I am happy to unveil a new series I have started for 2019 focused on improving equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the legal profession (I don't have a witty title for this series yet, so all suggestions welcomed!)
The idea for this series surfaced last year when I attended a women lawyers conference where the conversation quickly turned to criticizing and calling out law firms for not doing enough to make a positive change. The conversation went on for quite some time with example after example of all that is wrong with law firms. Unfortunately, no one talked about possible solutions. While I am not saying that this criticism was unwarranted, I do believe it is easier to sit back and critique than it is to be out there trying to make the changes that need to happen. . . And I know some firms are putting in some effort.
So with my new series, I wanted to reach out to law firms and find out what they are doing to advance EDI in their firms. Are they doing anything? What is working? What isn't? What is the end-goal? How do they measure "success"? The posts will include a set of five questions that each firm will answer. My simple goal is to start a conversation, find out what is happening in this area in law firms across Canada, and perhaps we can all learn from each other.
For my first post, I sat down with Lisa Munro, the Managing Partner of Lerners LLP to discuss the EDI initiatives at her firm:
1. ALMOST ALL LAW FIRMS HAVE AN EDI POLICY OR COMMITMENT ON THEIR WEBSITE. WHAT DOES EDI MEAN TO YOUR FIRM AND IS IMPROVING EDI A PRIORITY?
Improving equality, diversity, and inclusion is definitely a priority for Lerners.
A lot of firms, Lerners included, have historically been very lawyer-centric, the idea being that the lawyers are the economic drivers of the firm. While you can’t argue with this fact, focusing most efforts on the lawyers means that we are leaving behind the rest of the team. I think that one of the things that diversity and inclusion committees have done for law firms has been to put the focus on the culture of a firm and on all the people that play a part in serving our clients. We are now realizing that it can’t just be all about the lawyers and ensuring that the lawyers are happy and professionally fulfilled.
So at Lerners we place a lot of emphasis on the inclusion part of EDI which means, do people feel like they are a part of the firm? Do they feel like they are valued for their contributions? Do they feel like their voices are heard? Do they feel that if they have concerns or complaints there is a place for them to go to address them? Do they feel that their colleagues listen to them? Do they have opportunities for professional advancement? All of those things go far beyond the equality and diversity issues that many of us are now talking about.
I constituted our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee in late 2017, and started with a survey. I think a lot of firms start there. As a result of the feedback we received from that survey, I placed as much emphasis on inclusion as I did on equality and diversity issues. We learned that some people felt isolated in the group. And so, our task was, what do we do to make people feel that they belong at this firm?
A lot of the initiatives that we have tackled as a Committee have tried to draw people in and get them to participate, get to know one another, and work together. That part is very important for us.
If we focus on equality and diversity, our history has been very much that Lerners is a place where women thrive and have voices and have opportunities for leadership. I am very proud of that. We’ve had that reputation for a very long time, mostly because of our two strong senior partners, one of whom is Janet Stewart, still with the firm. She was our managing partner in both offices for many years at a time when there were very few women managing firms. She was someone who had a practice and she was well respected. People listened to her. She had influence.
Janet was also supported by our senior partner in Toronto, Earl Cherniak. He and Janet were a formidable team. Because of the respect that Earl had for Janet and the respect that Earl had for women in the firm in the general, I know that I always took for granted the fact that women would have the same opportunities as men because that was my personal experience. When I started to hear what was going from friends at other firms, even during our articling year, it was a bit of a surprise to me. I now think that I and my colleagues at Lerners have been somewhat sheltered. We achieved gender parity within our partnership a few years ago; it does fluctuate, but I am pretty happy with that.
I do think that where we need to turn our focus now is on some of the other areas of diversity and inclusion, including on retaining and promoting racialized lawyers and staff members. I am happy with where we are in the junior lawyer ranks, which says to me that maybe we are doing well on the recruitment side. But the question is, can we retain a diverse group lawyers through to equity partnership? What could we be doing differently to achieve that objective? I know that there are a lot of firms looking at their recruitment and promotion processes. We are doing the same.
But among our junior lawyers in particular, I am pretty happy with where we are. What we have to do is make sure they stay fulfilled and challenged, and that they see opportunities for advancement. That is our next challenge as a firm.
2. WHAT STEPS (OR INITIATIVES) HAS YOUR FIRM TAKEN TO ADDRESS AND IMPROVE EDI?
When I started the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in September, 2017, I had never been on a committee like this. I said that I would Chair it. I don’t think I appreciated what a big bite I was taking. We started with my vision, because when you start something like that, you have to do some planning initially and then float the plan out there and see if you get traction. Luckily, I did and we had many enthusiastic contributors within a short period of time.
Initially, I sent a firm wide email, advising that I was starting the Committee, and asked: “Who wants to be involved?” There is always early trepidation because people are not sure what the time commitment will be, what it involves, etc. But I had an intrepid group of about eight people who agreed to work with me on this journey. I was really pleased that we had broad representation within the firm, among both lawyers and staff members. I brought an initial outline of a plan to the group and then we worked together to generate ideas, plan monthly initiatives, and carry them forward. It was exciting to see that we had many more ideas than we could use in a single year. I have since talked to people at other firms where the work of the committee is really a management-led process. That may very well be necessary in firms larger than ours, but we were able to get participation and leadership from everyone on the Committee. We sit around a table with legal assistants, law clerks, partners, our administrative team, human resources, and marketing discussing, “What do you think we should do?” Everybody was an equal contributor and I saw people taking on leadership opportunities that had not previously existed.
The Committee has generated so much enthusiasm that when I solicited interest a few months ago for people to sit on the Committee in 2019, I received over 30 positive responses. I was a bit overwhelmed by that; a 30-person committee can be unwieldy, but when I considered our inclusion mandate I knew I couldn’t say no to anybody. I am now in the process of trying to create something in which everybody feels engaged and interested. While that will be a challenge, the message I got was that people see value in the work of the Committee and wanted to be a part of it.
We decided in our first year that our theme was going to be very modest: “making Lerners a better place to work”. We always thought that Lerners was a good place to work, but there are always ways to improve. Every initiative that we took was in furtherance of that objective.
We came up with various monthly initiatives through internal focus groups without looking at what other firms were doing. Nothing we did was revolutionary, but we created what we thought would work for us.
We had, for example, an anti-harassment training session that was mandatory for everyone at the firm and received very positive feedback about it. I think most people expected the training to focus on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. We wanted our training to be broader than that – it also dealt with how to deal with differences that come up in the workplace, the more subtle things like treating everyone in the firm with respect and looking at things from the perspective of someone who might come from a different cultural or ethnic background. We had “case studies” that presented challenging sets of facts that we discussed as a group.
The idea of engendering a culture of respect also became our theme for a strategic planning process that we undertook at the same time. Respect is one of our firm core values and we rolled out the strategic plan on the basis that it was critical to achieving success. That idea really arose out of our diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Like many firms, we also organized unconscious bias training for all members of the firm. We were looked at the issue primarily from the perspective of our recruitment process and it has changed the way we talk about recruiting now. We used to hear people saying things like, “I really think this candidate would fit in well in the group”. And now because of the unconscious bias training, we are saying to ourselves and to each other, “Am I supporting recruitment of somebody because they are like me?”
We also created a Lerners Diversity Award, which was given out at our end-of-year party. I sent an email to everyone in the firm, asking for nominations of those who advanced the objectives of equality, diversity, and inclusion at Lerners in 2018. I received lots of responses and, interestingly enough, there were very clear winners. One person in each office stood out to our colleagues among everybody who did a lot of work.
Other initiatives that we undertook last year included working with a community charity group on International Women’s Day. Members of the firm were asked to bring in clothes suitable for work to support an organization that donates clothes to women who are looking for a jobs. We had a great response.
We also had a speaker come in and talk about Indigenous law and we had a great turnout for that.
I was blessed with having a committee whose members were very enthusiastic and rolled up their sleeves and were willing to put in a lot of time and effort to make these initiatives successful.
3. WHICH INITIATIVE HAS BEEN THE MOST SUCCESSFUL? AND WHY?
Interesting enough, our most successful event last year was the one that was the easiest one to organize and the least costly: it was a potluck. Last summer we had a “Celebrating Our Diversity Through Food” potluck. Anybody who wanted to participate contributed food for a buffet lunch. We had all contributions set up in a board room. The contributors put up little signs describing the food they had made and brought. The event really brought people together and overwhelmingly I heard from members of the firm that it was their favourite event. We learned that when you get creative, you can make a lot of headway without spending a lot of money.
4. WHICH INITIATIVE WAS THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL (WHAT’S NOT WORKING)? AND WHY?
The initiatives I found to be less successful were those in which we brought in speakers. And that is not because our speakers weren’t good; they were excellent. But people really enjoyed the months in which the initiative involved interaction and engagement with each other. People preferred the sessions in which we would have a case study or a problem to talk about, as opposed to having somebody come in and talk. I was surprised by that because we as lawyers tend to think that having a lecture is a great way to learn something. But really if your objective is to bring people together, having something interactive makes the most sense.
5. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE THROUGH YOUR EDI-FOCUSED ACTIONS? AND HOW DO YOU MEASURE PROGRESS?
I struggle with how to measure our progress. I know that in 2019, the Law Society of Ontario will be requiring firms to provide statistical data, which will be published and will allow firms some way to measure progress. I think that will be useful. And I do think we have to measure success. But I feel like a lot of what we are doing that works is more intangible than that because it is helping to create a sense of belonging. I want to really carry forward the idea of respect in the workplace into 2019. If I hear that something has gone on or a conversation that has taken place that shouldn’t have, my role as managing partner is to address that. And I think every partner and every lawyer needs to set an example.
Right now, I am measuring success by the fact that I am finding people getting together and enjoying one another’s company and contributing. I see clear leaders emerging from among the staff and more junior lawyers. Some volunteers on the Committee told me that they had never volunteered for a single firm committee before. Also because of our Committee and I our initiatives, I know more of our staff members. So those things are my way to measure success at the moment. Long term, that won’t be good enough. But right now, I am taking these little victories as they come.
Thank you Lisa for this interview and for participating in this series. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
The Women Leading in Law series will also return. Keep sending in suggestions for amazing women lawyers to be profiled.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.