Forum Magazine: Case Study — Fish & Richardson’s D&I Structural Tactics to Advance Women in Leadership

Topics: Case Studies, Diversity, Forum Magazine, Gender Equity, Inclusion, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

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In 2016, Kristine McKinney joined Fish & Richardson, a 400-attorney global law firm that specializes in intellectual property litigation and patent prosecution, to head up the firm’s talent functions. She oversees recruiting, diversity and inclusion (D&I), pro bono and professional development. The move was an effort to have the entire life cycle of attorneys under one function, a strategic shift sought by the firm’s leadership.

One year later, Kia Scipio was brought on to lead the firm’s D&I strategic plan and embed D&I into all of its operations. Forum magazine sat down with McKinney and Scipio to discuss their tactics that, among other things, have improved the representation of women as office managing partners by 10% over the past two years.

Both McKinney and Scipio say that having one leader oversee every aspect of an employee’s career life cycle has brought efficiency in driving change. The D&I strategic plan, which was written with significant input from the management committee to maximize buy-in and commitment, has been integral to the progress the firm has made. “Having a collaborative team that embeds diversity and inclusion ensures that our firm’s policies and practices support our overall goals of equity and inclusion,” says McKinney.

In addition, the Legal Talent team employs a data analyst to examine the numbers and effectiveness of the talent function of D&I, pro bono, professional development and recruiting. There is also a communication specialist ensuring the firm is maximizing its return on its investment in branding (including social media) and fulfilling other communications needs.

Addressing Structural Barriers for Diverse Talent

Under McKinney’s leadership, Fish & Richardson’s talent efforts have sought to remove structural impediments to increase the representation of lawyers of color, women and other diverse attorneys at all levels of the organization; and the firm has taken a multifaceted, tactical approach to improving the numbers.

Those tactics have included:

The Mansfield Rule — To increase representation of diverse attorneys, the firm has signed on to the Mansfield Rule, which requires that 30% of candidates considered for positions of leadership, lateral hiring, etc., be diverse. The Mansfield Rule is facilitated by Diversity Lab, an external validator for the certification.


Fish & Richardson’s talent efforts have sought to remove structural impediments to increase the representation of lawyers of color, women and other diverse attorneys at all levels of the organization …


Bias Checker in Performance and Promotion Discussion — Fish has their National Diversity Chair and Women’s EMPOWER Chair join all evaluation and promotion meetings. They listen for in-the-moment biases entering into the deliberation discussions. Indeed, this is a best practice outlined in the research report, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession,” published by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

“An example of bias in a performance review discussion, where having a bias checker is key, is when a reviewer discusses the performance of a male associate and says, ‘Oh, that guy’s such a go-getter. He’s so assertive. That’s so great.’ In the next breath, the same reviewer is expressing the opposite for a female associate, stating, ‘Gosh, she’s so aggressive. It’s kind of off-putting. We may need to get her some coaching,’” notes Scipio.

Monitoring Work Assignments — Fish assigns a “group leader” for every associate to monitor work assignments and skill development. The group leader can address gaps and provide an additional layer of leadership. Each group leader is assigned up to 12 associates to ensure junior lawyers are getting the growth opportunities, mentoring, regular informal feedback and biannual formal feedback, according to McKinney.

Another mechanism that the firm is using to de-bias how work is assigned is through participation in Mansfield 3.0, which analyzes staffing for pitch teams and who is assigned to work on the matter once the new work is secured.

Unconscious Bias Sessions for Leaders — Fish brought in Robert Livingston and Iris Bohnet, renowned professors from the Harvard Kennedy School, to educate the firm’s management committee, practice group leaders, affinity group leaders, chiefs and directors, and office managing principals on the premise that bias is a constant in any situation. “Bias exists, period,” says Scipio. “It is all around us.”

The firm’s leadership also learned about the impact of unconscious bias, how it creeps into talent systems and everyday interpersonal interactions, and its adverse impact on diverse talent. “With that knowledge, we worked in small groups to strategize how to address unconscious bias through systemic changes in the firm and how to do things differently,” explains Scipio.

Implement Structured Interviews — One of the outcomes of the unconscious bias sessions was the launch of a new process for structured interviews. For example, Fish changed its on-campus recruiting program for summer associates.

To reduce bias, the firm drafted interview questions that were aligned with core competencies for summer associates. As a result, every candidate is asked the same questions by the interviewer, and during the evaluation process, a more equitable comparison is made across the candidates.

Data Proves the Payoff

In the short two-year period since the launch of the firm’s D&I strategic plan, Fish & Richardson has made considerable progress. And the payoff is seen in the data, say McKinney and Scipio.

Because of these efforts to address the structural barriers and minimize bias within the firm’s talent systems, the firm has increased diverse representation on key committees. For example, women’s representation on its partner consideration committee has increased to 23% from 17%. Moreover, the firm has increased the representation of its female managing partners of offices around the country to 17% from 7%.

Despite the measurable progress, McKinney and Scipio both know they are on a journey and have to commit to continue moving forward. “I think we would both agree we have a lot of room to grow,” says McKinney. “But I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished.”