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Investing in diversity pays off even during Covid-19

Law firms that invested in diversity created infrastructures that have proved invaluable during the current crisis.

We asked law firm leaders how their firms have benefited during the global pandemic from their investments in diversity and inclusion.

Law firms that have invested in protecting the careers of working mothers and fathers have been rewarded in the global pandemic. The firms with the strongest flex policies and diversity and inclusion programs are turning out to have created workforces that were better prepared to adapt to the new work from home reality. The firms that invested in diversity and inclusion now have lawyers and leaders who have led critical projects while working remotely and have lawyers with families who are used to accommodating their work demands. They have lawyers who have experience juggling work and family when nannies could not show up, daycare was closed or someone in the family got sick. They have lawyers who have been role models for years at doing excellent work while working from home, working reduced hours, and arranging for backup support in an emergency. Lawyers who have experience working from home and balancing work and family are the new masters of the universe.

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When the pandemic hit, the firms that invested in diversity had also created infrastructures that have proved invaluable during the current crisis. They already had employee resource groups, also known as ERGs or affinity groups, that were ready to jump in to communicate with lawyers and staff who might be vulnerable during the pandemic.

In the last recession, diversity took a back seat and lawyers from underrepresented groups were overrepresented in layoffs. Diversity Lab’s CEO Caren Ulrich Stacy recently noted in the National Law Journal that racial and ethnic diversity in partnership ranks decreased by over 14.3 per cent following the recession and that 50 per cent of the equity partners who were terminated were women even though women only constituted 16 per cent of the total equity partners at the time. She urged firms to be vigilant about discrimination against diverse lawyers and recommended that firms “double down” on diversity.

To understand how diversity investments have paid off, we asked law firm diversity leaders how their firms have benefited during the global pandemic from their investments in diversity and inclusion.

Dechert’s director of diversity and inclusion, Satra Sampson-Arokium, reported that the firm’s numerous affinity groups “sprang into action to connect with people working from home to host regular virtual meetings, conference calls, happy hours, coffee breaks and in the case of the LGBTQ affinity group, a virtual book club."

Dechert’s Family Network co-chairs also alerted practice group leaders about the importance of consistent messaging—and boundaries—while lawyers and other professionals are balancing client demands, family needs and administrative calls.

Image credit Craig Stephens

The firm also set up a dedicated intranet page for coworkers to share “the view from our new office” and hosted a program for lawyers and staff, “When Work, School and Home Converge: Parenting in Unprecedented Times" with parenting coach Susan Nason. The program was well-attended by women and men. Notably, some men shared their challenges in co-parenting with their working spouses and sought advice.

Dechert, a Working Mother Best Law Firm, and Working Mother 100 Best Company, which achieved Mansfield Rule 2.0 Plus Certification for 2019, also revamped one of the firm’s signature programs, the Sponsorship and Sustained Support program, which is designed to help senior women associates, counsel and national partners navigate the path to partnership. In the five years before the SASS program, 18 per cent of new Dechert partners were women. In the five years since 31 per cent of new partners have been women. When COVID-19 disrupted plans for 71 women lawyers to attend a SASS conference in London in early March, the firm quickly pivoted to a virtual program which will reach more women and created smaller cohorts of women partners and associates to support one another through the crisis.

Sampson-Arokium said that Dechert’s “women’s partners stepped up to support women associates.”

At O’Melveny & Myers, the pandemic coincided with the appointment of several new office managing partners; four of the firm’s seven US offices are headed by women lawyers. O’Melveny’s Mary Ellen Connerty, leader of diversity and engagement, noted that the communal style of leadership often attributed to women has been a signature of the firm’s caring and compassionate response to the crisis. For example, Caitlin Bair, San Francisco office head, invites office members to Zoom lunches where folks enjoy their lunch while connecting with virtual tablemates in various “breakout rooms.”

Los Angeles office head, Dawn Sestito, gathers photos of folks working at home and sends them out each Friday to the office along with celebration announcements. Amy Siegel, Century City office head, and her office partners personally called to check in on every associate and counsel. Amy Laurendeau, Newport Beach office head, offers virtual office hours—time that she and other partners preserve and offer to office members to ask questions or simply check-in.

Image credit Black Business Review

O’Melveny, which has been on the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women list and has achieved Mansfield Certification and Mansfield Plus Certification, is also leveraging its 34 employee networks. “These networks are great connectors of people in normal times. It was natural for us to turn to them for help checking in on their members and to help us ensure that no one was slipping through the cracks, particularly people who live alone or are overwhelmed. We are so fortunate to have the eyes and ears of our employee networks engaged,” Connerty said.

The firm’s next step, Connerty added, is to conduct an anonymous survey to determine how people are feeling so they can compare the responses of those sheltering alone, sheltering with other adults, with children and with elders and take appropriate supportive action.

Ogletree’s chief diversity and professional development officer, Michelle Wimes, reported that because the firm has invested in flex policies and a strong diversity program for years, they were nimble when the crisis hit. Ogletree is a Working Mother Best Law Firm for Women and received a 2019 Gold Standard Certification from the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF). Wimes said that many of the firm’s leaders in the response are working parents, members of their business resource group, and lawyers who have worked reduced hours or have used the firm’s formal telecommuting program. Wimes noted that working parents have been among the most energetic and productive contributors to the firm’s crisis response.

Wimes highlighted several who stand out: Bonnie Puckett, a shareholder in the Atlanta office who leads the firm’s Asia-Pacific practise and specializes in cross-border guidance for global and internationally mobile companies, got involved even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic because of her work with employers outside the US. A mother of two children at home, Bonnie was able to jump in to help US-based lawyers.

Image credit Mark Allen Group

Christine Bestor Townsend, a mother of four young children and a Milwaukee shareholder, on her initiative created and took responsibility for updating a detailed chart with state and local closure orders for Ogletree lawyers and clients. Wimes said that Christine’s attitude and work ethic are “infectious.”

Michael Eckard, office managing shareholder in Charleston, South Carolina, is a father of two young children and has a pediatric infectious disease doctor wife. An Army veteran who served in the infantry and Military Intelligence, he recognized the seriousness of the pandemic early. Michael took the lead, along with Kathy Helms, the office managing shareholder in Columbia, South Carolina, in cofounding the firm’s Coronavirus Response Team and has worked tirelessly since then to provide support to clients and other lawyers alike.

Has your firm taken inventory of the value your firm has derived from having invested in diversity and inclusion? As you weigh layoff decisions this time around, are you giving enough weight to the contributions that underrepresented lawyers and diversity professionals in your firm have made during the current crisis?

Source: Working Mother


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