Diversity and inclusion: 'The right thing to do' but still a long way to go

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The law profession still has a long way to go before women and minorities are well represented in leadership positions, a panel of experts said recently.

In honor of the Washtenaw County Bar Association's 21st annual Bias Awareness Week, Oct15-19, the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, Washtenaw Region (WLAM) sponsored the discussion to promote diversity in the legal profession.

Gregory Conyers, the State Bar of Michigan's director of diversity, noted that the law profession has quite a ways to go before it is as diverse as the African American population as a whole.

He also noted that while about half of all law school graduating classes are women, only about 30 percent of professionals working in the field are female.

He said the SBM is considering ways to help women become upwardly mobile and take on leadership roles in corporate and law firm sectors.

"At the end of the day, the legal profession is about problem-solving," he said, adding that problem-solving is best when there are diverse opinions at the table.

Some look at diversity as simply the issue of the day, Conyers said. But he believes that until more women and minorities are fully represented in key positions in the law profession, there is a long way to go.

"For better or for worse, I have job security," he said.

Conyers encouraged participants to go to the SBM website and click on "Diversity and Inclusion" for information on the Caregiver Work Group, Diversity & Inclusion Pipeline Programs, and related articles and tools.

Marcia Goffney, president and CEO of Shared Vision Associates LLC; said that the danger arises when people are biased, but don't know it.

She suggests shedding light on bias by 1) recognizing you have it; 2) being aware that your brain makes mistakes by jumping to wrong conclusions; and 3) rather than just talking about bias, inclusion and diversity; doing something about it.

Jerome Watson said that in the that in the seven years he's headed Miller Canfield's diversity committee, the firm has tried to become more involved in the minority communities while also looking at the issue within the company.

He said he's studied retention rates and looked at ways to increase the women and minorities applicant pool, even at a time when there may be 10 good applicants for any one job.

But diversity, he said, is simply "the right thing to do."

Across the board at large corporations, clients, key personnel, and general counsel are much more diverse than in the past, and young people are more comfortable now with diverse groups of people, he said.

Attorney Jennifer Salvatore of Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard & Walker in Ann Arbor said the billable hours pay model can be a detriment to diversity because it puts women with children--who often need flexible schedules for caregiving duties at home--at a disadvantage.

She said she left a job with such a model to join a practice that is contingency-based. Now, she said, productivity is valued by how effective one can be in less time rather than more.

"I didn't want to be a second class citizen in a billable hour environment," she said.

After the meeting, WLAM Treasurer Bonnie Shaw told The Legal News that diversity and inclusion are important topics because not only are they the right thing to do, but because an inclusive workforce is better for business.

"We all learn and grow more when we increase diversity without our firms," she said. "Without diversity, firms would lose out on a key pool of talent. In addition, many corporations seek out firms that have more diversity, and a diverse set of attorneys can help bring in a diverse set of clients."

Though the topic has been discussed at length in the past decade, there is still a long way to go to achieve it, she said.

"Law firm culture tends to discourage diversity and to exclude women," she said. "Indeed, the number of women and minorities in firms is going down. Unless firms change the culture of overworking individuals with the billable hour model, they are going to lose out on this key pool of talent."

Published: Wed, Nov 7, 2012