Bob Grand.
Bob Grand. ()

A meaningful discussion of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession needs to go beyond the empty buzzwords. We recently had an opportunity to talk to a handful of our law firm’s clients about what diversity and inclusion really means—to them in their own company’s culture and to them as buyers of legal services.

Law firms pay a lot of lip service to diversity and inclusion, yet legal services remain among the least diverse white-collar professions. But changes are finally coming, fast. Corporations such as HP have announced it may start docking fees for outside counsel who don’t meet their standards for diversity and inclusion. Last fall, 24 Fortune 1000 general counsels pledged widespread support for ABA Resolution 113, urging law firms to be more diverse.

If GCs are going to these lengths, it clearly means that many in our profession simply aren’t embracing—or even aware of—the ways in which diversity and inclusion contribute tangible value, both professionally and personally, to our client relationships and legal work.

Diversity Doesn’t Necessarily Beget Inclusion

Our clients tell us that at their companies, while diversity is still crucial, inclusion is what makes it all work.

Steven C. Benz, assistant general counsel at Eli Lilly and Company, put it this way: “Diversity is done on the hiring side, in segments. Inclusion, on the other hand, is about retention. It’s not just a program, it’s an everyday thing…Does everyone feel like a part of the team? How do we make everyone feel valued?”

Efforts aimed at inclusion can be harder to implement, because they’re not as readily measurable as, say, diversity hiring initiatives, which are all about the numbers. So at companies like Eli Lilly, it’s about creating a culture of collaboration, where a variety of voices are heard, valued and appreciated. And it’s about aligning those values with your business model and how you treat employees, clients and customers. Which often leads to innovation.

A Competitive Advantage

Time and again, our clients tell us that firms who get diversity and inclusion right have a real competitive advantage.

Angel Shelton Willis, vice president and deputy general counsel at Ingersoll Rand Company, said, “We looked at the data and discovered that the service providers we work with that are more diverse and inclusive deliver better results, because different perspectives allow you to see an issue from all sides.”

That’s why, at Ingersoll Rand, because diversity and inclusion is a top-down initiative, the company is seeking it with its outside vendors. “Customers are demanding it from us, so we in turn also value it in the business relationships we have with professional service firms.”

The conversation is important, but so is the action. Getting beyond the buzzwords means recognizing that change needs to happen. Ernest J. Newborn, II, senior vice president and general counsel of USI Insurance Services, seconded that notion. “My fundamental belief is that diversity and inclusion translates into organizational performance. If an organization doesn’t make it a priority, that raises questions in my mind as to whether they’re doing what they need to do internally.”

And while there’s no doubt that diversity and inclusion have an impact on the actual legal work, it also comes down to the fact that diverse, inclusive law firms are simply better to do business with.

This is because inclusion breeds collaboration and a better exchange of ideas. As Benz noted, “Even great senior partners can’t win all their cases alone. You need to bring in people from various backgrounds—including associates—to get fresh ideas and perspectives.”

Making It Happen

Being a diverse and inclusive law firm requires work across the spectrum—from hiring practices to cultural shifts to the ways in which we measure our success.

On the hiring side, Shelton Willis suggested looking less at what you traditionally think you want in a candidate and more at what attributes your most successful people possess. In her company’s case, they’ve found their most successful people are strong leaders and communicators, so it’s important to account for EQ just as much as IQ.

And though measuring diversity and inclusion is hard, it’s not impossible. “Our company does an engagement survey, which includes questions on inclusiveness,” Shelton Willis said. “It gets over a 90 percent response rate and every manager sees the report.”

Benz highlighted the importance of holding team members accountable for the results of their own survey. Putting it in performance reviews so they can see how it impacts their work is one way of doing that.

As a profession, we should heed our clients’ advice, because it’s about time we commit to boldly aligning diversity with the business of our law firms. We have seen marked improvements having increased our own minority demographics from 6 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2016—including adding three African-American former U.S. Attorneys in the past two years—but there is much work to be done across the board. With all the talented minority and female attorneys out there, this should be an easy task. Newborn may have put it best when he said, “We should be way beyond the point where we’re all competing for Jackie Robinson. There are lots of Jackie Robinsons out there now.”