Increasingly Important to Clients, Diversity Efforts Now Need Stronger Commitment from Law Firms

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Data Analytics, Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


ORLANDO, Fla. — Successful diversity efforts require commitment and follow-through from law firms that want to lift roadblocks to success for women, minority, LGBT and other diverse ability candidates, according to a recent panel, which noted that in some cases this commitment is falling short.

And that is problematic, because clients and in-house legal teams that select outside counsel are watching and in many cases seeking some tangible evidence that firms are taking diversity seriously, the panel noted.

The panel, held recently at Legal Executive Institute’s 23rd Annual Marketing Partner Forum in Orlando, was titled, The New Diversity Metrics: Reflections from In-House Counsel on Diversity and Inclusion in the Client-Attorney Relationship and featured Jan Anne Dubin, CEO and Principal at Jan Anne Dubin Consulting, a business development and marketing and executive coaching consultant, as moderator. Also included in the panel were Dorothy Quann, Vice-President and General Counsel of Xerox Canada Ltd.; Michael Henry, Executive Director and Chief Compliance Officer in the Merchant Banking & Real Estate Investing unit of Morgan Stanley, as well as Chair of the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee; Bindu Dhaliwal, Associate General Counsel and Director of Environmental, Social, and Governance at BMO Financial Group; and John E. Mitchell, Principal at KM Advisors, LLC.

Both Jan Anne Dubin and Bindu Dhaliwal are Co-Chairs of the Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum being held in New York City on March 8-9.

“After 30 years in legal services marketing, I am a big believer that in law firms what gets measured gets done,” Dubin told the panel, citing statistics from the National Association of Women Lawyers 2015 Survey that showed just 18% of equity partners are women, and that men are promoted to equity partners at a much higher rate than women. “The typical firm has only two women out of eight in their highest ranks or executive committee. Lawyers of color are only 8% of attorneys at law firms. For LGBT, it’s 2%. Clearly, that while we can impact the future composition of the leadership of our firms, there’s still a lot of progress that still needs to be made.”

Several panelists acknowledged that and described how diversity and inclusion efforts have grown within their own firms. “The tone from the top at BMO when it comes to diversity is very strong, and it’s trickled down not just in our compliance group, but in the enterprise as a whole,” said Dhaliwal, adding that the group focuses on three main areas: talent development, employee engagement and stakeholder engagement. “We’ve invited, for instance, our suppliers of legal services to supply diversity metrics because in some cases we’re trying to partner with them on specific initiatives. The metrics have been very helpful in terms of seeing what’s working.”

Demonstrating Diversity through Metrics

Many panelists agreed that for in-house legal teams it has become very important to survey their law firms and other legal service providers to ensure those firms numbers truly represent a commitment to diversity in the operation of the firm itself. “You don’t get into that hallowed space with clients or key service providers without demonstrating that commitment and an ability to differentiate yourself,” Dubin said, adding that in-house counsel are looking for solid measures of such quantitative factors which include seeing the recruitment of diverse candidates in the pipeline, from law school through the ranks; inclusion of diverse attorneys in client meetings and on committees; and measurable levels of retention and promotion of diverse candidates into the higher levels of the firm.

Indeed, the push from clients and in-house legal teams for law firms to demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity in practice and policy is becoming a prime motivator for firms to ensure they are addressing this issue and making clients aware of that fact. “I think a firm is missing out if its diversity efforts are something it doesn’t want to highlight — it’s totally a competitive advantage,” said Xerox Canada’s Quann. “It says a lot about the firm.”

Diversity panel

From Left to Right: Jan Anne Dubin, Dorothy Quann, Michael Henry, Bindu Dhaliwal, and John E. Mitchell

Unfortunately, the feeling among in-house counsel is that they are pulling law firms along, and are even getting some resistance because law firms are not undertaking these initiatives on their own. “There is resistance to filling out these diversity surveys, and we even have to ask for the surveys… which is something we shouldn’t have to ask for,” Quann said. “It should then be clear that the profession is very diverse. And if you are positioning yourself as a diversity employer, it has to be demonstrated.”

Many on the panel agreed, and said that by using metrics gathered from law firm surveys on diversity, in-house counsel have become very good at distinguishing which law firms are truly committed and which law firms are just talking the talk. “In-house can tell when it’s a smokescreen,” said Morgan Stanley’s Henry. “Some firms we’ve surveyed have shown persistent and superior results, and we’ve been very deliberate about building relationships with those firms.”

In fact, very often in-house legal teams are more than happy to work with their chosen outside counsel to improve the law firm’s diversity approach — all a firm has to do in many cases, is just ask for help, said KM Advisors’ Mitchell. “Most people involved are passionate about this issue — if you have an in-house lawyer saying, ‘This is important to us,’ then get them to help you.”

“Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know enough,” he advised.