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Achieving diversity goals requires commitment

ImageThe homepage of the Jones Diversity Group LLC bears the tagline “Creating a legacy of diversity,” along with the word “leadership.”

Law firm managers, who wish to diversify their ranks and keep them that way, must exercise strong and creative leadership, according to the president of that Chicago-based consultancy, Sharon E. Jones. She gave a presentation entitled, “Practical Strategies for Achieving Diversity,” at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Convention earlier this month.

Hiring a diverse candidate is just the beginning when it comes to fostering a culture of inclusion. It’s retaining him or her that might prove to be more challenging.

Jones, who is African-American, a Harvard Law graduate and former practicing attorney, offered a number of strategies to boost the retention rates of underrepresented groups in law firms.

Diversity Priority

Make diversity a top priority. Law firm managers need to be as committed to achieving their written diversity goals, as they are to their billable hours and revenue goals. To do so, they should inquire about the status of the diversity initiatives at every management committee meeting.

The firm should engage in collective action to promote diversity within the community. This includes legal community, too, by offering support to minority and gender-specific bar associations, for example.

And, if the firm is of a size that merits the creation of a diversity committee, this should include powerful people — not just diverse people.

Most importantly, law firm managers need to put in place a compensation system that rewards positive contributions to the implementation of the diversity plan, Jones urged.

Stamp Out Stereotypes

Cast aside stereotypes. Probably the most common, put in terms that lawyers understand well, are “presumptions.”

According to Jones, the “presumption of incompetence” overshadowing minorities and women in law firms is rebuttable these days, whereas in bygone years, it often was not.

As for the “presumption of a lack of commitment,” this manifests itself for young women with attitudes to the effect of, “You’re just going to have babies and quit.”

Meanwhile, for minorities, the popular sentiment is, “You have 12 million job opportunities. You’ll never stay.”

Part of what makes stereotyping so dangerous, is that those who harbor them are more likely to notice and recall information that reinforces them, Jones observed. “That’s just the natural way that the human mind works. So, oftentimes, when a person of color makes a mistake, you tend to remember that, whereas when Bob, a white male, makes a mistake, he just had a bad day.”

How Can Stereotypes Be Eradicated?

Mandate participation in diversity training. This should be for employees at all levels, on a multi-year basis. In addition, management might consider seeking out a specialized component for it, Jones noted.

Meaningful Mentoring

Support mentoring and professional development efforts. One of the most common reasons minorities leave law firms is because they feel isolated — they’ve not found any informal mentors.

One way to combat this is to create “Affinity groups,” said Jones, or groups of persons with commonalities. One law firm is home to the “Mamas and the Papas,” a parenting group, while another hosts “Gray Matters,” a group of seniors. Affinity groups can be based on race or ethnicity as well. Their activities might range from simple brown-bag lunches, to highly coordinated retreats.

Formal mentoring programs should also be in place, accompanied by thorough training programs. And, on a one-on-one basis, individualized goals should be set, with regard to skill development and marketing, such as conducting “x” number of depositions by a certain time. “Coaching” to reach these goals should be on going.

Offer meaningful assignments. Jones opined that, when hours are tight, it seems that minority lawyers are the first to feel that squeeze with fewer assignments being made available to them. Or even in good times, they might not be given highly visible, significant work. Diversity should be a central goal when forming client service teams as well.

Encourage balance. Not everyone agrees with the male partner who states, “My father never went to any of my soccer games, and I turned out just fine,” Jones remarked.

Clearly, women tend to face more quality-of-life issues, being the child-bearers, but men should have opportunities that afford them balanced lives as well, Jones reminded. In this regard, flextime policies should be gender-neutral, and no one should be penalized for using them.

Communicate your diversity goals. Make this part of the firm’s overall communications plan. Post them on the firm’s Web site, and/or create a diversity newsletter.

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