Opening the Doors to Firm Diversity
by Diane Hartman
When speaking with friends, Susani Dixon often alludes to the "wheel of balance," a concept that comes from her heritage (Native American and African-American).
In her new role at Holland & Hart as diversity coach, she hopes to bring both progress and balance to Denver's legal community.
"I'll be focusing on diversity within Holland & Hart but also will consult, with other law firms, clients and community businesses."
Susani doesn't intend to police or to scold.
Her first step might be to set up a diversity committee to be accountable for results. "I'll help identify issues and prioritize goals and then coach each step of the way. I'll encourage ideas based on their firm's culture. I'll guide them in discussions and give them feedback on what I think will work and what else they should do. It's like being a personal trainer. We'll meet regularly, talk on the phone. I'll also prod and offer encouragement. All this will be held in confidence."
Why would someone need an outsider to help with diversity?
"I think most everybody wants diversity, but the pressure of other business gets in the way. And many firms are fearful of mis-stepping. They want to make changes, but don't have anyone who understands the issues well enough to help make a difference. Often someone from the "outside" can bring a fresh perspective.
She considers the state of diversity in Denver's law firms "pretty shocking," although she says firms have made progress. "The issues--recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce--remain. It's frustrating, but I'm optimistic we can make changes."
These issues are still with us, she said, because "there's a much smaller pool of law students and junior lawyers of color. We're also dealing with the perception on the part of law students that the large firms are not places where they can thrive. Far fewer of them apply or accept 'flybacks' to interview."
Many of Denver's largest firms only have one attorney of color and few women as partners. Susani said the problem of recruiting and retention often boils down to mentoring.
"First of all, young lawyers want to go where they'll be comfortable. Sometimes it's difficult for an attorney of color to step into a law firm and find the right mentor--one who will guide him/her through the politics, offer input about the right skill-building projects, and when that young attorney is successful, makes sure everyone in the firm knows.
"White lawyers are often hesitant to step out and mentor an attorney of color. While they may have good intentions, they feel like they're walking on eggs and have to watch everything they say. They think constructive criticism will be seen as racism. It's a Catch 22. Attorneys of color know when they aren't being given real feedback and they translate that into 'the firm doesn't care about my progress.'
"When attorneys of color are in leadership positions, some are so busy trying to survive and are fearful of billable hours dropping, that they aren't mentoring as much."
Women apparently are making greater strides than attorneys of color, she said, but they still have to deal with the perception that, "if they have children, they aren't as committed to the law firm as others are."
Often young women are not finding older women mentors because the more senior women may still be raising kids, keeping up billables and "trying to be recognized as someone contributing to the economic health of the firm."
If a young woman turns to a male, often he may shy away because of issues of sexual harassment. "Some choose the path of least resistance and mentor someone who looks like them."
Gay and lesbian attorneys are often considered "the invisible minority." "When you're recruiting law students, they're reluctant to let you know they're gay. If they find out the name of an attorney who's 'out' in a firm and willing to be a contact, that's a way they can find a comfortable environment. Many won't come out in the legal community, because they're afraid it will affect their partnership status."
Many thorny issues exist, and certainly much frustration. But the payoff in being sure your firm has diversity is that "it gives a chance for greater creativity and a different perspective -- both work to benefit the client.
"In our diverse world market, more clients are insisting that law firms have diverse attorneys who are given important work."
If your firm is trying to make a change, Susani offers these suggestions for making the law office culture more comfortable for attorneys of color and women.
First, diversity must be talked about at partnership and other meetings. "It has to be a topic of conversation often so people won't squirm when it's mentioned."
Take a look at your policies, "which often aren't family-friendly."
Then, when a firm commits to diversity, it needs to tell everyone how important that commitment is, including the secretaries and paralegals. By their attitudes, they can have a huge impact.
Her last suggestion: "Don't give up!"
On April 4, firms will re-sign the Colorado Pledge to Diversity, originally signed in 1993. For information, call Susani Dixon, Arun Das or Diane Davies.