Roundtable on Diversity in Law

How do you think having a more diverse legal workforce benefits clients? How do you think it benefits a firm?

Molly Sharma: Clients benefit from lawyers’ different styles, backgrounds, and experiences. For example, in family law, which is intensely personal, context is extremely important in understanding the clients’ fears, reactions and goals. Knowing cultural sensitivities around gender roles, reporting of domestic abuse, or financial choices can be the key to understanding how to approach a client, make them feel comfortable, and effectively represent their needs. Also, diverse attorneys have diverse support systems and referral sources. So having more diverse attorneys at a firm can expand its client base and network of professional support.

Sharon Hwang: Having a more diverse legal workforce benefits clients and firms by providing stronger teams, fresher perspectives, and better results. Failure to consider a multitude of perspectives can prove to be disastrous to a case, a deal, or a client relationship. An inclusive environment encourages all attorneys to work hard and to succeed and will result in lower attrition. Majority attorneys must be involved with a law firm’s DEI activities instead of leaving such initiatives for minority attorneys to implement on their own–an approach that is likely to fail. As the judiciary and society at large become more diverse and less homogenous, it is important for the legal industry to adjust and adapt, and clients will benefit.

What advice do you have for law firms looking to recruit and retain more diverse talent?

Molly Sharma: They must be open to creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and for the voicing of challenges that minority attorneys deal with. The most important thing is to listen to minority attorneys, and to remember that every person is an individual with specific challenges that cannot be generically lumped into the “needs of a minority professional.” In addition, mentorship programs are important for minority attorneys, but it’s just as important that other attorneys be paired with minority mentors to help them push past ingrained belief systems, prejudices and assumptions.

Kim Walberg: Mentoring programs and pipeline initiatives are great, but adjustments to law firm culture are crucial to promote inclusion and equity. That means getting “buy in” from firm leadership, rainmakers and others in power. It also means that diverse attorneys must be given a voice in policy making and firm governance committees. A law firm’s commitment to diversity posted on its website may help recruit diverse talent, but it won’t retain that talent without real follow-through. Mandatory implicit bias and sexual harassment training and zero tolerance policies for racial and cultural insensitivities are a few examples of how law firms can demonstrate their commitment to changing culture and promoting a welcoming, productive, and hospitable workplace for diverse attorneys.

How does your firm work to help advance diversity in the legal profession?

Sharon Hwang: McAndrews has long supported the advancement of female and diverse attorneys and is one of few patent firms to be part of the inaugural mid-sized firm Mansfield program that encourages pro-diversity practices. McAndrews’ leadership team is also 30% diverse, and our general counsel is a woman. McAndrews supports its many diverse attorneys in their endeavors outside the firm. Many have led ethnic bar organizations, as well as the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms (Governing Board and Associate Board) and the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives. McAndrews recently joined the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, and for more than a decade has offered a Diversity in Patent Law Fellowship for 1L law students. We also recently partnered with Abbott to offer the Abbott-McAndrews Diversity Internship, and McAndrews offers all of its attorneys billable credit of up to 50 hours per year for DEI activities.

Kim Walberg: Taft has a robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee focused on addressing the unique challenges faced by diverse attorneys. We are Mansfield Rule-certified by the Diversity Lab, which means we affirmatively consider at least 30 percent women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions. We appointed a mentor/champion panel of lawyers, including our Managing Partner, who advocate for our diverse lawyers. We partner with Dr. Arin Reeves of Nextions, which provides assessments, strategic advising, workshops, training, and other programs in the fields of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and improving workplace cultures. We also host an annual diversity retreat featuring timely content and an opportunity for our diverse lawyers to share perspectives in a safe space.

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