Inclusion: The Road Less Traveled?

Association of Corporate Counsel Colorado Newsletter
January 2018 Publications

As companies challenge their law firms to embrace diversity, the legal community looks for new ways to get involved and also hold its members accountable to the evolving standards.

In June, The American Lawyer wrote about the Mansfield Rule, which “states that at least 30 percent of law firms’ candidate pools for any leadership or governance position—including equity partnership promotions and lateral positions—must be comprised of women or minorities.” While a number of firms signed on to pilot this new approach, some small firms especially will be challenged to meet the requirement.

Meanwhile, the Big Four accounting firms are looking at alternative diversity programs. Deloitte, for example, will phase out their traditional diversity programming in favor of “inclusion councils” that are intended to welcome everyone, including those who don’t identify as diverse but are allies who are passionate about diversity and inclusion.

So, we’ve inevitably reached this tipping point where we see a shift in how people perceive diversity programming. And the answer in terms of how to proceed may be different for everyone. That concept is really at the core of diversity: that everyone is different, but deserves the same respect and the same opportunities. But many people are left asking: How might this U-turn alter the future of inclusion and help us avoid complacency?

I recently sat down with Meshach Rhoades, partner and vice chair of the Inclusion Committee at Armstrong Teasdale LLP and Michelle Lucero, Chief Administrative Officer and general counsel at Children’s Hospital Colorado who shared their perspectives on inclusion in the workplace and how Colorado stacks up.

WHAT’S THE STATE OF INCLUSION IN LAW FIRMS?

Meshach Rhoades: According to April 2017 data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), women and minorities remain significantly underrepresented in the partner population at law firms. Their data showed that among equity partners, 81.9 percent were men, 18.1 percent were women, and 5.8 percent) were racial/ethnic minorities (includes men and women).

As a racially diverse woman partner, the statistics are often disheartening. For many law firms, workplace diversity is nothing more than an aspirational objective. Especially when it comes to recruiting, it’s important to deliver on conversations you might have had during the interview process about how your firm embraces diversity. It’s important to be authentic. I work in an office where nearly 50 percent of our employees identify as diverse, but not everyone has that opportunity.

Michelle Lucero: Women and minorities are also underrepresented in general counsel roles, so we understand the challenges, but it’s critical to proactively create opportunities for diverse lawyers to succeed. And law firms can do that by bringing people with different experiences and opinions to the table, which in turn enables them to better serve diverse clients.

Rhoades: I also think firms are recognizing the need to stand behind their attorneys’ passion projects. It’s not only about sponsoring an event, but also actively engaging with audiences they might not have considered in the past for their talent pipeline. By getting involved in more programs outside of the legal field, firms are able to expand their networks and grow business.

In 2012, I co-founded the Latinas First Foundation, which provides opportunities for Latinas to reach their highest potential through nontraditional scholarships. Colorado has incredible Latina leaders, and the foundation recognizes what these Latina leaders have accomplished and builds a community for other women to thrive.

Lucero: Mentoring is so important to me. Before my mother passed away, she told me to “Be grateful and don’t forget where you came from. Whenever you make it, reach back and pull someone up with you.” Those words have really become a guiding principle as I think about what success means to me. Firms should prioritize mentorship, and better yet, career sponsorship, to help diverse attorneys succeed and stand out. If you’re willing to put your neck out for a diverse attorney and champion them along, as a client or a colleague, we can help change the dynamics of law firm partnership.

Rhoades: Programs that focus on mentoring law students are also incredibly invaluable because they instill those patterns in people from the infancy of their careers. The Colorado Pledge to Diversity Program, for example, creates opportunities for diverse law students to work in-house and at law firms very early in their careers. And at the same time, they create opportunities for employers to see how well diverse candidates perform in the legal profession.

ARE IN-HOUSE COUNSEL APPROACHING INCLUSION DIFFERENTLY THAN FIRMS?

Lucero: In-house counsel and organizations hold a large amount of power when it comes to identifying priorities. In a post-recession world, people are terrified of losing business, and anything that might threaten their success is of paramount concern. Left and right, we’re seeing business lost to automation and platforms driven by convenience for consumers, and those models translate, albeit not exactly, to this adapt-or-die theory. Law firms certainly seem to be feeling the pressure to accommodate the asks of in-house counsel, no matter how great, specific to inclusion.

Rhoades: In my conversations with clients and in-house counsel, the topic of inclusion is increasing in frequency, and rightfully so. Clients are adamant that their firms be diverse, and we are under mounting pressure to hold ourselves accountable so that our clients don’t have to.

Lucero: I’m so glad to see a lot of this come from the top down. And the message isn’t just one of tolerance or acceptance. It’s morphing into a much more aggressive, proactive approach that requires our firms and our vendors to comply with our standards and report regularly on diversity metrics. It’s like a complete renaissance of corporate culture and the shift is both needed and welcome. By placing more pressure on professional services companies to embrace diversity, companies are actually driving real change. For example, if Facebook is your biggest client and they suddenly require your firm to be 33 percent diverse, you bet you’re going to make that happen no matter how hard you have to try.

Rhoades: There have long been conversations internally at law firms about using compensation to motivate business development action. So, when people start to see the impact on their bottom line, they often naturally become more competitive and passionate about driving change.

And we can’t ignore the fact that millennials are driving a lot of this change. I mentor so many young people and law students from the University of Colorado and elsewhere and a diverse workplace is a requirement for them, not an option. So as we look at the future of our workforce, these intense conversations about diversity and inclusion are essential.

HOW ARE MILLENNIALS ADDRESSING INCLUSION?

Rhoades: With a focus on recruiting diverse attorneys, it’s not enough to bring them on board and point them in the direction of your inclusion programming. By fostering growth in our future leaders, we can direct the success of inclusion efforts long after we’re gone.

Lucero: I recently spoke to a group of women about what it’s like to raise a “champion.” My daughter, Alex, is a collegiate soccer player at the University of Southern California and, a lot of what I’ve experienced with her over the years translates to mentoring and sponsorship in a business environment. As we think about building a smart team and encouraging growth, which is especially vital to retaining a diverse workforce, I keep the following messages in mind:

  • Leverage your team’s passion and push them forward.
  • Surround yourself with brilliant, strong people you aspire to be like. Feed your spirit by osmosis.
  • No quitting. Ride it out.
  • Have the courage to advocate for yourself. Have difficult conversations. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Learn to win and lose graciously. 
  • Hire people who are smarter than you, and look out for your team.
  • Turn adversity/challenges into positives. Look for opportunities to improve.
  • Never stop learning. There will always be a next time, a next challenge. Be prepared.
  • Have fun. When you don’t have fun, it’s hard to keep that passion.

Rhoades: As a former collegiate athlete myself, I agree there’s a lot that organizations struggling with diversity initiatives can learn from sportsmanship and how to take care of your team. There’s this imaginary line between being respectful and pushing people outside of their comfort zone. It’s that gray space that often yields the best results.

WHAT CAN COLORADOANS DO TO CONTINUE TO CHAMPION INCLUSION EFFORTS?

Rhoades: The Denver community make-up is rapidly changing.  As early as 2010, three Colorado counties “saw their proportion of white residents decline by more than 10 percentage points,” according to The Denver Post. At that time, they reported the following based on Census data: “The figures confirm that Aurora is the first major city in the state to be a ‘minority-majority’ city, with nearly 53 percent of its residents identifying as nonwhite.” While so much has changed in the past seven years, Aurora continues to be recognized as a hub for diversity in the state. And Denver follows suit.

Colorado's legal community continues to impress me in how quickly and proactively it takes action in the areas of diversity and inclusiveness. In 2011, I wrote an article for the Colorado Bar Journal about changes to the application form for the Colorado bar exam making it more inclusive for students who are transgender or who have nontraditional families. There are still companies struggling with gender identity and how best to create policies and procedures that not only protect diversity, but also promote it. And when the legal community leads by example, it can help advance inclusion standards within the broader business community.

Lucero: At Children's Hospital Colorado we naturally talk a lot about the healing process. So, we look for ways for our patients to feel welcomed and comfortable, and we also look for opportunities to reward our staff for their contributions across a variety of skill sets and qualities. We host regular diversity celebrations and provide Spanish language classes and culture and clinical care sessions for our employees. And we reach out to the community by working with minority-owned suppliers and by offering minority clinical scholarships. These are just a few of the things that companies should be thinking about and it’s critical to have legal counsel involved to help navigate these sometimes sensitive situations.

I often ask myself, will we ever be “fully inclusive?” And the answer is probably no. We’ll never be perfect, but we will certainly do our best.

Rhoades: It’s critical for companies to start having these conversations about what they want their diversity and inclusion programs to look like, how to implement them, and what types of organizations and firms they want to align with. As the population becomes more diverse, companies that want to remain relevant must evolve to reach that workforce.