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Using Data to Advance Diversity and Inclusion for the Long Haul

Nov. 25, 2020, 9:01 AM

We have spent our careers in law firms and know from experience that lawyers value critical thinking and analysis. Approaching diversity and inclusion with the same intellectual rigor—allowing research and data to inform, shape and drive the strategy—could be a game changer for the legal industry.

As we lead efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at our firm and in the legal profession, we have learned many lessons in our journey so far.

Develop a Measurable Diversity Strategy

In 2017, our firm launched a diversity strategic plan, complete with goals, key performance indicators, and monthly reporting to our management committee. The process engaged stakeholders at the highest leadership level. We applied change management techniques such as a highly communicated, clear vision. We defined concepts such as diversity and inclusion to ensure everyone had a shared definition of success.

We centralized our demographic data collection and reporting process, and created a new role to track and analyze this data. The firm prioritized resources to support the strategic plan, increasing the firm’s diversity budget by over 33%.

Rely on Experts and Build a Guiding Coalition

Shortly after the plan launched, over 50 members of our firm leadership spent a day with Dr. Iris Bohnet and Dr. Robert Livingston of the Harvard Kennedy School, who shared research and data on why diversity is critical to our future, why historical efforts have not been effective, and what is working to improve diversity and inclusion. These experts made a compelling case for systemic change.

This significant investment in time and financial resources was a pivotal point in our firm’s diversity journey. Our firm’s leadership—both attorneys and business services professionals—began to strategically use power and influence to make sure change happens and that it lasts.

Implement Corresponding Policies and Initiatives

We enabled action by removing barriers. For example, we implemented the Mansfield Rule and created process charts to ensure it was easy to follow. We updated our parental leave policies and instituted process improvements that eased the administrative burden for new parents. And we launched structured interviews for entry level candidates, using a just-in-time training methodology to ensure all interviewers were trained, but none had to waste any time in the process.

Most importantly, we measured our results—before, during and after. Are the programs making a difference? If so, they will continue. If not, we shift gears.

We generated short-term wins and hosted events that brought together members of our affinity groups to reduce social isolation and make direct connections to firm leadership. We focused on sustaining the change by imbuing diversity in our processes.

Our national chair of diversity plays an active role in the firm’s career development and advancement processes. The chair of our women’s initiative joins elevation discussions to ensure bias is mitigated and gender equity remains top-of-mind. By embedding these roles in the process, we have change that is both immediate and lasting.

Utilize Qualitative Metrics to Measure Inclusiveness

Inclusion is the active and intentional culture firms create where people feel valued for what makes them unique. It’s a foundational component for achieving diversity and equity. Two years into our strategic plan, we identified measuring inclusion as a necessary component for achieving success.

We hired Mind Gym, a consultancy of behavioral scientists who utilize research to transform organizations, as a strategic partner. Mind Gym studied our demographics, internal communications, and heard from our people through a firm wide survey, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews.

Shining a light on our processes and our people was a big step. Many organizations are not ready to dig so deep inside themselves. But we were earnestly committed to change and knew we must have clear and objective data about ourselves to better understand how to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

This critical assessment provided a baseline of data regarding the perceptions of fairness and belonging within our firm. Given the large data sets, we had statistically relevant feedback to see ourselves through the eyes of our employees.

Commit to Ongoing Data-Driven Evaluation and Improvement

In 2020, we launched the next iteration of our diversity strategic plan. It now has a “2.0” after the title. This signifies our approach to iterative improvement; we rely on systemic change management practices; measure what works (and what doesn’t); and hold ourselves accountable for achieving progress.

For example, we know perceptions of belonging are correlated to retention, so one measurement in our survey was the sense of belonging within the firm. In this area, we saw significant gaps based on employee’s roles. As a result, we opened our affinity groups to staff and have been conducting quarterly diversity town halls for everyone at the firm.

We are committed to advancing diversity over the long-haul. Our initiatives are not focused on boosting numbers overnight. However, by embracing our inquisitive and research-driven culture and bringing a change management approach to diversity, we should make progress over time.

While we know it is rare for law firms to compile data and use metrics to drive diversity and inclusion changes, it is an approach that we believe can bring about real change in this fact-driven industry. As famed American poet Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Empirical information helps firms to “know” better and thus “do” better to develop and implement targeted action plans where improvement is needed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Kristine McKinney is the chief legal talent & inclusion officer at Fish & Richardson P.C. and is based in the Twin Cities office.

Whitney Smallwood is the diversity & inclusion manager at Fish & Richardson P.C. and is based in Washington, D.C.

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