Inclusion or Illusion? Determining if a Law Firm is Really Committed to Diversity
By Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill
Esq. Development Institute
Jason M., an Asian-American law student, graduated from a top law school and was eager to start his law career. Throughout his job search he focused on firms that communicated a commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. Within 6 months of accepting the firmís offer, Jason quickly realized that the firmís commitment to diversity and inclusion was little more than an illusion.
Martizia F., an African-American woman, spent the majority of her academic and professional career in predominately white male work environments. She was looking for a law firm that had a decent representation of women and attorneyís of color and a commitment to increasing its level of diversity. She was excited to receive an offer from a firm that seemed to meet her criteria. In the 3-month time frame between accepting the offer and starting work, five of the seven women in the mid-size firm had resignedóthe remaining two were working with recruiters. Martizia found out that the women left for firms that were more open and committed to creating a work-environment where the desire to create diversity went beyond mere lip service.
These examples arenít unusual. Firms are under pressure to recruit talented women and minorities. However, many firms lack the requisite systems and skills to retain, promote and support a diverse workforce.
Deciding where youíll work is a critically important decision. What should a lawyer look for when trying to determine a firmís commitment to diversity and inclusion? Following are some key signs to look for during the interview and research process.
Commitment at the Top: Find out who is driving the firmís diversity initiatives. In order for diversity initiatives to succeed, there must be vigorous support from the senior level of the organization. Ask if there is a diversity task force or committee. Find out who is on it. Is it comprised only of minority and women lawyers? Keep in mind that partners are the change agents of a firm. Committees formed to address issues of diversity, recruitment, retention, and cultural competence must be lead by key leaders within a firm. Without the necessary foundation and leadership, efforts to build a diverse team will be ineffective.
A Diversity Plan: Firms committed to inclusion and diversity have taken the time to carefully plan their diversity goals and objectives. Theyíve also spent time creating a mission statement and guiding principals. Inquire about the firmís diversity mission statement or philosophy around inclusiveness.
Recruitment Philosophy: Relying on recruiting as a primary means of creating diversity is not effective. Recruiting is simply an initial step in the overall process. Firms must first ensure that their work environment can support a diverse staff. Next, firm-wide, practices must be implemented to prevent excessive attrition among women and attorneyís of color. Retention and development of a strong and diverse pool of attorneys depends upon the firmís ability to create a work environment that values and leverages difference, mentors cross culturally, and consistently measures and monitors the progress and development of all attorneys. To get a true sense of how a firm is doing in this area, ask to speak to some women or minority associates. Focus on the information sharedóbut also try to read between the lines. Some associates may be reticent about sharing negative information about their current employers.
Diversity Goals and Objectives Included in the Firmís Strategic Plan: Many firms fail to include diversity goals in the firmís overall vision and plan for growth and development. Firms successful in building a diverse workforce have implemented specific strategies for hiring, retention, professional development, communication, promotion, and mentoring. Many firms have taken the additional step of linking diversity goals to compensation and bonuses. Ask about the firmís long-term diversity goals and objectives.
Commitment to Diversity Training and Development: Building awareness and alliances through diversity training is critical to creating a productive, diverse, and inclusive workforce. Staff must have the opportunity to explore misconceptions about issues of inclusiveness, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and individuals with physical challenges. Without linking training and development to firm-wide diversity objectives, a firm cannot successfully build an inclusive and diverse organization. Find out about the firmís commitment to ongoing diversity training and development.
Cultural Competence: Many firms communicate a desire to build an inclusive work environment, yet they still place a high value on uniformity. Whether consciously or subconsciously, this value for ďsamenessĒ is communicated to others in the firm. Instead, firms need to develop cultural competency in which they
∑ Have a defined set of values and principles and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally.
∑ Have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) assess themselves, (3) manage, appreciate, and leverage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of their employees and the clients and communities they represent. Think of cultural competence as fertile ground upon which to plant, grow, and develop a successful recruitment, retention and firm wide cultural diversity program. Without a rich soil, efforts to build a diverse team of attorneys will never bloom.
Whatís the bottom line? Do your homework and donít be afraid to ask questions. Keep in mind that the interview process is a two way street. The firm is assessing your level of competence and you also need to determine the firmís commitment and ability to sustain itself in the future. The changing demographics in the U.S. and throughout the world will require firms to be prepared to meet the needs of a diverse and global client base. Firms committed to building inclusive work environments, will go much further in successfully competing in todayís global economy. Choose wisely.
Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill, is an attorney, Certified Executive Coach, and the founder and director of the Esq. Development Institute, an organization committed to helping lawyers excel personally and professionally. The Esq. Development Institute specializes in one on one executive and personal coaching for lawyers and training processes for law firms in leadership, communication, diversity, cultural competence, management development, and work-life balance. Ms. Bentsi-Enchill is quoted in The Pennsylvania Law Journal, Oprah magazine, Womenís Day and has articles published in the National Association of
Womenís Lawyers Journal, Canadian Bar Journal and other international legal publications. Contact info: JBE@esqdevelopmentInstitute.com, www.EsqDevelopmentInstitute.com.