Law firm diversity leaders are growing in number and influence

As anti-racism protests swept across the United States last summer, major law firms were forced to consider the inequalities and diversity within their own ranks. Over the next year, many reorganized their management to put more emphasis on diversity, including adding a role once rare in the industry: that of Director of Diversity.

The power and scope of the position vary, but more than a fifth of the 100 most profitable U.S. law firms now have a diversity-focused professional with “chief” in their title, according to a Reuters survey of those 100. cabinets and press articles.

Of the 45 companies that responded to the survey, more than 64% said they hired Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) professionals in the past year, and 64% said that they were hiring such professionals this year. Over the past month, Milbank and Husch Blackwell have both appointed their first Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“There was starting to be a trend, I think, even before the murder of George Floyd (in May 2020),” said Sylvia James, who was appointed head of diversity and inclusion at Winston & Strawn in October. . “It’s definitely rushed.”

CDO roles in law firms are growing amid pressure to accelerate change in an industry that has long been heavily white and male, especially in its early ranks. But how the job is defined and the freedom and resources available to executives to make changes depend on the company.

“Some people want to tick a box,” said Paulette Brown, senior partner and head of diversity and inclusion at Locke Lord. But there are also companies that take DEI seriously, Brown and other CDOs said.

In these companies, DCI’s top executives report and meet regularly with the president or managing partner, the CDOs said.

Over 60% of those surveyed said their company’s CDO or equivalent reported to their Managing Partner or Managing Director. One company said its CDO does not have a direct reporting line.

Once a month was the most frequently cited frequency for formal meetings with cabinet presidents or managing partners, while more than a quarter of respondents said such meetings take place quarterly or less. Others meet once a week, or at each executive committee meeting, because their CDO is part of this team.


The CDOs said change-minded companies are also making sure DCI leaders have resources, such as people.

DCI teams in the best companies remain quite small. Almost 30% of those surveyed said their firm had only two dedicated DCI professionals, compared to hundreds of lawyers. Eleven companies had teams smaller than that. One company had a total of eight people; another had 11.

“One of the things I see that is concerning … is that this person is only hired for name. And to me this is reported by, they don’t have support, they don’t have a team, ”said a CDO who asked to remain anonymous.

Help would be welcome: although still uneven, the responsibilities of the CDO have increased dramatically since large companies began appointing diversity officers some 20 years ago.

Customers have increased the pressure on companies to hire and encourage women and people of color. Since 2019, hundreds of attorneys general have threatened to withdraw spending from companies not trying to diversify.

All survey respondents said that the responsibilities of their CDO or equivalent professional include discussing DCI’s goals and strategies with other business leaders. Over 90% said their CDO also meets with corporate clients; about the same proportion does career development work.

Just under 70% said their CDO created training sessions related to diversity. These programs were previously a central role of DCI, said Anna Brown, head of inclusion and diversity at Baker McKenzie, who was promoted to this role in January.

“In the first few years that people were stepping into (DCI roles) it was very programmatic, like, ‘let’s have a reception of diversity,’,” Brown said. “Programs are wonderful … but they need to be connected to something, they need strategy.”

Brown started at Baker McKenzie in 2017. Prior to that, she spent over 15 years leading diversity efforts at Shearman & Sterling, the New York-based firm where she previously worked as a partner.

Over 36% of DCI executives of respondents were lawyers at some point but are not currently practicing. Almost half of DCI’s managers are now partners, some with active practices. This includes Leslie Minier, longtime chief diversity partner of Katten Muchin Rosenman, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer who said her experience as a partner helps her in her role as DCI.

Minier said that “it was really difficult” to manage both his DEI and his legal work in the beginning. But it got easier as long-term clients focused more on EDI, researching their own strategies and wanting to understand the efforts of their outside advisors.

“It’s not like (the work is) separate, necessarily, especially when you’ve been practicing for as long as I have and have these relationships with your clients,” Minier said.

James, who started her career as a lawyer with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, called having a lawyer background “a huge plus”.

“Lawyers respect other lawyers above all else, so that gives you a bit of instant credibility,” she said.

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