CLOC 90 days out: Studying legal ops’s shifting perspective through the lens of DE&I

Meena Chockalingam | August 18, 2022 | Articles

Legal ops is shifting. Instead of being reactive, this generation of legal professionals are becoming proactive.

Historically, legal was thought of as a bottleneck. But with the increased interest of the general public in corporate stances, legal is now placed in a position where they can set the stage on their corporation’s corporate social responsibilities (CSR) and work that comes with such initiatives. At the CLOC 2022 Global Institute, we learned how legal ops can help teams beyond their direct leaders and help CEOs and the leadership team with what’s coming. But how do we get everyone on board?

Let’s study corporate diversity initiatives as an example of how this shift in mindset is currently playing out.

Diversity was and still is a high priority

Diversity is a big priority for many GCs. In CLOC 2022 Session: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Moving Past the Rhetoric, audience members scored DE&I a 4.4 out of 5 in terms of importance, even though most ranked 3-5 on a 1-5 scale with 1 being the lowest on their DE&I maturity journey. Diversity Inc. surveyed 1900 companies that are holding themselves accountable for DE&I. Many companies are beginning to measure diversity of their external law firms because it’s a big priority, even if it will take years to accomplish meaningful change.

The session found that legal departments need to be mature to even think about diversity. But that doesn’t mean newer teams should not think about it. Younger teams have the rare opportunity to build diversity into their culture from the start, rather than fold it into existing culture like many mature teams are now finding themselves slowly moving towards.

Learn from existing programs

There’s no need to start completely from scratch. Diversity, equity, and inclusion has long been a topic that many people before legal ops today have had various experiences with. Existing initiatives can be implemented like diversity scholarships or rotational programs for generally non-diverse practices areas like private equity and M&A.

Yet, even generally diverse practice areas like employment or immigration have their drawbacks. In highly regulated industries like healthcare, it’s difficult to hire diverse candidates because of a need for Department of Justice (DOJ) and industry experience, among other typical hiring needs. Implementing an internship or mentorship program at such an organization would give students experience while also encouraging diversity into those regulated industries. Working closely with law firm recruiters can also achieve the same effect— corporate legal departments, with their deep pockets, are in a unique position to push their external law firms on this matter.

Take advantage of existing resources as well to help you jumpstart your corporate diversity initiatives. ABA has a pre-existing diversity survey that can be used when surveying your external counsel. Diversity Lab and Mansfield certification are all resources that exist for legal teams to use.

How can we get lawyers on board?

According to the CLOC Session “The Wraparound: Strategy to Launching New Tech without Driving Lawyers Crazy” with Thompson Coburn LLP and the GC of Health Startup VillageMD, there are 3 lessons learned with introducing new technology to lawyers. The same can be said about diversity initiatives.

1. The tech lesson

User adoption is earned, not demanded. Adoption is earned by tools that solve problems. If it isn’t working, make adjustments.

For legal ops, historical diversity is a metric that is a lagging indicator. What’s more important is how the department is going to address diversity moving forward. Leading metrics like sourcing new legal hires or attrition of existing employees is where change really begins.

Start DE&I initiatives small. Make only a few metrics with your outside counsel required, like gender and race to begin with. If firm diversity numbers are good but matters staffed aren’t getting the same level, make that a requirement. You want to work together with your firms and ease them into delivering that data for you.

You don’t want your initiative to penalize instead of promote. In the earlier session mentioned above on diversity and equity, some audience members implemented a percent reduction of billing invoices for non-diverse staffing. While it may solve problems in the short term, it isn’t setting you or your law firm for success in the long term. Ask how you as the customer can help them get to that goal.

2. The people lesson

There is always room for improvement. In the session “Legal Ops to Strategic Ops”, the takeaway was don’t take current process as a baseline. Think creatively and about the problem as a whole. Wrap around your lawyers and how they work. Observe how your work affects them and how their work affects yours. Fighting to make lasting and meaningful change is by no means easy and you shouldn’t be making it harder by fighting other people who could be your allies.

Sometimes, even those you think are your allies are hesitant to be fully aboard your train. The reality of DE&I work is that not everyone feels the same about it. Discussion is key to moving not just your needle, but the needle, on DE&I. Instead of refusing to hear another perspective, sit down and have a conversation on why they feel that way. They might have valid concerns like risk and criticism of lip service and reputational damage if implemented lightly for example. You’ll never know if you don’t talk to them about it.

3. The feelings lesson

According to “The Wraparound: Strategy to Launching New Tech without Driving Lawyers Crazy”, lawyers love pep talks! Talk nicely to people. This goes back to the earlier lessons about working together with your existing and future allies.

The way legal ops talks tech or any other initiative matters. Be inspiring and positive, rather than demanding and forceful. You want your team to use it, not fear and avoid it. These feelings are the biggest barrier to new tech. For DE&I this means recognizing progress. It might be giving a DE&I award to your law firms or a good word to corporate partners looking for a new firm. You want people to want change, not detest it and be forced into it to just checkmark some boxes. Public acknowledgement of the direction your law firms are going is great for morale and future work.

Driving meaningful change is never done but the results are worth it

Change is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to inspire others to propagate meaningful change in this industry, not resent it and let it fizzle out. This will be the challenge legal ops faces as they continue to become proactive agents of change. While this journey will have its ups and downs as legal adapt to situations they have never encountered for, the skills and results they pick up along the way will be worth it.

Interested in reading more like this? Subscribe to SimpleLegal’s blog and never miss out on the latest thought-pieces on what’s going on in the industry!

Inspired to kickstart your own diversity initiatives?

Here's how SimpleLegal can help