Published in the Oregon Association of Defense Counsel‘s The Verdict | Issue 2
Diversity and inclusion in the workforce can be a difficult topic to discuss effectively. This is so despite its status as, arguably, one of the most—if not the most—prevalent challenges facing all sectors of the employment marketplace today. It is easy to highlight an issue. It is far more difficult to discuss practical approaches and solutions. This article explores why diversity and inclusion in the workplace is so important and suggests some strategies for productive discussions and specific, concrete steps an employer can take to begin the process of meaningfully incorporating principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion into its core values.
Significance and Importance of Diversity and Inclusion
A workforce is more creative, more innovative, and more resilient when it is made up of members with varying qualities, characteristics, experiences, and ideas. But for a diverse group of workers to work cooperatively and thrive, a workplace must also foster a culture of inclusion actual recognition and respect of the uniqueness of each individual. Without these central tenets of inclusion, a statistically diverse workplace may still fail to achieve its full potential. Inclusion can be achieved through the establishment of policies and practices that are designed to ensure all individuals have equal access to opportunities and resources that they can use to contribute to organizational success.1 An oft-quoted statement readily summarizes the interplay of the two concepts: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”2
While there is no denying that substantial progress has been made in diversity and inclusion over the past decades, the legal field still has a long way to go. Current surveys show that, nationally, “[n]early all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession compared with their presence in the U.S. population. For example, 4.7% of all lawyers were Black in 2021—nearly unchanged from 4.8% in 2011. The U.S. population is 13.4% Black.”3 Diversity and inclusion initiatives can provide a platform to help ensure these voices are not overlooked and serve as springboard for necessary progress towards a legal field that is more representative of our larger community.
Getting Your Discussion off the Ground
Starting a conversation regarding diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be a daunting task that can make managers feel they are walking on eggshells. When sensitive subjects are handled poorly, they have the potential to open rifts between decisionmakers and the balance of their workforce. In the Oregon legal field, incoming hires are increasingly in tune with prevalent social issues, making it especially important for management to demonstrate an ability to engage in productive dialogues.
While such conversations can be difficult, recent surveys of the ABA membership have suggested that they are becoming far more commonplace. When polled about how often, compared to a year ago, ABA members had conversations with colleagues about racial justice issues, 60 percent of respondents reported they had had such conversations either “more” or “much more” often than the year prior.4 Of course, this does not mean the conversation is an easy one to start. The following section outlines some proposed discussion points and foundational steps that law firms and employers can deploy to begin (or continue) a targeted effort to elevate the voices of their underrepresented groups.
Implementation and Development
Once the topic has been broached, there are several concrete actions a firm should take. First, management should work to develop and communicate consensus and awareness regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.5 With law firm structures lending themselves to be naturally led from the top, the importance of management understanding and impressing themes of diversity and inclusion cannot be emphasized strongly enough in writing alone.6 Diversity and inclusion-focused CLEs are now readily available and should be attended, at a minimum, by the leadership of each firm wishing to incorporate principles of inclusion into their day-to-day operations.
Next, consider forming a diversity committee. Such committees are central to the success of any diversity and inclusion effort, and will serve two critical purposes, in addition to a host of others. First, a committee will act as the means by which the organization’s diversity concepts and efforts are developed and implemented.7 A committee can ensure that ideas do not fail to come to fruition simply because they run out of steam. It is no secret that law firms are already laden with projects that require extended working hours and leave little room for much of anything else in day-to-day operations. A diversity committee can ensure that key efforts to promote diversity and inclusion do not become that “anything else” at risk of falling to the wayside and can hold leadership accountable for the success of the initiative.8 Second, a diversity committee can act as a liaison between the organization’s workforce and management. A strong diversity committee will include at least one member of the organization’s leadership in order to send a message of involvement and cooperation.9
Third, task the committee with a formulating a clear, written diversity and inclusion policy that specifically outlines the organization’s commitment to improvement, its goals for the program, and the means by which it will go about achieving those goals.10 The committee and management should work together to assess the areas where diversity and inclusion can be most improved within the organization, soliciting input from staff and anyone else not directly involved as appropriate. Publishing the final policy to the organization will communicate the firm’s goals and intentions to staff and anyone else not directly involved with the policy’s development. Publication of a written policy also provides transparency that will aid accountability—a necessary element to any successful diversity and inclusion initiative—and provide a baseline against which future efforts can be measured.11 Accountability and measurable progress are key because diversity and inclusion is not achieved by simply stating that inclusion principles are an organizational focus or that the organization has been made diverse from a statistical standpoint. A successful initiative requires ongoing action, and clearly stated policies and goals will help in evaluating that action and ensuring continued commitment to implementation from organizational leadership.
From there, “next steps” become more nebulous, and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A 30-person firm’s subsequent steps will likely look much different from those of a multinational organization. Training, education, mentoring, and recruitment are all tools that firms can use to make meaningful progress towards their stated diversity and inclusion goals. Many of the references cited in this article provide excellent, detailed discussions of how to tailor each of those tools to best suit your unique organization.
These are by no means the exclusive steps to success. Every organization is different, and different personalities and leadership methods will naturally require adaptation. However, these foundational concrete steps can assist in developing a fruitful diversity and inclusion program that benefits both the organization and its individual members. From a strong initial foundation, an organization can continue to grow by evaluating the plethora of available resources on diversity and inclusion principles and applying them to its own unique structure and personnel. Taking decisive and coordinated action now to embody the principles of diversity and inclusion in the mission and culture of our firms will plant the seeds necessary to ensure the future strength and success of Oregon’s legal profession.
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- Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, IILP Review 2017: The State of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession (2017), https://www.theiilp.com/ resources/Pictures/LP.2016 Final LowRes. pdf, at 40-41.
- Verna Myers, https://www.vernamyers.com/
- ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, https:// www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/ administrative/news/2021/0721/polp.pdf (last accessed May. 2022), at 13.
- Scharf, Stephanie A., Liebenberg, Roberta D., Gallagher, Natalie M., & Peery, Destiny. AM. BAR Assoc., Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward: Results and Best Practices from a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession, at 28 (2021).
- IILP Review 2017, supra, n. 1, at 43-44.
- Id., at 44.
- See Peek, Sean. 6 Essential Steps to Creating a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee at your Company, https:// www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/ diversity-equity-inclusion-committee(last accessed May. 2022).
- Pilola, supra, n. 1, at 44.
- Id., at 44-45.
- Scharf, et al., supra, n. 6 at 27 (“There is no one right [accountability] measurement ‘tool’ but the absence of any [accountability] tool should raise a red flag”).