Midsize law firm innovation moves to advance Diversity & Inclusion

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Recognizing both pressure from clients to field more diverse legal teams and the reality of rapidly evolving acceptance in the legal profession, midsize law firms are aspiring to promote inclusion and increase diversity among its ranks.

As part of that, the Thomson Reuters Institute produced a three-part Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) roundtable series to provide a confidential space to learn how the most successful law firms are innovating in the D&I space.

Starting with diverse recruitment

Increasing commitment to diversity through recruiting, specifically by introducing a greater pool of diverse candidates and ensuring that bias is removed in all recruiting systems, is the first area of innovation. Other key factors in ensuring diverse candidate recruiting include:

Build long-term relationships at law schools with many diverse studentsMcAngus Goudelock & Courie (MGC), an insurance defense firm with more than 200 lawyers in 16 offices across six states in the Southeast, expanded its partnerships with Black law student associations, increased the number of law schools to target (especially historically Black colleges and universities [HBCUs]), and established a scholarship specifically for law students from under-represented backgrounds. Drew Ekl & Farnham, a Georgia-based law firm that has 30% of its equity partners are diverse lawyers, also builds relationships with HBCUs and started a 1L fellowship for a law student from an underrepresented background in 2020.

For firms that don’t know where to start, Dawn Siler-Nixon, the Diversity & Inclusion partner at FordHarrison LLP, a labor and employment firm based in 20 states, suggests reaching out to your current crop of diverse attorneys to tap into diverse communities for recruiting. FordHarrison also offers incentives to its attorneys who successfully recruit diverse candidates and help retain them for one year through mentorship and making connections with rainmakers within the firm.

Establish the firm’s brand by highlighting aspects that are important to diverse candidates — The law firm Boyd & Jenerette, 50-lawyer firm in Florida and Georgia that has an even number of men and women shareholders, highlights its family-friendly culture and policies — such as flexible working conditions, performance structures, and remote working options — in its recruiting materials, according to Kansas Gooden, an equity shareholder.

Identify nontraditional requirements for candidates outside of the lawDouglas Burrell, a partner at Drew Ekl & Farnham says the firm prefers candidates who have gone through challenges and can demonstrate that they have overcome failure. For example, the firm views candidates who were college athletes or had work experience before law school as showing some of the key experiences the firm values.

Remove bias from prescreeningJessica L. Gangjee, Chief Talent & Inclusion Officer at the mid-Atlantic firm Burns White, says she employs a few tactics to reduce bias during the screening process, such as removing GPAs, names, and schools to eliminate pre-judgments before any interviewing occurs.

Standardize the interview processes — Gangjee recommends firms establish regular, robust training programs focusing on bias and microaggressions for the firm’s lawyers who interview candidates. She also ensures consistency on evaluation forms and across all the interview questions. This minimizes the “like me” bias and personal connections that can impact perceptions of candidates.

Diverse attorneys aid retention

Two under-appreciated factors in attracting and recruiting diverse candidates are the presence of attorneys from under-represented communities in firm leadership and ensuring that new hires feel welcomed once they arrive.

Jay Courie, managing member at MGC, understands the importance of those two factors acutely. Last year, the firm promoted the first Black woman to equity partner in its 25-year history, and that is just the beginning, Courie says. “We need to continue to be very mindful of making our leadership look more like the culture and the environment we live in,” he explains. “We have a long way to go. We’ve got lofty goals, but we can’t take our eyes off the ball.”

As the firm intentionally expands its inclusive culture to increase retention of lawyers from under-represented communities, Courie stresses that it’s crucial to make sure it is not perceived as a “check-the-box” exercise. “It is not just bringing a diverse group of people into our firm, but rather making sure they are happy and comfortable being themselves at the firm and ensuring that they feel like they have a seat at the table, and that their voices are heard,” he says.

Intentional inclusion means that “everyone is having conversations about their various backgrounds and ways that they were raised or life experiences, such as how some of our younger Black lawyers’ lives may have been very different than some of our younger White lawyers’ or how some of our lawyers of different faiths may have had very different experiences,” states Courie.

Perhaps the most innovative move and biggest demonstration of MGC’s commitment to expanding inclusion is its establishment of communities created around topics of interest, such as social justice, parenting and mental health and wellness. While the firm had started some of the communities before the pandemic, it has seen the benefits in terms of employee connectivity across offices. It is also a welcoming opportunity to have transparent conversations on the topic of racial justice, because the firm understands that events outside of work can impact its employees’ sense of belonging.

“The openness to have these conversations and that people welcome those conversations makes us a much better environment and culture,” Courie says. “It exponentially makes us a better place to work.”