Joseph West, Partner and Head of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) at Duane Morris, a Philadelphia-based law firm, sought out the law for his career because of the influence of a mentor who at the time was serving as a chief of staff for a U.S. Senator in the late-1980s.
After practicing at firms in Louisiana, West joined Entergy Corp. as Associate General Counsel for Litigation, which allowed him to hone his litigation chops because at the time, Entergy handled all of its litigation in-house. West’s exposure to D&I came through Tom Mars, then-General Counsel at Walmart, his next in-house job. According to West, Mars was on the cutting edge of applying the practical principles of D&I into the every-day management of a corporate legal department.
This role prepared West for the job of CEO at the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), where he deepened his D&I expertise even more. In addition to a number of accolades over the course of his career, he was recently named the first-ever recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Diversity & Equity by the U.K.-based Chambers and Partners.
Now, at Duane Morris, West is a revenue generator and head of D&I. He seamlessly leverages both areas of expertise to create a unique value proposition for his clients and the firm through its Diversity and Inclusion Advancing Leadership (DIAL) initiative, which is an innovative diversity consulting practice. “It signals a level of seriousness and attention to D&I both internally among my peers at the firm as well as externally among our clients,” he explains.
When West started at Duane Morris in 2016, he noticed quickly that there was “a growing need among corporate clients to have access to some practical, hands-on guidance in D&I principles because most corporations then, had nascent-to-nonexistent D&I programs.” The DIAL practice helps fulfill that need while also providing clients with the attorney-client privilege protections that most non-attorney consultants cannot provide.
Leveraging D&I for Driving Revenue
Clients served through the DIAL initiative vary from Fortune 10 companies down to educational institutions, non-profits, smaller companies, and other law firms. The services provided include training and strategies to assist in elimination of bias, addressing diverse attrition, creating and implementing long-term diversity strategic plans, and helping organizations establish a cross-enterprise D&I platform.
“Inclusion truly inures to the benefit of the enterprise itself and everyone in it. My colleagues understand and express their appreciation for what it means to our firm, to our reputation, and to our clients.”
The DIAL relationships are leveraged to expand the services across practices areas at the firm to enable the firm to emerge as an enterprise-wide partner with clients. “What we find is that there are issues that touch upon other substantive practice areas that overlap with diversity-related issues, and this allows us as a firm to expand our service lines to the client, whether it’s employment-related matters, compliance, crisis communications, litigation, mitigating risk, or government-mandated requirements around affirmative action,” says West.
For example, West relates how one publicly traded company reached out because there was a reduction in its workforce, and some members of the board recognized that a disproportionate number of people of color being laid-off while the company still had little to no representation of women or people of color in their leadership ranks. The company engaged West to help create a broader, sustainable, and comprehensive approach to D&I designed to both strengthen the leadership pipeline and to create a more inclusive workplace.
West’s Advice on How to Minimize Bias
From West’s experience in leading the development of the MCCA’s Academy for Leadership and Inclusion, he has some expertise in knowing how to minimize the impact of bias in talent systems. “There are opportunities for bias to creep in at every stage of the employee’s career trajectory, whether it is in the recruitment process, in discussions around compensation, in the assignment of work, or in the evaluation of the work product,” says West. “There’s even bias in the provision of substantive feedback that allows for growth and development as well as in the process of how, when, and under what circumstances people are separated from organizations.”
In West’s experience, recognizing bias and the fact that all humans have it as part of our DNA are the first steps — with the awareness being initiated during implicit bias training.
Next, West partners with the client to understand how bias impacts the client’s processes, policies, procedures, and behaviors at each stage of the employee lifecycle within the organization. Once it is understood how bias sneaks into the organization, West works to remove the bias in an ongoing real-time basis by tweaking the necessary policies and procedures.
Finally, West provides the framework for continuous assessment of the processes to ensure clients are achieving the desired result.
Where to Start When Crafting a D&I Program
For clients who are starting from scratch, West recommends they create a working group as a good first step. These groups represent a cross-section of individuals from across all ranks, ethnicities, specialties, and geographies in the organization.
It is this group’s job to devise a strategic plan for diversity by focusing on four areas: i) take an inventory of what is working and not working within the organization and outside of it among its peers and competitors; ii) invest time is communications. (In West’s experience, only a small group of people understand why D&I is important, and this group needs to prioritize the clarity and consistency of the message to ensure it is spread across the organization); iii) determine accountability, which involves analyzing the organization’s polices, practices, and procedures to determine if they need to be changed and if so, how; and iv) establish the business case by demonstrating how critical D&I is to the organization’s bottom line.
Learning New Tactics to Maximize Internal Impact
West also serves as a member of the firm’s Partners Board, the global governing body of the firm; and last year, Chairman Matt Taylor invited West to join a 10-person firm-wide strategic planning working group to ensure that D&I is an integral part of Duane Morris’s core strategy.
As part of that, the firm will adopt a number of bias-mitigation initiatives such as an objective assignment system for its associates. The goal is to remove affinity bias — also called the “like-me” bias, which is the tendency to get along with others who are like us — from the matter assignment process. “Managing partners and practice group heads at our various offices are held accountable for the extent to which they make sure that all of the people of whom they are in charge have the opportunity to get good quality work,” West explains. “By eliminating assignment bias, we help all of our talent, including non-diverse lawyers, have a fair shot at quality work and an even playing field.”
The assigned work has to be constant and all firm members must remain vigilant, West notes, but progress is being made. Every year since he joined the firm, representation of diverse lawyers has steadily increased in all categories. In addition, he remains most gratified by the firm’s collective ownership of inclusion and the fact that “inclusion truly inures to the benefit of the enterprise itself and everyone in it.”
“My colleagues understand and express their appreciation for what it means to our firm, to our reputation, and to our clients.”