Creating a Culture of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

5 Actions Legal Departments Can Take Now

The benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to organizations and their employees, clients, and bottom line are well documented.

For example, diversity in the workplace has been shown to increase innovation, attract and retain top talent, and lead to better decision making.

Diverse leadership pays dividends, too. McKinsey found that companies with the most gender-diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to deliver above-average profits than companies with the least gender diversity. And those with the most ethnic diversity were 36% more likely to generate above-average profitability.

A 2020 study from Citigroup, meanwhile, showed that closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would add $5 trillion to the U.S. GDP over the next five years.

DEI gaps are apparent in all areas of the law and in organizations that law firms and in-house legal departments represent.

Kerry Abrams, Dean of the Duke University School of Law, has this to say regarding gender disparity in the legal profession: “Although half of law students and nearly half of lawyers are women, women make up only one-third of attorneys in private practice, 21% of equity partners, and 12% of the managing partners, chairmen, or CEOs of law firms.”

Abrams goes on to note that women are also under-represented as lawmakers and judges, making up only about 24% of Congress, 18% of governors, 29% of state legislators, 27% of mayors of the largest 100 cities, 27% of federal judges, and 35% of state appellate judges.

The legal landscape is ripe with opportunity. Here are five actions organizations can take now to bridge the gap between their DEI objectives and outcomes.

Mitigate bias

Research shows that hiring processes are often corrupted by unconscious sexism, racism, and ageism as well as a tendency to preserve the status quo. “[If] 95% of CEOs are white men, the status quo bias can lead board members to unconsciously prefer to hire more white men for leadership roles,” according to researchers from the University of Colorado. Their studies found the odds of hiring a minority candidate increased dramatically when there were two minorities in the pool of finalists — regardless of the size of the pool. The same was true for women candidates.

Strategies for mitigating bias in hiring include requiring finalist pools to include at least two women and minorities, ensuring job descriptions use gender-neutral language, and creating a blind system for reviewing resumes that minimizes reviewer bias regarding race, ethnicity, or gender.

To eliminate bias in performance management and career development, employers can take steps to ensure their performance standards and promotion criteria are clear, explicit, and applied fairly.

Pursue new perspectives

If there’s one thing the COVID pandemic has shown us, it’s that legal teams can effectively function remotely. We are no longer limited in the availability of talent and perspectives by geographic area and can broaden our collective point of view by pursuing professionals around the globe. Human resources and recruiting professionals are thrilled with the opportunity to expand the talent pool beyond a commutable distance. Leadership realizes a homogenous team is detrimental to innovation and growth.

For example, in the past, a company based in Silicon Valley may have had a hard time recruiting young talent when the cost of living put the location out of reach, but hiring remotely avoids the need for candidates to relocate. Likewise, a company in the Midwest with a limited local talent pool can benefit from being able to hire professionals from metropolitan cities who add a fresh point of view.

Make pursuing new perspectives a priority in 2021 by activating a remote-friendly hiring policy. Additionally, encourage your existing staff to proactively seek out a range of new viewpoints and ideas when working on projects.

Make a commitment to inclusion

While diversity ensures representation of traditionally under-represented groups in a workforce, inclusion unlocks the value of diversity. “Without inclusion, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won’t happen,” notes the Harvard Business Review.

Creating an inclusive culture must begin at the top. Leaders must not only model inclusive behavior, but demand systems throughout the organization are developed so all employees have a safe environment to speak up, be heard, propose ideas, and receive feedback. Employee surveys can provide an anonymous barometer for identifying progress, gaps, and opportunities to improve.

Training initiatives for inclusive hiring practices, employee sensitivity, and leadership behavior modeling are imperative toward establishing an inclusive culture where employees feel valued, challenged, rewarded, and included. Adopt a no-tolerance policy for disrespectful or demeaning behavior that applies to all employees.

Be transparent

Build DEI initiatives on clear metrics. “For many years, professionals have viewed inclusion as immeasurable [but] inclusion can be measured,” says Sheree Atcheson, Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Peakon.

“People’s perceptions around diversity, inclusiveness, and non-discrimination are key. Do Black women in the U.S. feel a different sense of belonging than Black women in the UK? Do disabled employees feel differently about benefits and rewards than non-disabled employees? Do older employees feel differently about diversity than younger employees? All of these are very real questions that must be answered.”

Organizations can go a step further and report their DEI outcomes publicly. Stakeholders should monitor results regularly, demonstrate their commitment toward creating a culture that embraces diversity, be held accountable for outcomes, and keep encouraging difficult conversations that aim to spark actionable change.

Be an ally

The Anti-Oppression Network defines allyship as “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group.”

Organizations can establish allyship programs and opportunities through mentoring, sponsorships, affinity groups, and other structures. Admittedly this was easier in the past when most employees were in the office together, but it’s never been more crucial to proactively reach out, develop strong relationships with others, and encourage a culture of support.

Effective law department leadership understands the value of building diverse and inclusive teams that empower everyone to contribute to their fullest and have an equal opportunity at advancement. Companies have been talking about diversity initiatives for quite some time, but now it’s the companies taking action that will have an edge in hiring, innovating, and growing in the years to come.

Time to create a more inclusive law department?

Then explore the Diversity & Inclusion resources of Practical Law