When Pandemic Effects Are Disproportionate, How Do We Move Forward?
We look at how legal organizations are continuing to address diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the aftermath.
Calls for diversity in legal — often considered one of the least diverse professions — are nothing new. As recently as 2015, the Fordham Law Review published an extensive report outlining ways firms can put the statements about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) they have on their websites into actual practice.
Wendy J. Meyeroff
President Wendy Meyeroff, Health Communications
Whether things have progressed much from that study is debatable. The switch to remote work precipitated by the pandemic has been beneficial and welcome to many, but pandemic-influenced changes have also had disproportionately negative effects on some groups. In 2021, ABA released a special report, “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward,” that noted: “Although the transition to remote work has affected all lawyers, the survey found it has had a disproportionate impact on women lawyers with children and lawyers of color.”
“Since the inception of the coronavirus into the U.S., firms have had to turn their attention to so many issues that they have never before had to focus on — like significant remote work, vaccinations, mask mandates — I would imagine those things have diverted some attention away from many different initiatives, including those focused on diversity,” says Michael S. Cohen, Partner at Duane Morris.
The pandemic has been increasingly difficult for people of color and women in a multitude of ways. For instance, research shows that during the pandemic, women with children have been more likely to have had increased childcare responsibilities and disruptions to their work and professional careers than men, notes Ellen Rosenstiel, SHRM-SCP, Chair of ALA’s DEIA Committee.
“Add to that the additional surge of social unrest triggered by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and continuing through the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in early 2021. These events have affected many employees in ways that cannot simply be left behind when work begins,” says Rosenstiel, who works as the Director of HR, Employment and Employee Relations at Kutak Rock LLP. “[This] is especially true for Black employees. Simultaneously, we are expecting these professionals to show up at work with the same level of energy and availableness as those who weren’t as personally or emotionally affected.”
Keep in mind that racism and gender inequality are systemic issues, notes Rosenstiel, and that these issues haven’t suddenly gone away during the pandemic, but rather now manifest themselves in different ways. “Law firms that had worked to put tactics in place pre-pandemic to minimize or eliminate oppressive systems haven’t necessarily flexed to the current pandemic, hybrid/remote environment to identify new oppressive systems and what adaptations might be required address them,” she says.
So how are legal organizations keeping up the momentum on DEIA efforts within this new work environment?
WORDS INTO ACTION
Up until the flash point of the George Floyd murder, diversity was in theory an issue being addressed in firms, says Rosenstiel. But those events brought about an interesting turn: “Some law firms made statements denouncing racism. But I don’t know that people want to hear about statements, right? They want to see results. They want to see a different workforce and a fair makeup of our workforce.”
“Keep in mind that racism and gender inequality are systemic issues and that these issues haven’t suddenly gone away during the pandemic, but rather now manifest themselves in different ways.”
At minimum, firms should continue to offer training in conscious and unconscious bias and focus on providing a supportive, engaged work environment that provides comprehensive plans for sick and family leave, as well as subsidies for childcare, family care and tutoring.
They also should be more mindful that mentoring and sponsorship programs likely need a different approach as work patterns shift. “[These programs] certainly require much more intentionality in order to best support and provide equal opportunities to women and people of color in a much more complicated hybrid/remote work environment,” says Rosenstiel. “Our marginalized communities — who often feel they have to mask their authentic selves to get equal opportunities — have even less opportunity to do this in remote work and often expose themselves to even greater discrimination and microaggressions than when in they were in the workplace.”
ALA’s DEIA Committee is working revamping its mentoring and sponsorship guide so that law firms that don’t have DEIA procedures in place can get the resources they need to get started. It’ll be a resource to help employers create a pathway for more diverse potential employees, says Rosenstiel, whether they’re lawyers or professional staff or management staff.
While bringing diversity to forefront wasn’t new for Nelson Mullins, the events of 2020 made the firm recognize that they wanted to expand their efforts even more, says Partner Deborah St. Lawrence Thompson, who also serves as Chair of the firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. “The firm decided that we needed to really have someone whose sole focus, at a senior management level, is to broaden our platforms.” That included focusing on equitable development and growth, along with diversity.
That lead to Katerina Taylor joining Nelson Mullins in 2021 as its Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “Obviously, there are things we have to re-shift [in order] for people to think from a different perspective. And that does take time to sit down and actually listen to people and hear how change impacts everybody. Because nobody necessarily likes change,” says Taylor.
“Depending on the size of your firm, if you are in HR, as I am, or you’re an administrator or you’re a manager of any kind, you’re involved in hiring, in the delegation of work and how staff are treated. You have to find your voice and speak up for people who don’t always have that same voice,” Rosenstiel says. “Admins should review their firm’s hiring practices and ask, ‘How do we do more outreach and expand who we’re recruiting today?’”
The work — even though it can be uncomfortable at times — is worth doing. Kutak Rock has had roughly 175 individuals volunteer to participate in a book dialogue and discussion about antiracism and antibias. Though difficult, attendees learned about their own racist tendencies and how they can work to combat them, Rosenstiel says. They also learned how to implement “interrupters” to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and valued.
“I think it’s equally incumbent upon people in [legal management] positions to approach leadership with ideas that they see as ways to improve the firm.”
The firm has also applied procedures in their hiring process to help eliminate any unconscious biases driving those decisions. “Do we get it right all the time? No,” she admits. “But we recognize where we have weaknesses, and we keep trying to get better at it.” Rosenstiel adds that while the original program was intended to train executives, staffers at all levels quickly came on board. At the time of publication, there was a waitlist for the 2022 reinstitution of the program.
Taylor notes that with St. Lawrence Thompson as Nelson Mullin’s diversity leader, “We have really expanded and enhanced our affinity groups. How we communicate. We have a newsletter that highlights all of our diverse attorneys, our cultures. We talk about rising stars. And that is shared firmwide.”
Additionally, a teamwork approach to helping attorneys with disabilities at Nelson Mullins includes taking the legal administrative assistant’s perspective, she notes. “There could be challenges for the admin that we have to make sure we address. It could be, ‘Oh, this attorney needed more time, so this admin’s going to have to have potentially more overtime.’”
IT TAKES A TEAM
Legal managers have an incredible opportunity to move these policies forward. “I think it’s equally incumbent upon people in those positions to approach leadership with ideas that they see as ways to improve the firm,” says Cohen. “It sounds hokey, but it’s true. Firms, they’re teams. None of us works in isolation.”
To enhance knowing which administrators (and others) need help, Taylor attends group meetings and emphasizes that her door is always open for conversation. “When they feel like they either have experienced or [they] have a little bit of anxiety about something that might have happened, they can come to me. And whether I take it to HR or whether I take it to their direct report, there’s an open line of communication.”
While there has been incremental progress on DEIA measures overall, the legal industry has remained very slow to change. “Sadly, I think the time our workforces are reflective of our communities [will] probably [be] well beyond my lifetime,” Rosenstiel says. “You sometimes don’t feel like you have any big wins in this area, but you hope that you’ve made progress.”
“The reality is that firms that are ignoring these ideas, that don’t understand or appreciate the importance of these concepts, are going to lag in the long run,” says Cohen. “Put the human piece of this aside. (Which of course is of paramount importance.) Firms that are not paying attention likely will miss opportunities to make themselves successful.”
ALA has been addressing inclusion issues for 20 years to better understand and respect diversity — including areas beyond race, sexuality, age and more typical outreach. Visit alanet.org/resources/diversity to check out available resources.
About the Author
Wendy J. Meyeroff, the Ghostwriter Who Grabs Attention, has been a reporter for numerous trade magazines for over 20 years, as well as a marketing consultant for numerous industry leaders.