serve as advocates for these associates, expanding opportunities for them to engage with clients, build exposure and visibility inside the firm or the legal community, or lead in client matters. INVEST cohorts also work on a Business Challenge Project, which seeks to solve a critical firm management issue, and share their findings with management. In the process, associates gain a deeper understanding of the challenges in running a firm, and firm leadership benefits from fresh perspectives about practice management.
AN UNCOMFORTABLE — BUT NECESSARY — CONVERSATION
Having conversations about race and developing cohesive diversity strategies can be daunting. Kelvin O. Howell Jr., Deputy Executive Director and Chief of Staff of TransNewYork, recently presented a powerful case study at ALA’s Virtual Master Class: A Framework for DEI&A.
“Organizations often hire a diversity officer to address race and equity issues,” says Howell, who is also the Founder, Executive Partner and Chief Consulting Officer of Firm 9, LLC, a multiservice professional consulting firm. “I view the diversity officer as the ‘coach’ — facilitating initiatives, allocating resources and serving as an advocate to management. But the diversity committee really is the engine, or the ‘team,’ that drives efforts and creates meaningful action. It is the force multiplier within the organization that shapes awareness, builds empathy and creates a positive environment.”
Law firms need to be expansive in how they define and build their diversity committees. The legal profession remains largely hierarchical. Step back and examine your entire workforce, lawyers and staff. Work to address discrimination of all types — based on race, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, disability, national origin, religion or class. Then identify people who can speak to those issues.
“Recognize your privilege and use it to help — not diminish — those who are less advantaged. Lean in with honesty, and don’t assume you know what a diverse person wants or needs,” says Howell. “It’s better to listen than to be heard. Ask for help, be willing to share power and continue to educate yourself!”
ALA is making an ongoing commitment to diversity, equality, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) as part of its new strategic direction. If there is a topic related to DEIA that you’d like to see covered — or if there is an area we are falling short in our coverage — please email suggestions to [email protected]. For more resources on this topic, visit alanet.org/resources/diversity.
About the Author
Paula Tsurutani is a senior-level strategic communications writer and editor who works with organizations in the legal profession, the arts and higher education.