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Law Firms Expand Role of Diversity and Inclusion Groups

June 5, 2017, 6:29 PM

It used to be — 10 years ago — that diversity programs at law firms primarily offered standalone events, resources and affinity groups for ethnic and racial minorities and women.

This was separate from what’s known as general professional development, whereby associates are groomed for partner and key partners are then nurtured and promoted to senior leadership positions.

Yet, as firms have felt pressure from clients to become more sophisticated in their diversity approach, that separation is breaking down, according to several recent interviews.

Today, practically all diversity programs are considered diversity and inclusion programs — a subtle, yet significant difference, because the term focuses on including, and therefore retaining, diverse talent. As diversity consultant Vernã Myers once put it: “Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

This shift is reflected, for instance, in the case of Sheri M. Zachary, the director of “career development and inclusion” at Saul Ewing.

Zachary is responsible for developing firm-wide training programs, but she also does small-group and individualized coaching to address the varied needs of its diverse bench.

Zachary recalls when she began working as a recruiter for Saul Ewing ten years ago, the diversity and inclusion was run as an initiative “all by itself.” The firm’s diversity and inclusion manager worked completely separate and siloed from the recruiting team, and diversity initiatives were only targeted to members of minority groups.

Today, Saul Ewing has an all-attorney diversity and inclusion retreat, and programs like inclusion training and implicit bias training are developed specifically for “the old white guys,” according to Zachary. In addition, the firm’s professional development and diversity and inclusion functions have merged to reflect the corporate structures of many of the firm’s clients.

“All lawyers need business development, but business development for a diverse attorney might look different than business development for a straight white guy,” she said. “By looking at it as a talent management continuum, we just address the different needs of the different constituents.”

Expanding From Tailored Webinars

Previously, diversity initiatives might have consisted solely of race- or ethnicity-based affinity groups that helped their members adapt to the majority culture and celebrate their differences through events like Black History Month. Strictly professional development activities might have included webinars or legal skills workshops offered to any interested attorney at a firm. Those affinity groups still exist, but they have become a smaller fraction of law firm diversity efforts as firms have come to recognize the professional barriers diverse attorneys face even after they are hired.

When Michelle Wimes took a job to lead diversity initiatives at Ogletree Deakins in 2011, she insisted that the role formally include professional development as well.

Wimes, who came to Ogletree from Shook, Hardy & Bacon, had come to recognize that efforts to increase diversity meant nothing if young, diverse attorneys weren’t also given the support to grow in their careers. “Diverse lawyers were struggling in the talent management space,” Wimes told Big Law Business.

Beyond affinity groups, associates of color need clear feedback, good work, and fair evaluations from firm management, according to Wimes, who said she has often counseled associates of color whose final evaluations didn’t line up with the feedback they received over the course of the year.

“All of these things have to do with professional development, they don’t have much to do with diversity, except for how implicit bias clouds how people give evaluations or feedback,” she said.

D&I and Professional Development Roles Combine

Over the past five years, Wimes said she has seen more and more firms putting diversity and inclusion together with professional development, whether by combining them to be led by one director-level position or by bringing the two departments closer together. Titles vary across law firms, making the exact number difficult to ascertain, but Wimes estimates about 15-20 law firms now have combined director roles. In some cases, this may help firms save costs, but the industry consensus is that there is a natural nexus between the two functions.

“It used to be that it was far more common to see a diversity professional operating under a recruiting umbrella,” said Carlos Dávila-Caballero, president of Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals. Later, law firms realized that they had opened their doors but were stagnating. The percentages of black women associate roles, for example, peaked in 2008 .

“For decades, you’re not seeing progress that mirrors the input,” said Dávila-Caballero, who is also Cleary Gottlieb’s director of diversity and inclusion. “So you start asking questions, why is that?”

Today’s diversity and inclusion efforts focus on the experience of associates, particularly the professional development of women and associates of color, he said. He characterized the shift as an expansion rather than a replacement of previous programs. “We can’t ignore the pipeline,” he said. “We would be foolish to say we don’t need to invest there or that it’s a zero sum game.’

An Issue of Resources

Another reason law firm diversity efforts have expanded is the growth in resources that firms are willing to devote to the issue. “Ten years ago there were very few directors of diversity and inclusion, and a lot of the diversity initiatives at law firms were being run by minority partners who cared about diversity but weren’t getting paid to do it. They still had to bill hours,” said Asker Saeed, Fried Frank’s diversity director.

Fried Frank recently hired Saeed as a full-time diversity director to work alongside Don Smith, who runs attorney development and led its diversity efforts for the past three years (the firm previously had another diversity director). Saeed and Smith, who report to the same manager, sit across the hall from each other and talk on a daily basis, according to Smith.

While there is overlap between the two functions, they are distinct. Saeed said both men spend a significant amount of time on one goal: getting lawyers from associate to partner. The main difference is that Smith represents all attorneys in the firm whereas Saeed is focused on certain groups. Fried Frank, which has 312 associates and 128 partners, had a revenue $556,400,000 in its last fiscal year.

“Diversity and inclusion work is essentially talent management and professional development for your diverse populations,” Smith said. “We’re not really just doing charity contributions and it’s not limited to cultural awareness.”

For more on diversity and inclusion, below is video of Big Law Business’s fourth annual diversity symposium in Washington, D.C. on May 10. A panel of in-house lawyers from Verizon, Fannie Mae and Capital One share insights from their experience working with outside law firms to achieve diversity in their legal teams. Full video from the event is here .