Managers are Key to DEI Strategy for Law Firms

Image shows the words "You belong here." It accompanies a story on DEI strategy for law firms.

Note: This article on DEI strategy for law firms was written by Natasha Nicholson at Kantola and was originally published in Savvy Training & Consulting is a preferred provider of Kantola’s compliance training products for law firms.

Above all others, managers are in a pivotal position to make any DEI strategy for law firms work. Here are a few pre-emptive actions you can take to position managers as an asset to your DEI strategy.

When it comes to culture, let’s agree that creating change is everyone’s responsibility. No one person or group of people holds the exclusive power to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture. However, some people do have the ability to affect change in a particularly dramatic way. They are “people managers” who interact with and influence employees on a day-to-day basis.

According to the 2022 Global Culture Research Report from SHRM, “Nearly 9 in 10 workers (87 percent) indicated that their manager contributes to setting their work team environment.” But there are troubling signs. The report goes on to say that “More than 4 in 10 workers (42 percent) have witnessed inconsiderate treatment of a co-worker by a manager in the past year.” 

SHRM cautions that “Inconsiderate behaviors like bullying or gossiping are destructive when left unaddressed. When supervisors are untrustworthy or insensitive to the needs of their workers, it isn’t long before work environments become toxic. Workers need to feel safe in their workplace, and an integral component is ensuring all workers are treated with respect.”

So, how can we work with managers to ensure they are part of creating a healthy and inclusive work environment that promotes diversity? Let’s look at why managers, above all others, are in a pivotal role to make DEI work. And let’s explore what pre-emptive actions you can take to position managers as assets rather than detractors.

Engage managers right from the start

To become invested in diversity, equity and inclusion for law firms, managers need to be fully engaged at the onset of conversations. Your DEI program for law firms must be established as a business (not just HR) initiative, with the benefits clearly spelled out. You can do this by being armed with research on why DEI is critical to building high-performance teams, and explaining the rationale on how DEI will benefit your particular firm. 

As your pre-planning (or re-evaluating of your current plan) commences, look at how managers can be brought into your first critical steps. 

Set (or reinforce) your ambitions for your DEI strategy for law firms

The first step is often the hardest. Bring managers in to provide input on some tough questions, such as: How committed is your organization to starting the journey toward a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce? What are you trying to accomplish and why? Design your program around the idea that some managers (and employees) will embrace DEI, while others will need more support to understand and appreciate the need for change.

Assess and diagnose

Begin the process by assessing and diagnosing your law firm’s DEI strategy. What is your starting point? Have you taken steps already? What worked? What does your organization say? What do your metrics tell you? Work with managers to establish your DEI baseline. Advice from a recent research report from Wharton includes the need to lead with data: “Show middle managers reports revealing how D&I improves innovation and boosts the bottom line. Find internal analytics that show how D&I or lack thereof has impacted the workplace.”

Create (or improve) your plan

Bring managers into the planning process. Get their input as you set your goals and DEI strategy for law firms toward creating (or improving) a concrete, multifaceted DEI program. Make sure the program is realistic, appropriately resourced, and has a clear implementation plan. Focus on creating an enabling environment that prioritizes manager involvement. 

The best way to engage managers in the steps above will depend on the communication techniques most effective for your law firm. For instance, if you are a small firm, then facilitated all-manager meetings can be effective. If you are a large and widespread firm, you may consider localized manager focus groups, as well as tapping into existing manager checkpoints. 

Establish a learning environment, with focus on empathy

Because each DEI journey is unique to every organization, there will be a fair amount of exploration along the way—and managers can be an integral part of that discovery process. Prepare them to understand that there will be forward movement, as well as some setbacks along the way. Remember, you don’t need to have all the answers, and neither do your managers. 

You do need the desire to establish a learning environment, where some trial and error is expected and where both individual and system-wide discoveries lead the way. Experts at Deloitte put it this way: “A holistic DEI learning strategy is about more than reacting to today’s environment – it is about developing the conditions for long-term behavior changes.”

In a learning environment, having annual training along with year-round complementary activities (ie., employee resource groups and mentorship) can create a powerful mix. Ensure your education, training and other activities put the focus on empathy. 

According to research from SHRM, “There is overwhelming consensus among workers that empathy is an essential quality of a healthy workplace (94 percent agree). Yet only half of workers said their organization offers empathy training for people managers. There are staggering differences between organizations that offer empathy training and those that do not.” 

SHRM’s research report goes on to state: “Organizations that fail to offer empathy training leave themselves vulnerable to turnover. Such training is shown to boost engagement and satisfaction. Done the right way, people management can be the difference between employee empowerment and a talent drain.” As you shape your learning environment and assess your training needs, you’ll need to create opportunities that specifically address the unique DEI needs of managers

Engage managers with practical tools and strategies

Once managers have been given the opportunity to contribute to the planning process and are exposed to annual education and training, along with complimentary activities, help them use what they have learned, with a focus on practical and functional aspects of DEI. 

Managers’ days are filled with ongoing responsibilities. Being clear and specific about their involvement will get you on the right track. Starting with recruitment and moving on to other management responsibilities, here are some concrete steps managers can take to make their practices more inclusive.

  1. Take a new approach to recruitment – Provide managers with guidance on how to draw from a diverse pool of candidates. This may mean re-examining long-observed practices that limit diversity. For instance, does your organization rely primarily on employee recommendations to identify candidates? If your culture is homogenous, this could automatically create a “sameness” to the candidates who enter the pipeline. Instead, branch out to look for prospective candidates from new environments (i.e., schools, other geographic areas, alternate online recruitment platforms) that offer more diversity. And for internal hires, encourage managers to seek out and consider candidates outside their immediate circles. 
  2. Refresh job descriptions to reflect inclusivity – Research has found language in job descriptions can make a significant difference to attracting diverse talent. It’s typical for organizations to use boilerplate language for job descriptions, along with standard requirements. Work with managers to reassess what’s needed. For example, is a four-year degree essential, or can work experience that demonstrates the necessary skills be sufficient? Help managers consider the language used in job descriptions. For instance, are they loaded with acronyms and jargon? Is the language bent toward a certain gender? If so, adjustments may be needed. 
  3. Make hiring processes more inclusive – “Even if your company is committed to diversity and inclusion, you might have hidden biases in your hiring strategies,” so say researchers from Wharton. If you want to ensure your slate of potential hires is diverse, you’ll want the decision-making process to reflect this. Panels should be diverse and managers should ensure their own biases don’t impact the process. Applied behavioral scientist, Aline Holzwarth, offers this suggestion: “Hiring criteria should be clear, objective, and established in advance so that positions are not adjusted during the hiring process to fit any particular candidate.”
  4. Create equity with advancement and growth – Work with managers to ensure they understand the difference between “equality” (everyone has the same opportunity) and “equity” (everyone has a chance to succeed). Shaping promotions around equity means managers need to think holistically about the advancement needs and opportunities for each employee. Gartner’s Katie Sutherland, put it this way: “Managers are at the center of fair treatment for their employees, so it’s important to determine if managers are truly making fair and consistent decisions when it comes to performance evaluation, employee development and growth.”
  5. Infuse inclusivity into meetings – Fortify managers with the knowledge they need to facilitate inclusive meetings. This includes ensuring everyone is heard, varied opinions are considered, conversations remain solution-oriented and everyone leaves the meeting with a common understanding of next steps and decisions. In her HBR article, author and talent management expert, Kathryn Heath, likens a meeting facilitator to a conductor: “They listen critically to keep musicians playing in unison and actively control the dynamic to prevent one instrument from overpowering the rest. The same goes for leaders in meetings—you need to manage conduct and give everyone space to play their part.”

Of course, there are many other management practices to consider in cultivating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture for law firms, but the steps above offer a solid starting point from which to build.

Keeping managers engaged in the long run

As your DEI program evolves, continue to engage your managers in the process. Ensure your communications enable them to share their insights into proposed changes to systems and processes. Provide a platform to contribute their ideas and help solve problems as they arise. Since they are in the best position to identify and address resistance, provide the education and guidance they will need to handle complex questions and issues. 

And because DEI is a business initiative, ensure you have a system for maintaining accountability. Use top leaders as a model — because a leadership-first approach to accountability is the best way to get managers on board. Finally, take the time to reward your champions — because motivation is driven by inspiration. Bring managers to a place where they feel they are part of an organizational transformation that will lift everyone up — and that it simply cannot happen without their hard work and commitment. In doing so, you will empower them to be your most important advocate in implementing your DEI strategy for law firms.

About the Author

Natasha Nicholson is director of content marketing at Kantola, an e-learning company focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and harassment prevention training. 


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