Saturday, November 29, 2014
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Fostering diversity in the workplace: how to navigate the challenges

Women and minority lawyers gathered in Miami last week at a Diversity and Flexibility Seminar to offer solutions, share ideas and speak candidly about the changing face of professional services businesses and how diverse talent plays an important role.
Women and minority lawyers gathered in Miami last week at a Diversity and Flexibility Seminar to offer solutions, share ideas and speak candidly about the changing face of professional services businesses and how diverse talent plays an important role. iStockphoto

As a young lawyer, Tiffani Lee found a partner who believed in her ability and helped push her up to the top ranks of Miami's Holland & Knight. Most often, the opposite is true: Organizational mechanisms at firms push out women and people of color.

Those dynamics explain why diversity drops off sharply at the higher levels of law firm management, even though the entry-level workforce at law firms is more diverse than ever before.

But instead of complaining, women and minority lawyers gathered in Miami last week at a Diversity and Flexibility Seminar to offer solutions, share ideas and speak candidly about the changing face of professional services businesses and how diverse talent plays an important role.

"If professional service firms want to sell talent, they need to recruit and keep the best of the entire talent pool," said Manar Morales, president and CEO of Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, a national forum dedicated to the promotion and retention of women lawyers and work/life control for all attorneys.

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    Inclusion: Don't leave women and minorities on the fringes. Amy Furness, a shareholder with the lawfirm of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami, says having someone in a leadership role who recognizes and shows a commitment to diversity by his actions can help the message of inclusion permeate throughout the firm, which can be particularly important for those partners who may not be thinking about diversity when they choose staff to work on their cases. "Getting leadership involved in ensuring inclusion prevents (diversity) from becoming marginalized," Furness said.

    Accountability: It is easy to create company policies that promote diversity, flexibility and volunteerism and work/life control. But there are some partners who will tell young associates that if they want to be successful, they should not take advantage of those policies. That is where accountability becomes crucial.

    Lee, an equity partner at Holland & Knight, said partners at her firm are evaluated – and even compensated – based partly on how many opportunities they provide to women and minority associates and what they've done to support diversity and inclusion. "The only way to drive change is to factor it into compensation," Lee says. At her firm, partners "are asked about who is on their team and how they are working with the client to ensure the team is diverse and how they are supporting the firm's broader diversity efforts."

    Lee say ties between a commitment to values and compensation happens at all levels. Associates perform a self evaluation, too. They are eligible for a diversity kudos bonus if they have done something extraordinary.

    Morales says some firms she has worked with actually detail how much compensation a lawyer lost out on for not being inclusive. "They actually say you would have gotten X, but you got Y because you didn't work on things we value."

    Flexibility: At some point, the success of the firm – and the diverse talent pool – will depend on whether it offers flexibility, Morales says. Most associates want a reputation for getting things done; however, they want control over how and when.

    "We need to change the mindset around flexibility," Morales says. "When managers hear flexibility, they think people don't want to work as hard. Flexibility is not just reduced hours but also control over hours. It's a different way to approach work and people actually achieve increased efficiency."

    Morales advises firms not to put their flexibility program under their women's initiative, but to make it a firm-wide business issue. "Research shows men want flexibility as much as women."

    At most firms, men are taking advantage of flexibility – although informally and quietly. Morales found at one firm, a senior male partner works from home every Monday, but few realize it. "Flexibility will be embraced when firms encourage people who have power to be open about how and when they use flexibility."

    Succession: While most law firms have eliminated a mandatory retirement age, many of the boomers at the top will begin paring back in the next decade. As leaders retire, it creates opportunity for the next generation – and for more inclusion. Some firms already are planning ahead.

    Nikki Lewis Simon, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami, says her firm has worked consciously to bring women and minority lawyers into leadership, onto the executive committee and onto committees that interact with senior management. This allows the firm to address issues of the next generation not just years from now, but today.

    "I think the next generation of leaders will have a sense of mutual respect: With them, it isn't us and them, it's we. There's an understanding that we all have stuff we want to accomplish outside the office."

    Transparency: Women who have made it to the top have this advice for others: Don't over-explain.

    Women tend to give a detailed explanation for why they need to leave early or work from home. "They give much more information than necessary," says Yuliya Laroe, a lawyer and business coach. Laroe say that often hurts them when partners assume if they don't see them in the office, they are with their kids. "We need to empower ourselves to believe it's no one's business as long as we have met our deliverables."

    Simon, a mother of five, says she advanced to partner while on maternity leave, and has been quite clear about her whereabouts to derail assumptions: "I let them know when don't see me, it doesn't mean I'm not working. It just means I'm not working here. I'm doing something to advance cause of the firm."

    Sponsorship: In addition to defined responsibilities, associates need help identifying growth opportunities if they are going to advance to the partnership level. For women and minorities, having a sponsor can be crucial for finding those opportunities.

    In the past, men have had greater success finding sponsors – senior partners who advocate for their advancement. Now firms are considering organized sponsorship programs and becoming more proactive about creating a culture of sponsorship that includes women and minorities.

    Lee, at Holland & Knight, has both a formal and an informal mentee. Having a sponsor who transfers his or her creditability to you can be invaluable, she says. Because of unconscious bias, she finds formal sponsorship programs are helpful but take commitment from associates and partners.

    Time management/work-life control: Getting to the top to become an equity partner and staying there is giant responsibility that requires the ability to bring in business and make a contribution to the firm's bottom line while balancing home life and community involvement.

    Morales tells lawyers to be strategic. "You could have activities that fill your plate but not all give you the same benefit," she explains, adding that women tend to be on committees that don't advance their careers. "When you're asked, think, 'Will this committee connect me with the right people? Is it valued in the firm? Or, is it just busy work?'"

    Leigh-Ann Buchanan, president of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association, says time management can be an even greater challenge for female black attorneys who put in extra hours to show they deserve to advance. "It's not enough to be mediocre. I feel I have to exceed the required billable hours," she says. On top of that, she says she feels pressure to be involved in the community, spend time on business development and navigate law firm politics.

    The only way to ensure firms like hers, Berger Singerman in Miami, realize her balancing act is to be up front. "When asked for feedback, be frank. Tell them 'this is what's working, this is what's missing and this is where I need support.'"

    Clearly, support for talented women and minorities needs to be evident at all levels. Says Laroe: "People don't leave firms, they leave individual partners who make staying difficult."

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    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.

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    Cindy Krischer Goodman The Miami Herald (MCT)