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To ensure success, diversity in the workplace requires commitment and action from the top. This is the cardinal rule of diversity management. The legal profession is no exception. Therefore, the success of diversity in the legal profession depends on our ability to bring leaders to the table. All too often, the leaders of the legal profession are conspicuously absent when the diversity dialogue occurs. The recent proliferation of diversity practitioners in the legal profession is commendable and an important step. They serve a vital role as subject-matter experts and day-to-day administrators of organizational initiatives, but alone they cannot produce meaningful change. Without the visible and consistent support of leaders, diversity initiatives do not realize their full potential.

Leaders in the form of law firm managing partners, corporate general counsel, government chief counsel and bar association presidents must begin to not only sit at the table, but also lead the discussion on diversity. Far too often, diversity dialogues involve diversity practitioners “preaching to the choir,” a familiar phrase in diversity circles. Instead, we need a robust exchange of ideas from those in positions of power who can take the necessary action to spur change.

Diversity in the workplace does not come easily. It is a difficult process and, without the critical support of leaders, it is not readily achieved. The reality is that it takes a culture change for diversity to take root and flower, and culture change does not occur without the clear and unequivocal support of leadership. Leaders must be committed to the goal of diversity before the work of diversity can be done. And then leaders must be active in leading the effort to effect change.

I was asked once by a corporate general counsel, who was at the table for the diversity discussion, what leaders can do to support diversity. Here are a few suggestions.

Leaders must be as much the face of the organization’s diversity commitment as any diversity professional or diverse attorney. They must begin to regularly participate in diversity forums and personally meet with diverse constituencies both inside and outside their organizations. Leaders must attend events that celebrate diversity, particularly those they sponsor. They must demonstrate that diversity is not an individual concern but a collective one. But more than that, leaders must be advocates for change. They must advance the cause of diversity by creating institutions that foster inclusion.

They must lead by example, not simply set mandates for others to follow. Leaders must mentor diverse attorneys. They must work with diverse attorneys and give them the responsibility and exposure that will advance their careers. Leaders must reinforce the value of diversity, which means they must be able to understand and articulate it for themselves. They must be able to convince others of the propriety of diversity initiatives and then rally the organization to achieve common diversity goals. Leaders must be willing and able to defend diversity when opposition arises. They must remain steadfast in their dedication to ensuring diversity in their organizations and in the profession, even in the face of challenge.

Beyond leading the charge for diversity, leaders must also ensure that others are held accountable for supporting and achieving organizational diversity goals. It is not uncommon for diversity initiatives to have top-level support but then lose traction with middle management. The result is that the commitment from the top fails to resonate throughout the organization and critical momentum is lost. Leaders must assume responsibility for establishing clear expectations for those who manage the workforce on a day-to-day basis, whether practice group leaders or other senior lawyers. Those expectations should include defined goals, and there should be a system of accountability in place to measure progress and promote appropriate behavior. This system of accountability should recognize and reward positive diversity action and penalize negative diversity action.

To be clear, expectations and accountability may take the form of improved diversity representation, where necessary and appropriate. However, they should be much broader. Rather than merely “counting heads,” the aim should be “making heads count” in the form of increased retention, more diverse leadership, increased performance and an overall more inclusive work environment. These goals are impossible to achieve without strong leadership support for diversity initiatives. Without leaders who personally champion the diversity mission of the organization and who visibly lead the way toward inclusion by example, diversity remains an unrealized vision.

I previously wrote “How Long Will We Stand for Diversity Practice Without Diversity Progress?” If we are going to begin to make real progress, we must have the leaders of the profession at the front of the line. More than ever before, now is the time for leaders of the profession to step up and take the lead. Diversity has become the rallying cry for many in the profession. In 2004, in-house counsel issued a “Call to Action” to corporate law firms to improve diversity (for more information go to www.clocalltoaction.com). This week, a “Call to Action Summit” is being held in Scottsdale, Ariz., with more than 100 general counsel and managing partners to open the dialogue at the leadership level and devise concrete strategies for moving the diversity agenda forward. This is an important step on the journey to diversifying the profession, but this leadership effort must be replicated in bar associations, cities and within organizations around the country. This is a “call to leaders.” We cannot do this without you.

STACY L. HAWKINS is a diversity consultant. She was formerly director of diversity for Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, resident in the Philadelphia office. Previously, she practiced in the areas of labor and employment and corporate diversity counseling in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at 215-635-3638 or [email protected].

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