As remote working environments became the “new normal” for law firms in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives has become an even more critical priority. Two recent reports from the ABA – one in April 2020 entitled “Walking Out The Door” focused on female attorneys generally, followed by a June 2020 report specific to women of color, entitled “Left Out & Left Behind” – highlight persistent barriers to advancement for women in the profession, especially women of color.
“Walking Out The Door,” authored by Roberta (“Bobbi”) Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf, found that 67% of female attorneys said they believed they were denied access to business development opportunities, 54% had been denied a salary increase or a bonus as a result of their gender, and 53% reported that they were denied advancement opportunities because of their gender. In another study by Catalyst, an organization that works to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion, 34% of women of color reported that current law firm diversity efforts place too little emphasis on the quality of the work environment or workplace culture, compared to 16% of white men and women. Not surprisingly, “Left Out & Left Behind,” authored by Paulette Brown, Destiny Peery, and Eileen Letts, found that most women of color leave or consider leaving the legal profession primarily due to feeling undervalued and experiencing barriers to advancement.
To make matters worse, it is clear that the current economic downtown will negatively impact women’s careers for years to come. Catalyst has reported that 45% of female leaders in business find it difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings and 20% of women felt ignored or overlooked by coworkers on video calls. It’s no wonder that law firms are scrambling to maintain, or in some cases, implement, diverse and inclusive practices in today’s remote working environment. Powerhouse attorneys Paulette Brown, Roberta (“Bobbi”) Liebenberg, and Stephanie Scharf discussed best practices law firm partners can take to maintain diversity and inclusivity in the remote world in their CLE program, How to Maintain Inclusivity for Law Firms in a Remote Environment. Here are just some of their keen insights:
- Treat DEI as a core value. Show the value of diversity throughout the firm. Work with clients to own the business case for diversity (diverse teams create better results!) and demonstrate this value to everyone in leadership. Leaders must assess the firm’s diversity and inclusion goals and performance in order to remedy the negative impacts from remote work, and not just assume that everyone has adjusted to the “new normal.”
- Cultivate sponsorships and mentorships for diverse attorneys. Law firm leadership must be proactive about helping diverse attorneys access mentorships and take on leadership roles – and not just add these on top of their existing workload.
- Provide continued training and education. There is no secret sauce to maintaining diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Most organizations will need to use multiple training methods, but employees at all levels should receive ongoing instruction on interrupting implicit bias.
- Be flexible. Leadership must realistically assess pandemic-imposed burdens outside of work, and set reasonable goals and expectations of an employee’s performance metrics. Be respectful to the attorneys who are juggling family responsibilities and regularly examine caseloads and billable hour requirements. Post-pandemic, make sure to provide these attorneys with growth opportunities alongside those who have fewer family obligations.
- Keep the conversation going. Conversations about race and gender bias can be uncomfortable, but avoiding these important issues is a recipe for disaster. Law firm leaders should create space for open conversation to share diverse attorneys’ experiences, and for new initiatives that arise from these necessary conversations.
Attorneys and staff can also help to maintain diversity, equity, and inclusion in a remote working environment. Reach across your screen to stay connected with partners and colleagues. Learn new areas of law that may impact clients due to the pandemic, and find growth opportunities to provide better client service. If law firms listen to diverse voices and bring them to the table, there are unique opportunities for law firms to emerge from the downturn stronger and more resilient.
To learn more, check out the full program here.
This article was prepared with assistance from Elsie Tan, a student at New York Law School.