Is DEI in your DNA or just an initiative?

According to a recently published study, “roughly 80% of companies are just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable” when attributed to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.

Law firms’ intense focus in the past year on creating or expanding DEI programs is certainly an encouraging movement. However, while the intent is laudable, there’s a legitimate concern that many leaders think “DEI initiatives” are the silver bullet. For DEI to be an authentic strand of a firm’s brand DNA, everyone has to live DEI every single day, in every way.

How well has DEI been woven into the fabric of your firm? Ask yourself these questions:

Does your DEI committee include associates and professional staff, not just partners? To get to the heart of how it feels to be part of your firm, you need voices at all levels and in all roles at the table.

Are your affinity groups structured so everyone feels included? A parenting affinity group of only women lawyers immediately sets up an environment of exclusion for all the other parents in the firm, be they dads or professional staff. Think creatively about how to support all parents. 

Do you still allow certain behaviors because of the “rainmaker excuse”? We’ve seen it over and over when top rainmakers are allowed to get away with everything from talking over others, to interrupting, and even bullying. As long as these behaviors are allowed, money is trumping DEI as a more important part of your brand.

Are you using the “bait and switch” approach in your business development efforts? In our interviews with in-house general counsel, we’ve heard stories about firms showing diverse-looking teams in their proposals and pitches. Once the contract is inked, though, a new, less diverse team is assigned to the matter. GCs want to be assured that the diverse team you pitch will show up to do the work.

Have you looked closely at partner-only or lawyer-only events to see whether these vestiges from the past are truly necessary? Partner retreats that talk about growth strategies but exclude client-facing employees not only devalue your professional staff, but also weaken your ability to execute strategies efficiently and swiftly. Progressive corporations include people from all relevant roles, genders, races and ethnicities to get the strongest possible ideas about the future of the business.

How aggressively do you seek out diverse service providers? One of our law firm clients stopped using a large restaurant chain to cater firm lunches and started using several minority-owned and -operated local restaurants. Guess what? The food was superior and the cost was no greater. The best suggestions regarding whom to consider came from the administrative staff.

How you engage and respect the energy and time that service providers devote to your company’s success says a lot about your brand’s DNA around inclusion and open-mindedness.

Are you treating DEI like other complex business issues? To get authentic solutions, you need leaders who can identify the root of the problem. Do you want to make people aware of unconscious biases? Are you trying to recruit people of color? Do you want to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination and/or ageism? You can have multiple DEI goals as long as you’re willing to face the real issues and create a focused plan to address them. People see through vague “initiatives” and shallow marketing tactics—DEI should be a part of your overall business strategy, not just your HR or marketing strategy.

You can have multiple DEI goals as long as you’re willing to face the real issues and create a focused plan to address them.

Numerous studies of employee engagement last year pointed to “belonging” as the number one driver of employee satisfaction. Employees with a strong sense of belonging are over six times more likely to be engaged than those without. Companies with strong DEI brands are also more profitable and tend to be market leaders. 

As you expand and improve upon your firm’s DEI commitments, make sure the sentiments are authentic and the behaviors run deep.

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