Legal Diversity 101: How to Launch a Long-Lasting D&I Program

According to CLOC’s State of the Industry Report, establishing a formal diversity and inclusion (D&I) programme rose from the fifth-ranked legal department priority in 2020 to the first in 2021. Recent progressive social movements and data on the business benefits of a diverse workplace have prompted companies to take action in the legal industry and beyond.

Structured planning is essential for launching a successful legal diversity programme. While it may be tempting to rush to implement a new policy or initiative in order to get things moving, keep in mind that the main goal is to foster long-term change throughout the department, from hiring and culture to continuing education, volunteerism, and career development. That requires time, thought, and effort.

Based on our research into the components of long-lasting corporate D&I programmes that produce results, we created this list of seven steps you can take to implement a programme, as well as examples of legal departments leading the way.

7 steps to establishing a successful in-house legal diversity programme

Form a D&I committee.

The first step is to assemble a team that will be in charge of leading diversity and inclusion efforts. It’s best to start by sending out an email asking for volunteers, but keep in mind that digging deep into D&I work takes a lot of time and emotional labour. This is especially true for people from underrepresented groups, for whom a lack of diversity and inclusion can have a significant personal impact.

To compensate, some companies offer various incentives for active participation in D&I work, such as annual bonuses. Even a small gesture, such as extra time off or a gift card, shows that you appreciate the time and energy sacrifices that people are willing to make.

Your volunteer list will also serve as a list of potential future legal leaders to keep an eye on, because you already know they’re willing to take the initiative and are invested in making the company a better place.

Conduct an internal D&I audit

Reviewing your team’s current diversity make-up objectively, as well as feedback on your department’s D&I and any previous D&I activities at the company, will help you identify areas for improvement and where you’d like to focus first. This can be done with your D&I Committee or by hiring a legal D&I consultant to conduct an audit and make recommendations.

If you’re doing this in-house, you’ll start by looking at your team’s demographics. After receiving permission from your team members, contact Human Resources to request an anonymized breakdown of key metrics such as race and gender. If there is limited information available or a missing area you’d like to track (e.g., sexual orientation, veteran status), contact your team and HR to see if they can submit updated information that will also be tracked with new hires.

While a D&I Committee is in charge of initiating initiatives, it is still necessary to solicit feedback from all members of the legal department. This way, you’ll get a broader range of perspectives on what works and what doesn’t in your department and company when it comes to DE&I. The Committee can then use this information to set goals and activities that will propel progress.

This metric assesses how your department’s culture is perceived by its employees.

“How would you rate the following statement on a scale of 1 to 5: People of all identities and backgrounds have opportunities to advance in the department?”

Open-ended questions are used to discuss both positive and negative experiences.

“Do you believe our department is safe and welcoming?”

“Has anyone in our department ever discriminated against you because of your identity?”

Obtains direct feedback on what could be improved.

“For instance, what activities or programmes do you believe would be most beneficial to fostering D&I in our legal department?”

“What would you like to see done to support individuals from underrepresented backgrounds?” for example.

Allow employees to submit responses either under their own names or anonymously. While there is obvious value in being able to see if responses from underrepresented groups are less positive than those from majority groups, some people may not feel comfortable serving as a perceived “voice” for a minority group. Furthermore, if people are required to sign their responses, they may be less candid. Allowing them to opt-out prioritises their sense of well-being.

Finally, gather information on any D&I work done in your department or at your company. Ask around to see what worked and what didn’t. This research can provide you with some preliminary ideas for potential topics and activities, as well as how to make your programme more sustainable.

Examine the diversity of outside counsel

“If law departments want to promote diversity, they need to make sure that their law firms are walking the walk,” according to the Blickstein Group’s 13th Annual Law Department Operations Survey. The first step is to keep track of data on the diversity of your outside counsel.

Request that your vendors fill out the American Bar Association’s Model Diversity Survey or the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s recently launched Diversity Scorecard. If they are unwilling to participate, the partnership should be reconsidered. You want to work with vendors who are as dedicated to D&I as your department is.

While submitted vendor data can be stored in a manual tool such as a spreadsheet, it is far more convenient to store it in advanced legal software. This type of tool displays D&I data alongside all of your other key vendor metrics and can flag vendors who fail to meet any specific diversity guidelines, such as not having any partners from marginalised backgrounds leading matters. This information can then be used objectively in performance reviews to determine who is committed to progress.

Establish measurable D&I goals and a plan for achieving them.

It’s time for your Committee to chart a course forward after compiling and reviewing all of the information gathered internally and from law firm partners.

List your strongest and weakest areas (for example, hiring, education, outreach, vendors, and so on) and prioritise your top priorities. Then, collaborate to set specific, measurable goals and outline the steps required to achieve them. It’s the difference between saying “connect with more underrepresented law students” and saying “create a diversity summer associate programme for four students in collaboration with historically Black colleges.”

If you’re having trouble deciding on specifics, we recommend taking a look at Shell Legal Services GC Cathy Lamboley’s diversity plan and the work of other corporate legal departments for inspiration. Here are some more examples:

Accenture: Provides summer internship opportunities to first-year law students with disabilities.

Novartis requires vendors to ensure that at least 30% of billable associate time and 20% of partner time is provided by women, people of colour, or LGBTQ+ people.

General Electric: A year-long fellowship with a guaranteed job interview is available to Chicago-area law school graduates from underrepresented backgrounds.

MetLife: Runs a mentoring programme to help in-house and outside counsel from underrepresented backgrounds advance in their careers.

HP Inc.: Withholds fees from vendors who do not meet their diversity guidelines, and also collaborates with vendors on pro bono work.

Communicate the strategy to the C-suite.

Once you’ve finalised your plan, it’s time to consult with executive stakeholders such as your CEO. They can make valuable suggestions before you get too far into the work, and they can point out any potential links between legal D&I and company-wide initiatives. If there aren’t, your proposal could be the spark that ignites more widespread change throughout your organisation.

Inform your staff and vendors about the program’s launch.

After upper management has approved your plan, inform your department’s staff and vendors about the formal launch of the D&I programme and upcoming activities.

Concentrate on the following points in your announcement:

Why a formal programme was required, and what its primary goal was

Contact information for the D&I committee’s key members

Any additional steps that are required (e.g., signing up for implicit bias training, reviewing new outside counsel guidelines)

Taking the time to manage change proactively will reduce confusion and allow all parties to collaborate more smoothly on this critical task.

Track and evaluate progress

D&I work does not end once you’ve started your programme or completed one activity. To ensure the long-term viability of your programme, you must be diligent in documenting your efforts over time, including tracking both quantitative data (diversity metrics) and qualitative information (processes and details). The old adage “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” is certainly applicable here.

Once a quarter, conduct a D&I “check-in” to ensure that things are progressing as planned, and if not, meet with the Committee to discuss how to overcome any obstacles. Another strategic idea is to re-send the kickoff survey and see if and how feedback on your D&I culture and efforts has changed.

Increasing diversity in the legal profession necessitates ongoing effort.

Creating a more diverse and inclusive legal field will take time, as with any industry-wide change. Progress will be made as more industry professionals, from legal operations professionals to general counsel and managing partners, continue to collaborate to effect long-term change. Success entails much more than hosting a single event or training seminar; it entails taking consistent action to foster a culture in which everyone has equal opportunities to contribute and excel.

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