Legal diversity 101: How to launch a D&I program that lasts

Kara Wen | April 6, 2022 | Articles

Starting a formal diversity and inclusion (D&I) program went from being the 5th-ranked legal department priority in 2020 to 1st in 2021, according to CLOC’s State of the Industry Report. In the legal industry and beyond, recent progressive social movements and data on the business benefits of a diverse workplace have prompted companies to take action.

The key to creating a legal diversity program that doesn’t fizzle out is structured planning. While it may be tempting to rush to put a new policy or initiative in place to start moving forward, remember that the main goal is to foster sustainable change through all facets of the department, from hiring and culture to continuing education, volunteerism, and career development. And for that, you need time, thought, and effort.

Based on our research on the components of long-lasting corporate D&I programs that get results, we put together this list of 7 steps you can take to implement a program and included examples of legal departments leading the way.

7 steps to create an effective in-house legal diversity program

1. Assemble a D&I committee

The first task is to put together a team responsible for leading diversity and inclusion efforts. It’s best to start by sending out an email asking for volunteers, but remember that it takes a lot of time and emotional labor to dig deep into D&I work. This is particularly true for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, for whom a lack of diversity and inclusion can take a particularly significant, personal toll.

To offset this, some companies are offering different incentives for active participation in D&I work, including annual bonuses. Even a small gesture like extra time off or a gift card emphasizes that you appreciate the sacrifices in time and energy that people are willing to make.

Your list of volunteers will also serve as a list of potential future legal leaders to keep an eye on — you already know they’re willing to take the initiative and are invested in making the company a better place.

2. Perform an internal D&I audit

Objectively reviewing your team’s current diversity make-up, feedback on your department’s D&I, and any previous D&I activities at the company will help you identify areas for improvement and where you’d like to concentrate at first. You can do this with your D&I Committee, or you can hire a legal D&I consultant to conduct an audit and give you recommendations.

If you’re handling this in-house, you’ll start by analyzing the demographics of your team. After receiving consent from your team members, reach out to Human Resources to send over the anonymized breakdown on key metrics like race and gender. If there is only limited information available or there’s a missing area you’d like to track (e.g., sexual orientation, veteran status), circle back with your team and HR to see if they can submit updated information that will also be tracked with new hires.

While a D&I Committee is responsible for leading inititates, it’s still important to gather feedback from all members of the legal department. This way, you get a wider variety of perspectives on what works or doesn’t work in terms of DE&I in your department and company. Then, the Committee can apply this information to set goals and activities that drive progress.

  • Measures how employees feel about the culture of your department
    • Example: “On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate the following statement: People of all identities and backgrounds have opportunities to advance in the department.”
  • Asks open-ended questions to address both positive and negative experiences
    • Example: “Do you feel our department is safe and inclusive?”
    • Example: “Has someone in our department ever discriminated against you for your identity?”
  • Gathers direct input on what could be improved
    • Example: “What activities or programs do you feel would be the most beneficial to foster D&I in our legal department?”
    • Example: “What would you like to see done to support individuals from underrepresented backgrounds?”

Give employees the option to submit responses under their name or anonymously. While there’s obvious value to having the ability to see if the responses of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds are less positive compared to those in majority groups, some people might not feel comfortable serving as a perceived “voice” for a minority group. Additionally, people may not be as candid if they have to attach their name to their responses. Giving them the option to opt out prioritizes their sense of well-being.

Lastly, compile information on any D&I work that’s been done in your department and at your company. Ask around to see what was successful and what wasn’t. This research can give you some initial ideas for potential topics and activities and how to make your program sustainable.

3. Review outside counsel diversity

As noted in the Blickstein Group’s 13th Annual Law Department Operations Survey, “If law departments want to promote diversity, they need to make sure that their law firms are walking the walk.” The first step to that is tracking information on the diversity of your outside counsel.

Ask your vendors to submit their information using the American Bar Association’s Model Diversity Survey or the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s recently launched Diversity Scorecard. If they aren’t willing to take part, it’s worth reassessing the partnership. You want to work with vendors who share the same commitment to D&I as your department.

While you can store submitted vendor data in a manual tool like a spreadsheet, it’s much easier to house it in advanced legal software. This type of tool shows D&I data alongside all your other key vendor metrics and can also flag vendors that don’t meet any specific diversity guidelines, such as failing to have any partners from marginalized backgrounds leading matters. You can then use this information in performance reviews to objectively see who is committed to progress.

4. Set measurable D&I goals and a roadmap of how to achieve them

After compiling and reviewing all the information collected internally and from law firm partners, it’s time for your Committee to chart a path forward.

List out your strongest and weakest areas (e.g., hiring, education, outreach, vendors, etc.) and identify your top priorities. Then, work together to determine specific, measurable goals and lay out the actions needed to get there. It’s the difference between “connect with more underrepresented law students” and “create a diversity summer associate program for 4 students in partnership with historically Black colleges.”

If you’re feeling stuck nailing down the specifics, we recommend looking at the diversity plan from Shell Legal Services GC Cathy Lamboley and the work other corporate legal departments are doing for inspiration. Other examples include:

  • Accenture: Offers summer internships to first-year law students with disabilities
  • Novartis: Requires vendors to ensure at least 30% of billable associate time and 20% of partner time is provided by females, ethnically diverse, or LGBTQ+ professionals
  • General Electric: Offers year-long fellowships with a guaranteed job interview to Chicago-area law school grads from underrepresented backgrounds
  • MetLife: Hosts a mentoring program to help improve career advancement for in-house and outside counsel from underrepresented backgrounds
  • HP Inc.: Withholds fees from vendors if their diversity guidelines aren’t met and also partners with vendors on pro bono work

5. Share the plan with the C-suite

Once you have your plan in place, it’s time to loop in executive stakeholders like your CEO for their final input. They can offer valuable suggestions before you get too far into the work, and they can suggest potential tie-ins between legal D&I and company-wide initiatives if there are any. If there aren’t, your proposal might serve as the catalyst to launch more widespread change across your organization.

6. Communicate the program launch to your staff and vendors

After upper management has signed off on your plan, communicate the formal launch of the D&I program and upcoming activities to your department staff and vendors.

In your announcement, focus on:

  • Why a formal program was needed and its primary mission
  • Key points of contact on the D&I committee
  • Any next steps required (e.g., signing up for implicit bias training, reviewing new outside counsel guidelines)

Taking the time to proactively manage change will mitigate confusion and help all parties to collaborate more smoothly on this important work.

7. Monitor and measure progress

D&I work doesn’t stop once you’ve kicked off your program or checked off one activity. To make your program sustainable, you need to be diligent about documenting your efforts over time, including tracking both quantitative data (diversity metrics) and qualitative information (processes and details). The old “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” adage definitely applies here.

Do a D&I “check-up” once a quarter to make sure things are progressing according to your initial plan and, if not, circle back with the Committee to discuss ways to address any obstacles. Another strategic idea to ensure you’re on the right path is to re-send the kickoff survey and see if and how feedback on your D&I culture and efforts have changed.

Facilitating more diversity in the legal profession takes continuous effort

Like any industry-wide change, creating a more diverse and inclusive legal field won’t happen overnight. Progress will come as more industry professionals, from legal ops professionals to GCs and managing partners, keep working together to create lasting change. Success is much more than just hosting one event or training seminar; it’s about taking consistent action to foster a culture where everyone has equitable opportunities to contribute and excel.

To support you all in this critical D&I work, SimpleLegal is launching a brand-new tool this spring. Stay updated on the release and our latest blog content by signing up for our legal newsletter.