At the ABA Annual Meeting this week I was fortunate to attend two brilliant panel discussions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They came at the issue from different perspectives, but both offered very interesting insights into the need for increased emphasis on making progress toward DEI goals.
The first of these panels discussed the role that DEI leaders in law firms and corporate counsel positions play in advancing these goals. Moderated by Avery Joshua, panelists Courtney Carter, Kayla Byers, and Deborah Martin Owens discussed their experiences leading DEI movements in their respective organizations and made some practical recommendations about how law firms and corporate legal offices can change organizational policies and practices to create and sustain greater opportunities for a diverse slate of attorneys and other employees.
One thing that stuck out to me was the importance of individual leadership in creating the conditions for lasting success. Specific DEI leaders are often positioned as the principal change agent in an organization. As such, they become the initial touchpoint for lawyers and other employees who want to talk about DEI issues and experiences. This gives the DEI leader the broad exposure and vision necessary to suggest the righth process and policy changes to be embedded into the organization. These are often centered around hiring practices, case assignment and performance review processes, or similar formal requirements.
But if attorneys and staff become used to the DEI leader being the only diversity touchpoint, there is a risk that DEI initiatives and their benefits will only ever be as good and as lasting as the individual change agent. It goes (almost) without saying that commitment to change has to start at the top. Managing partners, firm leadership teams, General Counsel - these are the people who must first model and evangelize the importance of DEI initiatives. But it cannot stop with them. In order to make enduring change, individual leaders at all levels need to be part of the change. This may start with classes or other general instruction (education about DEI impacts, generally, and about process changes), but it has go deeper than that. Changing the organizational culture around DEI means helping individual leaders incorporate these principles into how they operate on a day-to-day basis. In my language of leadership, this means building teams that trust each other enough to be authentic (transparent) about who they really are -- as real people -- and to practice being empathetic about others' experiences.
Your DEI efforts require leadership, but it may be a different or more broadly implemented form of leadership than you think of first. You need inspirers and motivators, but even more, you need leaders at all levels throughout your firm or legal office who know how to act on or use the DEI principles and processes that will make a difference. Doing this will build a more collaborative and inclusive culture, strengthen well-being, and contribute to reducing associate turnover.