The days of Big Law firms treating diversity and inclusion efforts as a secondary goal rather than part of their core mission are increasingly in the rear-view mirror.
At Spencer Fane, that shift has been years in the making, says Elizabeth Wente, a partner and chair of the firm’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. But just as the events of 2020 — from the global COVID-19 pandemic to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police — forced a larger public reckoning, so too came an acceleration of those efforts at the Kansas City-headquartered firm with roots dating to the 19th century.
“It’s a culture shift that’s been in the works for several years,” says the Springfield-based Wente, who specializes in labor and employment law.
The accelerated efforts included unconscious bias training for all attorneys and staff at Spencer Fane’s 19 offices nationwide, with the virtual programming necessitated by COVID-19 creating opportunities for collaboration and an elevation of voices across the organization.
“It really allowed for different perspectives from different communities,” Wente says.
Until several years ago, a single Spencer Fane partner oversaw the firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion work. With that structure now broadened to a company-wide committee, the opportunities to make meaningful progress also have grown.
Those difficult conversations are not confined to the training room, virtual or otherwise. Last year also saw the elevation of DeAndrea Washington, a Spencer Fane partner and DEI Committee member, as an advisory member of both the executive and compensation committees.
Spencer Fane also has spent the past year bolstering its DEI efforts via several industry initiatives.
As a member of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity — an organization of more than 350 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners — Spencer Fane has a trio of attorneys participating in leadership development programs as both Fellows (for mid-career attorneys) and Pathfinders (for associates).
The firm is also a member of the new nonprofit Law Firm Anti-Racism Alliance, which aims to combat systemic racism and better align pro bono efforts by “leverag(ing) the resources of the private bar to amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to better use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color and to promote racial equity in the law and in government institutions.”
Spencer Fane leadership also credits Wente for her work with Women ADVOCATE, an internal affinity group that previously had focused on (and been known as) Women in Business.
Despite such progress, neither Wente nor her colleagues are running victory laps to hail a job well done. Increased diverse representation in a profession that remains overwhelmingly white remains their North Star, even as less quantifiable achievements are also front and center.
“We want to build an organization where people are bringing their whole selves to work,” says Wente. “There’s always room for improvement when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”