How CLOs can make DEI strategy a priority

Bold actions to increase equity across an enterprise

Even with broad diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in place within the legal profession, many organizations are still trying to find a way to attract, recruit, and retain legal talent. Learn how CLOs and other legal leaders can rethink their DEI strategies to create environments that are productive and welcoming to people of different backgrounds.

Examine the status quo

According to Law360 data from August 2021, attorneys who identify as Hispanic/Latino, African American/Black, Asian American, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and two or more races, make up 18.1% of all attorneys and 9.7% of equity partners in the US law firms they surveyed. While those numbers are up since Law360 began tracking this data, the increases are “incremental” at best. Meanwhile, students in these same identity groups have occupied more than 20% of law school seats for more than two decades.

Indeed, the discrepancy between the total number of students who identify as Hispanic/Latino, African American/Black, Asian American, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and two or more races, and those who continue on in the profession, whether in a firm or as part of an in-house legal team, may come down to a systemic failure to create a variety of pathways to success.

“As general counsel and leaders of our respective legal functions, we need to look at the entire experience,” says Deloitte LLP General Counsel Ben Campbell. “If people are graduating from law school but not coming into the corporate world, we’re failing to create a culture and talent experience that attracts, retains, and advances them. The profession needs to look at creating environments that are productive and welcoming to people of different backgrounds. If we’re not talking about retention as much as we’re talking to them about recruitment, everyone is destined to fail.”

How CLOs can make DEI strategy a priority

Evolving the conversation to include equity

One way to start is to broaden your expectations of DEI efforts, starting with a shift to equity. But understand: Equity isn’t a program or an initiative. Equity is an outcome, and it’s achieved when all people have fair access, opportunity, influence, and power—everything they need to succeed and thrive.

In the past, DEI strategies have often been left to human resources leaders or DEI-related teams to figure out. However, real change requires every leader in an organization to implement and promote DEI programs, leaning on the expertise of DEI officers, as well as to exercise their influence across their entire business ecosystem (from relationships to products, services to spend, and governance to external interactions) to achieve equity.

Unfortunately, the full extent of that influence appears to be rarely used. In a recent Fortune/Deloitte survey of 125 CEOs, 91% of chief executives said they’re investing in their talent life cycle within the workforce sphere to drive DEI initiatives. But only 22% said they’re investing in DEI within their product or service portfolios, and fewer than half are prioritizing equity within supplier relationships. Equity needs to be more than just talent.

For C-suite leaders, like the CLO, achieving equity may not be about doing more; it’s about evaluating whether your existing responsibilities and ongoing work as a CLO adequately promote equity, as well as creating new equitable outcomes and opportunities within your organization.

Forge a new way forward

With that in mind, we designed the Equity Activation Model to help businesses address how they can achieve equity both within and outside of their own organizations, structured around three primary spheres of influence: workforce, marketplace, and society. Each sphere includes “activators”—key areas of activity and everyday choices—through which legal leadership can exert their influence to activate equity.

For a CLO, there are several examples of responsibilities that can drive equity:

  • Workforce: Enabling the organization to make positive change and helping leaders understand the risks associated with not taking action around DEI initiatives.
  • Marketplace: Considering the diversity of law firms and legal services providers when deciding to outsource legal matters.
  • Society: Leading on issues of ESG, including DEI, and clearly communicating with the board and other stakeholders the value of taking a position with respect to equity and issues of racial justice.

Define measurable DEI goals

Just as business leaders focus on financial and operational outcomes (rather than just inputs), CLOs must also focus on the outcomes of their efforts to drive equity. This means identifying tangible goals, or measurable objectives, to make your intentions real. But it’s important to clarify that a tangible goal is not the same as a quota.

Make your objectives measurable, with five considerations:

  1. Clearly communicate what your tangible goals do and do not mean. Let’s say your goal is building an equitable, diverse legal function. Defining that as a measurable goal means being specific.
  2. Goals should incorporate other measures, not just diversity. We’ve established that solely focusing on diversity misses the opportunity to make more significant change in the makeup of legal functions. To achieve equity, CLOs need to ensure their goals also include and assess inclusion, which is imperative for retention and higher engagement.
  3. Make goals a business priority by attaching accountability metrics for leaders. This could look something like the implementation of a certification system for hiring and promotion. One example of a certification in the legal field “measures whether an organization has affirmatively considered at least 30% women, attorneys of color, LGBTQ+, and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, such as equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions.”
  4. Include recognition and reward. Acknowledgment of high achievers can provide a carrot for leaders to deliver results, but consider tying compensation to equity outcomes as a financial carrot. By linking a percentage of executive pay to their DEI goals, you’re telling leaders that these DEI issues are part of their job.
  5. Be transparent in your progress. As diversity becomes more of a prerequisite for future generations, it’s imperative to show both your employees and potential candidates that you’re taking action to create equitable outcomes and making changes if your progress doesn’t align with your goals.

Place equity at the center

Every CLO has the opportunity to embrace an equity-obsessed mindset. What that requires is thinking beyond a checklist of actions to take and finish and placing equity at the center of every decision within your spheres of influence.

It will be an adjustment for some. Thinking of equity as a desired outcome takes constant, sustained commitment from leaders and team members, especially when it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Change is hard. However, your efforts can pay dividends.

When you address issues with the most marginalized groups within your workforce, it often benefits other groups, and all members of the team may benefit. And if leaders can be proactive about equity, making it inherent within all of the organization’s actions, from policy development through implementation to measurement, it can go a long way to building new systems that may result in equitable outcomes.

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