The pandemic has forever changed our legal field, and while many are addressing the consequences on firm diversity efforts, few are addressing the opportunity ahead of us. Law firms across the country can take this opportunity, coupled with the recent heightened engagement in social justice initiatives, to leverage the remote experience to increase engagement and learning opportunities for diverse talent.
Improve Access Using Virtual Environments
Courthouses closed and litigators had to adapt to a new normal that included virtual hearings and depositions. While these unconventional proceedings brought challenges, they also allowed for the opportunity to expand the participation of a broader cross-section of attorneys in proceedings.
The ability for a junior attorney to observe the deposition of a senior partner across the country is not only feasible, but something that law firms should encourage as a training opportunity for a broad base of attorneys. Moreover, because the law school experience for many recent graduates included access to technology, it is a real opportunity to blend the experience of senior attorneys with the technological acumen that many new members of the profession bring with them to the practice.
One of the core aspects of promoting equity in the law is providing everyone with access to opportunities and institutional knowledge often housed with law firm partners across a firm. While in-person interactions are essential in the practice of law, the ease by which we can now connect via virtual platforms provides another avenue to meet with members in different practice groups and offices.
Access is key and leaders in the legal profession should look at how to leverage the shift to virtual norms to promote access to the next generation of legal leaders.
Promote Authenticity in the Workplace
While the pandemic has brought new challenges to how and when we work, now more than ever, employees are bringing their whole selves to work—and employers and managers should help their employees feel welcome to do so. Law firms can encourage and promote authenticity in the workplace by the following.
Allowing Employees to Use Pronouns of Their Choosing
Whether this is listing pronouns in an email signature, or including it on your office placard, encouraging all individuals in your office to indicate what pronouns they want to use will help everyone feel welcome in the workplace and invite them to be their authentic selves.
Creating A Safe Space for Sharing
When a partner shares with an associate something about their own life, it opens a safe space for the associate to do the same, often leading to better communication between the associate and partner.
Educating in the Workplace
Firms can roll out programs to help connect employees of different backgrounds with each other to educate one another on their different experiences. Our attorneys will be more empathetic toward one another if they have a better understanding of how others live.
Meet Conversations About Equity Head-On
The renewed focus on social justice and equity has provided an opportunity for law firm leaders to engage in genuine conversations about equity. Despite the distance and isolation caused by the pandemic, leaders should not avoid tackling conversations about social justice and equal access to opportunity in the profession.
These conversations aren’t always comfortable in a remote environment, but they are necessary as the human experience has been challenged as never before, particularly for racial, and ethnic minority populations who have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
These conversations should be thoughtful and tailored to the needs of the workplace, and should not be limited to a single session. Leaders need to create comfortable environments to have these discussions, which may mean one-on-one or small group settings. Additionally, the goal should be to authentically demonstrate access to leadership to openly discuss any concerns.
While burnout can come from the constant state of crisis we have experienced, it can also occur from a feeling of not being heard or understood. This can be countered by the access to senior leadership on issues that uniquely affect lawyers across demographics and generations.
Leaders’ intentional focus on listening to their teams during tough times can be critical to countering burnout and supporting attorneys across multiple geographies in a remote environment.
Encourage Engagement in Pro Bono
Setting aside time to give back to vulnerable communities not only helps those who may not be able to seek legal counsel, but also allows for your employees to feel more connected to the broader legal community. Over the past year, it has become even more clear that to ensure our vulnerable communities get legal assistance, it behooves us all to volunteer and help where we can.
This is where law firms must step in. For lawyers to find the time to give back, law firms should implement incentive programs to encourage lawyers to volunteer with pro bono legal organizations. This could be offering billable credit for pro bono work or creating an office challenge for whoever works the most pro bono hours in a year. Or, a law firm could send around a monthly bulletin, highlighting the work their attorneys are doing in the community.
If law firms can refocus to prioritize authenticity, equity, and pro bono they can help transition pandemic burnout we’ve all felt this past year into opportunity for their attorneys.
A Bloomberg Law Practical Perspective on this is available here.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Mishell Parreno Taylor is a shareholder in San Diego and Houston. She is an active member of several of the firm’s practice groups: Complex Litigation and Jury Trials; Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; Hospitality, Wage and Hour; and International Employment Law. She also serves on the managing board of Littler Mexico.
Raquel Zilberman Rotman is an associate in Littler’s San Diego office. She counsels and advises employers on labor and employment matters, with a focus on single plaintiff litigation.