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Home / Expert Opinion / Commentary / Three bars join together to raise important discussion at CLE: diversity, inclusion and retention

Three bars join together to raise important discussion at CLE: diversity, inclusion and retention

On Sept. 25, the three local bar associations — The Monroe County Bar Association (MCBA), The Rochester Black Bar Association (RBBA) and The Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys (GRAWA) — hosted a CLE program titled “Diversity, Inclusion and Retention: Promoting Equality within the Legal Profession,” led by Duwaine Bascoe, Esq. The panelists were Kevin McDonald of the University of Missouri; Taren Greenidge of Constangy,  Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP; and Langston McFadden of Pullano & Farrow. Turnout was excellent, with approximately 85 people pre-registered.

First — the problem:

Kevin McDonald started off by putting the issues into context, providing some statistics about diversity and the legal profession through a video presentation “Big Laws Diversity & Inclusion Problem.” McDonald offered some ways to view the terms diversity and inclusion (from Andres Tapia): diversity is the mix (increasing the ability to reflect society), and inclusion is making the mix work. Diversity and inclusion are not merely moral questions or feel good after-thoughts. Taren Greenidge pointed out that, as work becomes more global, larger corporations are demanding meaningful diversity and inclusion from firms. Companies are demanding that the lawyers on their accounts reflect the value of diversity that the corporation projects. So too for the small firm, as clients want to be assured that the lawyer acting on their behalf can appreciate their cultural and diversity interests.

The legal profession is one of the least diverse professions in America today, with women at only 17% of equity partners and less than 10% of managers, and minorities with only 3% of equity partners. McDonald pointed out that this disparity cannot be explained by objective means; the lack of diversity is attributed to unconscious bias or implicit bias that affects promotion, retention, distribution of work, and assumptions of competence. Human beings are more comfortable with people who are “like” themselves, and we look to those in our circles for references, employment, recommendations. Implicit bias works below our conscious decisions and we make decisions accordingly. In allowing these biases to play such a role in our working lives, however, we run the risk of hiring the right resume over the right person.

The key to correcting this lack of diversity is intentionality.

Second — tools to address:

The panel expanded on the concept of intentionality, and provided tools for raising diversity and inclusion at work. To effectively recruit and retain diverse attorneys, the entire organization needs to express the commitment, not merely in programs, but in the business plan and policies — both written policies and unspoken traditions. So what does that look like?

First, diversify the hiring process. Include diverse decision-makers, send diverse recruiters and expand the range of where you look. Moreover, examine the impact of unconscious bias and take steps to remove its power by identifying the attributes that truly define success for the position.

Just as the military went from requiring male candidates to requiring candidates who can lift 150 pounds and carry another person across a distance, the legal position can be defined by successful attributes that do not include a bias toward the same or the usual suspects. When we view at the specific skill set a position requires — ability to express empathy, effective persuasion in small group settings, creative problem solving — we begin to see that these skills are not directly related to the schools attended, or even the class rank.

We can expand our hiring technique to include problem-solving or oral argument. Three issues offered for hiring should be: 1. Can you provide quality work, 2. Can you develop the expertise needed in this area, and 3. Can you meet our clients’ needs. Further, we can expand the pool, based on the firm needs. Greenidge provided a list of sources for finding excellent candidates, including minority job fairs, and suggested contacting law school affinity groups and the three bars to locate excellent candidates.

Retaining diversity requires intentionality as well. The panel focused here in the inclusion piece. Inclusion requires action from the decision-makers — actively mentoring new recruits — training on business development skills and going to bat for them; ensuring distribution of work fairly allows diverse attorneys to develop client contact and expertise; becoming accessible in the “down times” (lunch, outings, social events). We are encouraged to broaden our own circles toward inclusion.

All in all, the two hours sped by, with thoughtful discussion and input from the audience as well. In fact, additional discussion will come. In feedback, several participants asked for additional CLE on these issues. And a joint committee of the three bars is already working on another CLE for January, to further the discussion and focus on implicit or unconscious bias in the workplace — colleague to colleague, colleague to staff, and colleague to client. Look for further information soon!

C.J. O’Brien, Esq. is a member of GRAWA’s Diversity Committee.

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