As we face the Covid-19 pandemic, many business leaders and diversity and inclusion professionals alike have expressed concerns about the immediate and related economic impacts that it will have on the critical gains that we have made when it comes to diversity within the legal profession.
Our industry is a microcosm for our communities, at large, and research shows that women and communities of color, in particular, are disproportionately feeling the negative impacts of this global pandemic on many different levels, including in the workplace.
We have learned firsthand that our focus on building a culture of inclusion is critical to our ability to build a strong base for our firm and enables us to better serve our clients. Although we are all coping with the short-term impacts of the pandemic, prioritizing our commitment to diversity is more critical now than ever.
Opportunity for Bias Surfaces in a Crisis
The massive uncertainties we are facing can trigger us to narrow our vision when making major decisions and revert to patterns that can negate the gains we have made in building a workplace culture conducive to inclusion. Often when faced with crises, our perspectives narrow and the opportunity for bias is broader and more apparent, which may influence how we make decisions.
At Baker McKenzie, in recent years, our incoming North America associate classes have consistently achieved gender parity. Our 2019 U.S. summer associate class was composed of 59% women and 57% ethnic minorities, and our newer partner classes have been more than 40% women. From a low of 6% ethnic and racial diversity for U.S. incoming associates in 2014, we have averaged 36% for the last five years. While there is still more to do, it is progress.
Each of us, from senior leadership to mid-level managers, have a role to play in protecting the gains made in organizational diversity. Some of the most effective actions are ensuring that we are doubling-down on mentorship, stepping up to sponsorship, championing diverse talent and leaning into candor with those in our organizations.
Promote Mentorship & Champion Diverse Talent
During social distancing, our responsibility to mentor and build relationships with those who are coming up behind us in their careers is more important than ever. Mentorship is how we build longevity within our organization and ensure that we are actively building a diverse pipeline.
According to an article published in Harvard Business Review, “mentors play a pivotal role in safeguarding retention and building organizational commitment, particularly in times of crisis.” We know that mentorship, as well as sponsorship, are critical factors and indicators of long-term success.
In this uncertain time, we are encouraging our leaders to focus on offering wisdom and advice for reskilling and professional pivots that can be made for the long-term success of their mentees. During these interactions, mentors should listen carefully, be prepared to assist with the unique challenges those who we are mentoring are experiencing and raise these concerns to those who can help.
Lean Into Candor
If we are in a direct management role with those whom we are mentoring, it is an opportunity to be candid and transparent regarding areas of improvement that may sometimes go unsaid. Having courageous conversations on ways to improve should remain a constant, even in times like this. This is an area that is often a hurdle to professional advancement, particularly for under-represented groups.
In addition, we should ask questions about how those we are mentoring are coping, especially since research shows that our female colleagues often bear the lion’s share of family and household responsibilities. Taking the time to open the door to these conversations and better understand the new stressors that we are all experiencing can help us to serve as better mentors.
An added benefit is that we can increase our focus on the positive through these interactions, which can help improve our own outlook.
We are all navigating the real-time impacts of this crisis, one that is all consuming of every aspect of our lives. It can be hard to think about “life after Covid-19,” when simply trying to get through the day-to-day. Despite this, we can’t forget to keep looking and moving forward. How we respond to the crisis today, defines what our organization looks like tomorrow.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
About the Authors
Anna Brown is the director of global diversity & inclusion at Baker McKenzie, a global law firm with 77 offices in 45 countries.
Colin Murray is Baker McKenzie’s chief executive officer in the North America region with responsibility for managing the firm’s practices in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.