Incorporating diversity and inclusion is on the top of nearly every law firm leader’s mind. While many firms have committees, and in some cases full-time employees, focused on enhancing diversity within their ranks and fostering a sense of belonging, where do our clients fit into the mix? How are firms engaging with clients and collaborating with them to drive real progress? To dive into this topic, we interviewed four esteemed DEI professionals to share insights for incorporating inclusion in client services.
What sort of initiatives are you working on within your firm and how are you engaging clients?
(VT): Womble added D&I as a goal in the firm’s strategic plan and named a diversity partner who works alongside the development and diversity director to ensure the goals are met. We have partnered with clients to deliver professional development programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in our footprint under the firm’s customizable, school-specific HBCU Succeed offerings. Womble’s development and diversity director has partnered with a client to develop and deliver a leadership academy for diverse associates that includes a thoughtful and engaging curriculum and virtual and in-person workshops at the client’s headquarters.
(AR): Foley recently adopted an updated Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) I strategic plan which has five key objectives: Recruitment, Development, Promotion, Client Engagement, and Education. We’ve made client engagement a key pillar of the plan because it’s an integral part of our efforts. We are focused on making Foley the best place to work—for everyone. This goal requires us to collaborate with an engage our clients, not only to further our own organizational DEI efforts, but to further DEI in the legal industry, and to partner with our clients on their respective DEI journeys. What this looks like for us is being proactive in providing, and responding, to client requests for DEI information and demographic information, endeavoring to staff case teams with underrepresented lawyers and working with clients to ensure that those attorneys receive substantive opportunities. We also partner with clients by providing DEI CLE’s to further the in-house lawyers learning and development related to DEI, partnering with clients on providing experiences to some of our underrepresented summer associates—an opportunity to work both in-house and at a law firm—and joining clients in supporting DEI in the legal industry through external organizations such as the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity.
(CB) Eversheds Sutherland has several programs aimed at the recruitment and retention of women and diverse attorneys – both at the firm and throughout the legal industry, and we partner with clients on a number of these initiatives including: Move the Needle – Our firm is one of four law firms that partnered with Diversity Lab and more than 30 GCs to create the Move the Needle partnership program in 2019; Panel and speakership series – We partner with clients to feature thought leaders and experts in and outside of the legal industry to address both organizations (the law firm audience and the client audience) on a range of topics related to DEI; and Eversheds Sutherland Scholars – Established in 2005, the Eversheds Sutherland Scholars program is an intensive three-week summer program for underrepresented, rising college seniors and recent college graduates headed to law school, designed to demystify law school, provide tools to succeed and introduce participants to careers in the legal industry.
What is the expectation of clients regarding law firms’ DEI efforts, present day?
(TD): Clients have set expectations that are unique to their internal DEI journey. What has been consistent is their expectation that each team is as diverse as possible, with specific targets and goals in mind for staffing, and that firms partner or collaborate with them to advance these efforts. Staffing a diverse team on an RFP and then not delivering when work is actually given is no longer acceptable. We are seeing that through clients’ requests for timekeepers’ diversity data to be shared through eBilling systems. You cannot alter easily what a client is capturing in its eBilling system.
(AR): Client expectations vary. Clients who are farther along in their own DEI journey have sophisticated outside counsel diversity programs. The expectation is that we as outside counsel are recruiting and staffing underrepresented lawyers on their matters. These clients ask for annual, or even quarterly, reporting sharing the diversity demographic of the timekeepers on their matters by billable hours and/or spend, in addition to information related to our overall DEI efforts. Some clients are also including diversity demographic information in their timekeeping software, allowing them to track representation internally. In-house legal teams are growing in sophistication and embedding DEI into their outside counsel management. Legal departments without formal outside counsel DEI programs, are still likely to include the focus on DEI in their outside counsel guidelines. They are realizing that DEI is integrally tied to outside counsel’s overall people and culture efforts, and that law firms with this focus are more likely to retain their lawyers and reach better outcomes.
(CB) Clients are making their expectations with regards to law firm’s DEI efforts very clear these days. They have moved from merely suggesting that firms make changes or expressing their desires that firms improve their diversity numbers to clearly stating their expectations. Some are also using incentives or penalties to encourage law firms into improving their DEI efforts. Clients are continuing to ask law firms for a lot of DEI data and metrics – both for the firm as a whole and specifically for the attorneys who are working on their matters – but now we are seeing them take action if the numbers are not meeting their expectations. Clients recognize that diverse teams lead to better work product, and they know that they can influence law firm behavior, so they are continuing to be ardent champions for change.
As clients often ask firms to report on their DEI efforts, what, if anything, should firms expect from their clients in terms of intentional DEI efforts?
(TD): Firms should expect that clients are just as much involved in these efforts as they are. Oftentimes, firms are tasking diverse lawyers (with full practices) to lead these efforts. This adds an unspoken diversity tax on these persons. We need clients to be aware of this and understand that these are joint efforts, and the lift cannot be one-sided in order to achieve these goals together.
(AR): Firms should expect their clients to be partners on this journey. Additionally, firms should realize that while many clients want to drive DEI with their outside counsel that the client themselves, especially if a large legal department, is likely on their own DEI journey and can use that firm’s assistance as well, especially if the firm has dedicated DEI professionals. Overall, we should be looking to each other as partners in pursing our respective DEI goals, which frequently are viewed as both business priorities and a core organizational value.
How can DEI and marketing/business development professionals collaborate to drive DEI efforts – helping both their firms and supporting the firms’ client?
(VT): Start by getting to know each other - DEI professionals and marketing/BD professionals, on a human-to-human level (a solid relationship and understanding will go far). Communicate often and invite each other to meetings so each team is aware of what the other is doing. Share reports. Be an advocate for each other when a team member is not present at a meeting.
(TD): Marketing and business development professionals should be well-versed in what their firm’s DEI strategy is and who the key players are in seeing that strategy through. They should be poised to communicate these efforts with partners who can then share this information with clients, as appropriate. Strong DEI strategy equals increased profitability just as much as a strong practice or industry strategy. If they can communicate to clients that they understand this, they will invaluable.