Debra Pickett* The tremendous economic uncertainty emerging in the wake of COVID-19 is forcing law firm leaders to contend with challenges they’ve never faced before. People are scared, and for good reason. Given the enormous financial pressure firms feel, it’s understandable that leaders may opt to push diversity and inclusion efforts to the back burner for a while — or is it?
Let’s review what we know about the business case for creating more diverse firms.
- Firms with greater diversity and inclusion deliver better service to clients and are more profitable than homogenous firms.
- The primary purchaser of legal services, executives and general counsel, want greater diversity on the legal teams that serve their companies. In early 2019, more than 200 of them signed an open letter demanding action, and have since followed up with benchmarks that allow firms to demonstrate their progress — or risk losing clients.
In other words, improving law firm diversity is an imperative for any firm hoping to compete in the marketplace. That was true before the pandemic, and it’s still true today, despite how much more difficult it may be to achieve this goal.
Here’s the good news: expensive, outward-facing diversity and inclusion initiatives that are more about marketing than substance probably are not the best use of constrained law firm resources. Instead, firm leaders should consider simple, effective interventions that will protect the progress they have made in elevating more women and minority attorneys to power, and make it possible for that work to continue:
Help women and minority partners build their profiles remotely. Now that all in-person avenues to developing business are closed, firms are thinking strategically about how their attorneys should move those efforts online. But top-down orders to “leverage LinkedIn” or “keep up with your contacts virtually” are not useful to attorneys who didn’t have robust “old boy” networks to begin with. Online networking is a skill, just like other business development techniques.
If your firm was providing coaching support to high-potential attorneys to help them with business development in the real world, that same support is needed now for new kinds of marketing efforts. Attorneys are going to need tutorials that walk them through best practices and provide support by phone or email. Marketing departments can create these resources or contract outside support to do this training work.
Then they must oversee the execution to ensure attorneys stay part of the online conversation in their target industries. Is it possible to assign marketing department staff to this task, particular those who typically staff events and may have extra capacity?
Keep the content coming
Social media profiles are only as strong as the content attorneys have to share there. We know that implicit bias can make it more difficult for women and minority attorneys to demonstrate their subject-matter expertise and be considered for the same opportunities as less experienced white men.
This makes thought leadership articles and opportunities to be featured as an “expert source” in key media outlets all the more important for building these attorneys’ reputation with prospects. When putting your firm’s experts forward on webinars, thought leadership articles and media pitches, consider who’s being included — and who’s not. If the faces of your firm’s most important expertise are all white men, you’re sending the message that your other attorneys are somehow less qualified to lead in a crisis.
Bear equity in mind when handling award nominations
The earliest and most chaotic weeks of the COVID crisis happened to coincide with an already busy time on many legal marketers’ calendars: award season. Nominations for “rising star” and other programs are typically due in spring, and gathering client testimonials, case examples and other supporting materials can be time consuming and logistically challenging under normal circumstances.
And we know that the required effort (which of course comes on top of keeping up with billable work), combined with the often-gendered tendency to be more reticent about self-promotion, means that award nominees can be less than representative of a firm’s diversity anyway.
This year, women bearing the brunt of new childcare and homeschooling responsibilities, along with those who care for extended family members, had even less bandwidth and energy to put themselves forward for industry honors. What can your team do to ensure that your award nominees reflect the true diversity of your emerging lawyers, rather than an oversampling of those privileged enough to have more spare time on their hands?
Make evaluations more transparent and consider what “fairness” means right now
In addition to thinking about the intersection of inclusion and business development, firm leaders will need to consider how to evaluate the work attorneys do under these extraordinary circumstances.
Obviously it would not be fair to hold attorneys to the standards for billable hours that they would during a normal year, but what should revised standards look like? As noted, women are taking on a greater share of the childcare, homeschooling and household duties under lockdown, which makes it more difficult for them to bill the same number of hours or develop as much new business as men.
How can you make sure they won’t be penalized for this when it comes time to make decisions about compensation and promotion? Questions about how to fairly and holistically evaluate attorneys’ work long predate the current crisis, and they are going to become more urgent in the months to come. The current system continues to reward white men above other demographic groups. It’s time for reform.
No question this is a frightening time for firm leaders, and they will want to focus their limited attention on what matters most for the survival of the firm. That shortlist should include a continued commitment to diversity and inclusion. The business case is clear, and hard-won gains for women and minorities are hanging in the balance
Debra Pickett works as a communications strategist and consigliere to managing partners, marketing directors and practice chairs assisting the next generation of law firm leadership.[email protected]
This article first appeared in the National Law Review
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