Gaveling the Glass Ceiling: Building Diversity & Inclusion Within the Legal Profession

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Law Firms, Perseverance, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

rising star cohort

This month I had the honor to participate on a wonderful and transparent panel titled, Management and Leadership: Building and Leading Diverse and Inclusive Teams, which was co-hosted by the Thomson Reuters’ Black Employee Network and the global law firm Sidley Austin.

As Jamila Jean, VP & Assistant General Counsel for Enterprise Compliance at Thomson Reuters, eloquently described in her opening remarks, the intention of the evening was to progress the conversation beyond the overall importance and critical business case for diversity, and move it toward a “Diversity 2.0”, as she deemed it, that is more intent on retaining diverse workforce members as well as ensuring their advancement into the ranks of leadership.

Maria Melendez, a Partner at Sidley Austin, was the featured speaker and opened with the observation that despite a strong business case, an existing pipeline and strong intentions from law firms and in-house counsel, the statistics indicate the legal profession is roughly as diverse as it was 20 to 30 years ago. Given that reality, Melendez challenged the audience to focus on the way forward. “Together, we can make a difference, because our individual actions influence other behavior,” she said.

Thomson Reuters General Counsel Deirdre Stanley, as the evening’s moderator, kicked off the panel with a question for Michael Schmidtberger, the in-coming Chair of the Executive Committee at Sidley Austin, about what implications the “all-powerful rainmaker” business model at law firms has for building diverse and inclusive teams. Schmidtberger referred to how external forces within the changing world are bearing down on law firms, and are in fact loosening the hierarchy of those top-down relationships.

 “Together, we can make a difference, because our individual actions influence other behavior.”

Schmidtberger cited the critical responsibility of law firm and legal department leaders to drive toward a diverse culture and to achieve actual progress that is continually demonstrated and reinforced.

“When you put a diverse team together, it runs itself more than it needs to be managed,” Schmidtberger said, adding that an increasingly sophisticated world is also changing the law firm business model to favor teams, which ideally mirror the client.

Indeed, Melendez praised the gains that have occurred in recent years by acknowledging the growing number of clients that are pressing their outside counsel to deliver diverse slates of lawyers.

Throughout the evening, Stanley was adept at eliciting from all the panelists words of wisdom and helpful management advice as drawn from their own rich careers.


Maria Melendez, of Sidley Austin

“Don’t be paralyzed by the differences you see,” Melendez implored, adding that once people start engaging, they often do find areas of common ground with similarly talented and driven colleagues.

And as the readers of this monthly column will already know, I’m a huge fan of sponsorship and was pleased for the opportunity to share the reasons why. I told the panel and the audience that I would encourage diverse team members to make the most of the sponsor opportunities by having transparent and frequent conversations about the expectations for both sides. As an audience member astutely asked me to further clarify this important role of sponsor, I understand it as a true intention and commitment to help push the career of your “sponsee” forward and to be the voice in the room promoting that individual when she or he isn’t there. In simple terms, it needs to be a relationship the sponsor can completely believe in.

Schmidtberger agreed, and described his own approach in this way: “When I see somebody who is really interested in their own progress, I’m willing to make them uncomfortable by moving them forward,” he said.

Melendez made the compelling declaration that firms and their leaders have to be deliberate in their efforts toward diversity and inclusion goals. “You just have to do it,” she said. After all, “you’re recruiting the best and the brightest.”

Again, it was an honor to be involved in this panel — and to share its discussion with you. The topic of fostering an inclusive culture at a firm or legal department that will have real world impact on the rate of retention and promotion of highly talented minority or women candidates is of vital importance to the legal profession. It’s a challenge we all have to face!