How do you get them to care about diversity and inclusion — a subject that to some lawyers can seem touchy-feely, irrelevant or even uncomfortable?
For Stinson Leonard Street, the answer has been to make diversity a key part of the firm’s strategy, something its leaders examine at both a firm-wide and an individual level.
“Basically, we look where the problems or potential problems are and we try and figure out, can we do something on a systemic basis to create change?” said Ann Jenrette-Thomas, Stinson’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
In many ways, diversity is a systemic challenge. Lawyers who come from less traditional backgrounds might be bright and hardworking but still find themselves bumping up against cultural norms.
“There are a lot of unwritten rules to succeeding in a large law firm, and if you belong to a minority group or are a first-generation lawyer in your family, you might not know some of those unwritten rules,” Jenrette-Thomas said. “Without even realizing it, there were things they were doing subtly, or not doing, that were either foreclosing or not leveraging opportunities for them.”
She would know. After earning her law degree from the Western New England University and her LL.M. from the Georgetown University Law Center, Jenrette-Thomas was a practicing lawyer in New York and Washington. She found herself increasingly unhappy.
“I didn’t know how to navigate the unwritten rules,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were.”
She turned that sense of unease back on itself and founded a coaching business, helping firms make all of their lawyers feel welcome and productive. That, too, brought a certain amount of disappointment. Some firms were more committed than others.
“On the institutional level, I could sense that a lot of places just brought me on to check a box,” she said.
That has not been the case at Stinson. Jenrette-Thomas, who is based in Minneapolis, joined the firm 18 months ago hoping to find a place where she could do a “deep dive.” She said she knew from her first interview that the firm’s leadership was sincere in its commitment to diversity. As Managing Partner Mark Hinderks said in announcing Jenrette-Thomas’ position, having a chief diversity officer was a key to one of the firm’s “core strategic goals.”
“With our commitment and support, she will help us deepen a culture that values all perspectives and backgrounds and recruits and retains the best talent,” he said.
So how does a firm make those commitments a reality? For one thing, the firm created a five-episode podcast, “Big Law Success: The Inside Scoop for Law Students & New Lawyers,” aimed at the law school student bodies in Missouri, Kansas and Minnesota from which Stinson seeks to recruit.
The firm also frequently visits the schools, helps to coach students in big-law know-how and actively recruits at diversity job fairs, such as the St. Louis Diversity Job Fair and Heartland Diversity Legal Job Fair in Kansas City.
Those efforts appear to be paying off. According to the firm, Stinson’s summer class of second-year law students was 57 percent diverse in 2016. Last year that figure rose to 68 percent, and this year it was 72 percent. The firm also said that its new fall associate classes for the past three years were 50 percent women — a figure surely driven in part by the firm’s support for alternative and flexible schedules that don’t remove an associate from consideration for partnership.
Currently, 38 percent of the firm’s board of directors is diverse; as are the leaders of 57 percent of the firm’s committees and 33 percent of its practice divisions.
Clearly, such results depend on buy-in not only from leadership but also from the lawyers who are willing to examine the barriers within the profession and their own unconscious biases.
“Sometimes if you want to be an advocate for an inclusive environment, you have to interrupt bias, and that’s not always comfortable,” Jenrette-Thomas said.
She’s found that having one-on-one conversations with attorneys “demystifies the whole notion of diversity and inclusion.”
“You really can help people feel a personal investment, and it happens a lot more organically,” she said.