Strength in Numbers Preview: Broadening the Discussion on Diversity & Inclusion with Neal, Gerber’s COO Sonia Menon

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Law Firms, Legal Executive Events, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


The importance of retaining a diverse workforce is crucial for legal organizations in today’s environment, and this topic will be a top point of discussion at the upcoming Strength in Numbers program, presented by the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute.

The two-day program, entitled Strength in Numbers: Advancing Collaborative Diversity in the Workforce, will be held on March 14 & 15 in New York City. (A second event, Strength in Numbers: Celebrating African American Representation in the Law, will be held on May 9 in Atlanta.)

At the New York event, Sonia Menon, Chief Operating Officer at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, will participate in a panel entitled, The Big Win-Win: Exploring Methods in Retaining a Diverse Workforce. Ms. Menon recently spoke with Legal Executive Institute about the upcoming event.

Legal Executive Institute: The Strength in Numbers event concentrates on how different diverse groups can unite to pursue greater opportunities for inclusion. Can you please talk about why you decided to be a part of this program?

Sonia Menon: Law firms, like other organizations, have focused on certain aspects of diversity for a long time. When we talk about opportunities for inclusion, the conversation must encompass all under-represented groups, especially those that have not yet been given a prominent voice.

To expand the dialogue to embrace true inclusion and diversity in the workplace is what I believe Thomson Reuters is doing by taking the conversation beyond just racial, ethnic and gender diversity to include other under-represented areas like transgender individuals, ageism, and physical disabilities.

I love the fact that Thomson Reuters is broadening the conversation and shining a spotlight on the true scope of diversity and inclusion.

Legal Executive Institute: You’ve been very active with several organizations, including the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). What advice can you provide to diverse candidates who strive towards leadership in the legal industry?

Sonia Menon: Research has shown time and again that organizations that truly commit to diverse leadership are more successful. Far too often, however, law firms tout their diversity initiatives, but the work in this area is relegated to a handful of people who are part of their diversity committee. To truly move the needle forward, law firms need to recognize that diversity and inclusion has to permeate everything that they do, and if the leadership of the firm doesn’t believe that, it’s not going to happen.

You have to be able to communicate how important it is to all your core values in every single thing that you do — and that commitment has to come from the top. Leaders of firms need to see diversity as more than a social obligation, and unless we do more to address the way diversity and inclusion is perceived, our initiatives will be unsuccessful.

Sonia Menon, COO at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg

If others don’t see the buy-in at the top, diversity & inclusion work will continue to be a side initiative managed by those on the diversity & inclusion committee with marginal success.

Legal Executive Institute: Why is it important for firms and organizations to consider strong D&I policies?

Sonia Menon: Other than the basic need to establish absolute non-tolerance of any kind of discrimination, D&I policies make decision makers accountable for their actions, whether in hiring, mentoring, retaining or advancing individuals. However, D&I policies cannot serve simply as a window dressing for an organization. As I said earlier, leaders need to understand and embrace the value diversity brings so that it pervades every decision. The bottom line is that non-homogeneous groups are smarter. Research conducted globally has shown this.

To achieve a more diverse workforce, firms need to provide themselves with a check and balance, and strong D&I policies help do that. While working with people who are like you, and share your background may feel easier and more comfortable, it perpetuates conformity. Working with people who are different in fact challenges your brain to overcome its entrenched way of thinking. Diverse teams focus more on facts, which leads to more accurate group thinking, and the debate and unfamiliarity that comes with diversity provides an important catalyst for innovation and creative thinking. Most of our clients have realized this, and we need to better reflect our client orientation.

The case for greater diversity is compelling: inclusive decision making improves business performance. However, in the end, true benefits of a diverse workforce can only be felt when there is a genuine sense of organizational inclusion. When individuals feel respected and welcomed for who they are, teams will benefit from their unique perspectives and experiences.

Legal Executive Institute: How does a law firm or organization know when they’re making progress with their D&I initiatives?

Sonia Menon: The tried and tested rule is to look at the numbers.This is what law firms publicize and often what outside counsel want to see. There is absolutely no doubt that there is strength in numbers. However, for true and sustained progress you need to look beyond simple demographics.

If your goal is for each and every individual at your firm to feel that they can be their authentic selves at work and have the same opportunities to advance and succeed as others, you need to understand what impacts their daily work lives, what developmental opportunities they are getting, and what obstacles they are facing.

For example, are you doing something, unconsciously, that is creating more roadblocks for one group over another? Is an associate able to see someone who is like them in leadership and believe there is a path to success? Does your succession plan require the pool that is considered to be diverse every time? Who are the top 10 rainmakers mentoring? Which associates are working on the top 20 client matters? You can use the data to tell the story and keep yourself honest.