As we know all too well, 2020 was a challenging year – for us as individuals, for the legal profession, and for the nation. However, the year was not without positive developments. In my opinion, the most important positive change within Biglaw over the past year has been an increased commitment to Diversity, Justice and Inclusion (DEI).
In fact, I would describe 2020 as the year Biglaw took diversity seriously. At Lateral Link, diversity has been central to virtually every meeting with companies to discuss their talent needs. And it wasn’t just all talk and no action. The companies boasted of their commitment to diversity but did nothing else. I’ve seen many situations where companies have really done things differently for diversity, such as: For example, search harder, keep the search open longer, and work with different recruiters who tend to have the strongest pipelines of different candidates.
We’re not far into the new year, but so far companies seem to remain focused on diversity in 2021. Last Tuesday, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP announced a great new policy:
Promoting DEI in our law firm and in the legal profession is for everyone. These efforts and the benefits that result from them make us better. To this end, we are proud to announce the company’s DEI Billable Hour Credit Policy. With this guideline, the firm counts up to 50 hours of creditable DEI activities annually on the billable hourly requirement for each full-time attorney.
This guideline has two objectives. First, we want to recognize and reward attorneys who work for Davis Wright Tremaine and the wider DEI legal profession. Second, we want to encourage wider participation in DEI initiatives in our legal profession.
Biglaw operates with billing amounts, so allocating billing hours for diversity work is an important step. Because corporate pay is generally tied to billable hours, Davis Wright and other companies use this policy to put their money where it goes when it comes to diversity.
Here’s another step companies can take to drive diversity: Hire a chief diversity officer. In fact, law firms across the country have made a hiring frenzy when it comes to diversity professionals. The Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (ALFDP) now has around 250 members, more than twice as many as seven years ago.
Last October, Davis Wright Tremaine hired its first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Yusuf Zakir. Before joining DWT, Zakir was Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Holland & Knight and previously Manager Global Diversity, Recruiting & Engagement at Latham & Watkins. He previously worked as a litigation attorney at Latham before moving to DEI in 2015. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and his law degree from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and served as a court clerk to Judge Virginia A. Philips (CD Cal.).
The DEI Billable Hour Credit Policy is just one of several changes Zakir and DWT have planned to encourage diversity in the future. I spoke to Zakir recently to get his thoughts on how law firms should feel about DEI.
Zakir agreed with my view that despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and recession that disproportionately affected under-represented and marginalized communities, Biglaw has made progress on diversity, equity and inclusion over the past year.
“In the second half of 2020, especially after the murder of George Floyd, discussions about DEI accelerated,” he said. “Companies are much more focused on diversity than they were in 2008. Back then, during the last economic downturn, DEI wasn’t as well established in law firms as it is today.”
Intentionality is a key concept in promoting diversity. Businesses can’t just go about their business and somehow let the problem of diversity solve on its own. Efforts must be made.
“Ultimately, DEI is about how deliberate we are,” said Zakir. “Managing partners, department and practice group chairs, and law firm partners in general must be intentional to develop talent. How do we ensure that the commitment to diversity is fully anchored across the company? “
Without intentionality, you run into problems like “affinity bias,” our unconscious tendency to work with people like us and develop them professionally. Because Biglaw’s upper levels are not very different, an affinity bias can cause this lack of diversity to repeat itself – unless law firm leaders and partners, especially equity partners, make conscious, deliberate efforts not just to target a broad spectrum Talent to develop people who are like themselves.
How can law firms address affinity bias and other forms of unconscious bias? Yes, training is important – and if your company has not yet had it, it should be. And training shouldn’t just be something that employees go through when they join the company and never go through again. it should be revised and strengthened. For example, a law firm may want attorneys conducting on-campus interviews at law schools to undergo refresher training prior to the start of the OCI.
However, training alone is not enough to solve the problem of bias. Zakir emphasized that fixed processes also need to be structured in such a way that the potential impact of bias is taken into account, possibly by adding “bias breakers”.
Again, participate in on-campus interviews at law schools. This is definitely an area where unconscious bias can have an effect; Interviewers tend to connect with respondents who are similar to them. For this reason, law firms often send alumni of a particular school back to OCI for their alma affairs so they can connect with applicants.
To address potential affinity biases, some companies have added a bias breaker to the OCI process, Zakir explained. If an interviewer transfers a candidate from an underrepresented group, the interviewer may be asked to explain in greater detail why they made that decision, rather than simply not putting the candidate on the recall list. The interviewer could still end up making the same decision, but at least they’ll do so on purpose, not unthinkable.
According to Zakir, the intention should also extend to compensation. In other words, companies shouldn’t just pay people what they want to pay and drop the chips where they want. Instead, companies need to track how compensation is broken down by gender and race / ethnicity – and if the results are not fair, companies need to ask why.
With all of the changes, big and small, law firms are making to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, Zakir is optimistic about DEI’s future in Biglaw.
“There is a lack of patience on the part of many, rightly so,” he said. “But change takes time. The impending inauguration of the President reminds us of that. Kamala Harris will be first in so many categories as Vice President – first woman, first black or South Asian woman, first person of color. Harris was born less than a year before the Suffrage Bill was passed. And next week she’ll be vice president. This is an incredible advance, but it can be attributed to the work of people over time who have dedicated themselves to this endeavor and paved the way for others. Progress takes time – but change is coming. “
In summary, here are five steps law firms can take to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, if they haven’t already:
Give a billing hour for DEI work. Hire a chief diversity officer. Implement a robust training program that goes beyond onboarding. Consider adding bias breakers to fixed processes that could be affected by unconscious bias. Track compensation and structure compensation systems with diversity in mind.
Of course, there is not a single measure a law firm can take to ensure diversity. The further development of DEI requires intentionality, long-term commitment and leadership from above. It’s hard work.
The good news is that 2020 was a year law firms focused on diversity. And while many of us are happy to turn up this page last year, we hope that Biglaw’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion will stay with us for many years to come.
(Disclosure: Lateral Link added Yusuf Zakir to Davis Wright & Tremaine as part of our robust and growing practice to help law firms and corporate legal departments find Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. If you would like our assistance in finding a Chief Diversity Officer Please contact my colleagues Gloria Sandrino and Monique Burt Williams. Thank you.)
Ed. Note: This is the latest in a series of contributions from the Lateral Link team of experts. This position comes from David Lat, a general manager in the New York office, where he is focused on placing top employees, partners and partner groups in preeminent law firms across the country.
Prior to joining Lateral Link, David founded and served as the Managing Editor of Above the Law. Prior to starting Above the Law, he served as a federal attorney, trial attorney at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz in New York, and clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. David is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook and contact him by email at [email protected]
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