At many firms, the job of planning, implementing and overseeing the firm’s diversity efforts is left up to the associates and partners who are appointed to serve on the firm’s diversity committee. Committees are the typical way that firms make preliminary decisions before the matter is put before the managing partners or a hired professional with expertise in a specific area (i.e., technology upgrades, administrative changes, professional development policies) for approval and/or implementation. In the past few years, in addition to staffing a diversity committee, some local law firms have instituted the position of chief diversity officer (CDO) to take ownership of and assume responsibility for the firm’s diversity initiatives. Although the exact job duties vary by firm, generally CDOs are responsible for promoting diversity and inclusion and increasing cultural awareness and diversity in the firm.
Creating this new role is a positive development that can enhance a firm’s efficiency and accountability around diversity. Appointing a CDO to oversee diversity efforts and carry out the suggestions of the diversity committee ensures that the same small group of diverse associates and partners is not tasked with spearheading all diversity initiatives. The CDO can provide the firm with continuity in the diversity efforts and allows for greater accountability in terms of the desired outcomes. While the impact and results of appointing a CDO can be difficult to quantify in the short-term, the long-term measures of success can be much easier to identify. For example, the firm’s managing partner can track the progress of the CDO by examining data on hiring, retention, billable hours, promotions and exit interviews of diverse attorneys. While all of these things can just as easily be implemented and tracked by the traditional human resources or professional development manager, those professionals may lack the training or internal credibility to deal with diversity issues. And, as with many initiatives, if there is not a credible, qualified person ultimately responsible for continuously reviewing and ensuring the desired outcomes, the initiative may yield some early success, but could begin to fade over time, particularly if the responsible attorneys leave the firm or become busy with other matters. Having CDOs serve as change agents in law firms would help ensure that if a firm is going to spend time and effort on starting an initiative, it will be implemented and executed to the fullest extent possible.
One of the biggest areas of pushback when considering the appointment of a CDO is cost, which includes not only salary, but also providing an adequate budget so that the person can effect change. The firms that heavily rely on associates and partners, as mentioned above, should be able to find room in their budgets for a CDO through productivity enhancements. Requiring associates and partners to sit on the diversity committee, and also spearhead diversity efforts, takes precious time and attention away from maintaining an active practice. For example, if the average associate billing $250 an hour spends even 45 minutes a week working on diversity efforts (i.e., planning and attending diversity committee meetings, helping recruit diverse candidates, etc.), that is almost $10,000 a year per associate that had the potential to be billable revenue for the firm. Obviously, this amount would go up significantly for partners who could otherwise be spending the time cultivating new clients or developing existing client relationships.
A CDO’s job description need not be limited to working with attorneys who self-identify as racial or ethnic minorities. In most companies or firms that already have CDOs, the person is responsible for collaborating with all attorneys and staff while having a particular focus on attorneys of color, women, LGBT attorneys, working parents, attorneys with disabilities, or those on reduced and flex-time schedules. CDOs can also be involved in a wide array of the firm’s management areas, such as staff and attorney recruitment and development; strategic branding and client relations; and training group leaders, administrators and managing partners. However, the CDO should be responsible for the management of specific personnel issues relating to diverse attorneys, including handling concerns regarding discrimination; reviewing the quality and quantity of work assignments; identifying mentors and other resources for professional development; cultivating more diverse leaders within the firm; and improving the retention of minority attorneys, which is a challenge for many firms. In order to effectively carry out these responsibilities, the CDO should have a direct reporting line and access to the firm’s leadership and should also command enough respect to obtain firmwide buy-in amongst all partners and group leaders. Ideally, the partners and associates should view the CDO as integral to the success of the law firm, like the chief technology, risk or financial officers. The CDO should have an understanding of how law firms operate, so that the diversity efforts are strategically aligned with business goals and benefit all employees, the firm overall, and last but certainly not least, the clients.
Earthen E. Johnson is an associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath. She assists investment companies, investment advisers and boards of directors/trustees on regulatory and compliance-related matters. She participated in the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group 1L Summer Program while in law school. She can be reached at 215-988-2620 and firstname.lastname@example.org.