Diversity Counts and Matters
This is the first of six articles that will be written as a continuation of this valuable column. This year, we plan to have several leading white men express their views about the importance of diversity. They will share their thoughts, mistakes, and experiences with us so that we all grow and learn together. It is our hope that this series of articles will spark a meaningful dialogue and assist our readers with their diversity efforts in order to fully tap the talents and contributions of all employees.
The views expressed are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of MCCA®.
When asked to write this column, I felt some trepidation. It was not that I do not feel strongly about the need for diversity. It was not that I haven't done my best to help the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) take steps to be more representative and inclusive.
I looked over MCCA's invitation and realized the source of my concern. This column is to be written by "leaders" in promoting diversity and I would not characterize myself in that way. I am simply someone trying his best to understand and appreciate the differences among us all and benefit from what I learn. I am not a visionary when it comes to diversity, but someone who, through trial and error, seeks to make the in-house community and ACC more inclusive and diverse. Through small steps in multiple areas, we have seen our efforts build over time.
When I joined ACC nearly 15 years ago, ACC already had begun to address the issue of diversity. During my time with ACC, every board chair I have worked with has been committed to increasing the diversity within ACC and the in-house profession. Some have approached it very publicly, others through more behind-the-scenes methods. But this commitment from the top helped drive our progress in being more inclusive and diverse. Concurrently, but not coincidentally, the association has enjoyed significant success; we more than doubled our membership and hope this year to cross the 20,000 threshold.
Early on, we developed a diversity statement. It is easy for some to dismiss such a diversity statement as just a piece of paper, meaningless in the larger scope of the issue. Certainly, a statement by itself does not demonstrate a commitment to diversity. However, I found the process that we went through to create the statement very enlightening. It helped the ACC leadership define the term diversity in a way that incorporated the breadth of views on the subject. The end result provided a platform that we could use to support our emerging diversity efforts.
ACC's diversity statement began with a list of values we wanted to embody, including:
- Respect individual differences,
- Promote inclusion for all,
- Consider the views of all,
- Oppose bias, indifference, and inequity, and
- Provide equal opportunity for all.
We also identified broad goals for our diversity efforts:
- Increase the diversity of ACC's leadership, membership, and staff, and
- Encourage corporate law departments, corporations, and law firms to embrace diversity.
Finally, we identified our key targets for better inclusion: women and racial and ethnic minorities. At the same time, my personal goal became for the association to talk less about the "issue" of diversity and simply try to be more diverse and inclusive.
Our board chair at the time took an approach that was both simple and direct: set goals to increase the women and attorneys of color serving as faculty at our annual meeting.
In other words, we could no longer be satisfied with panels comprised of mostly white men at our meeting. We needed more women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and so on.
This was not an easy task. And yet it was not as difficult as we thought, once we began to look beyond our usual sources. It meant more research and more personal outreach to find speakers, and more encouragement to get them to participate. We have seen much success in these efforts. But it continues to be a challenge and, honestly, some years we do better than others.
ACC's initial effort—to increase the diversity of meeting faculty—fit directly in with our stated objectives. What was helpful about that first attempt at increasing diversity was that it provided us with an easily measurable benchmark that we could use to monitor our progress. If we do fall short in some years, we have an opportunity to look at why that is and take steps to improve our efforts.
Setting a hard goal is one approach to take to improve diversity. We have also tried to make diversity an organic part of the culture of our organization.
For an association that supports a community that, while evolving, still has a white male majority, the staff that we have cultivated at ACC is truly diverse, representing a variety of cultural, professional, and ethnic backgrounds. This was not achieved in the same way as our approach to the annual meeting faculty. It was incremental, fueled by the commitment of the management team here at ACC. There were no hard goals to be achieved; hiring simply represented the organizational values that we had committed to in our diversity statement.
As a result, ACC benefits from the diversity of its staff. We are all exposed to and appreciate different backgrounds, cultures, and points of view. (In an office of 40, eight different native languages are represented.) It makes the organization more robust and helps fuel other diversity initiatives. What has also developed is a level of trust—trust from staff?that the ACC leadership is consciously working to improve its inclusiveness.
At the same time that we were slowly and organically improving the diversity of the ACC staff, we sought to increase the diversity of our volunteer leadership. This was partially fueled by our efforts to expand the diversity of our meeting faculty. As we recruited diverse candidates as faculty, it also encouraged their engagement with the organization and the ACC community. As they did, they started taking more active roles on our legal committees and in our local chapters, and progressed into leadership roles within the association. The success that ACC has experienced is largely due to the leadership of the board and the diverse members we have engaged over the years.
While the steps we had taken to improve diversity were positive, we realized that our efforts should extend beyond the scope of ACC. We needed to help cultivate diversity throughout the in-house legal profession.
As a result, ACC, in association with Street Law, developed the Corporate Legal Diversity Pipeline Project. This program was designed to increase diversity in the legal profession by pairing in-house counsel with students in local, diverse high schools in order to encourage promising students of color to pursue careers in the law. By developing relationships between students and experienced legal professionals, the Pipeline Project provides students with real world knowledge about legal education and careers and offers visible, positive, and diverse role models in the legal profession.
Participating companies (like McDonald's Corporation) take part in classroom visits, where they help teach law-related lessons. Students get to attend a conference at the company's headquarters, where they participate in interactive workshops and learn more about in-house legal careers. Both the companies and the students who have participated in this program have found it extremely rewarding, and I am proud that ACC continues to be an integral part of this effort.
Under the broad goals we set for ACC's diversity efforts, we have engaged in several different tactics. Sometimes our leaders took their own approaches. In the late 1990s, ACC board member Charles Morgan sent a "Diversity Statement of Principle" to his in-house counsel peers.
Basically, it asked in-house lawyers, law departments, and their companies to acknowledge the importance of diversity in their departments and their partner law firms. It amounted to a diversity statement for the in-house profession and was an important step in the process.
A few years later, ACC board member Roderick Palmore of Sara Lee Corporation took the "Diversity Statement of Principle" to the next level. This new "Call to Action" asked in-house counsel to agree to continue to diversify their own legal departments as well as urge similar diversity efforts from their law firm partners—even further, it said that in-house legal departments should not work with firms that have not shown a commitment to diversity.
ACC and its members have approached diversity in a variety of ways. But there isn't one effort that stands out above the others as the solution. Diversity cannot be achieved with one grandiose gesture. It is a continuous process. When I step back and assess what ACC has done, I see a series of small, manageable, measurable, and persistent efforts that, over time, have made us a better organization. Even more important, I believe these efforts have had an impact on the diversity that we see today in the in-house community. We accomplished this primarily by taking on focused projects that fit within our current operations.
This is just the approach of one organization. The changes we have seen result in the leadership, members, and staff of ACC making diversity a core value of the association. And I hope that ACC will continue to contribute to making the in-house legal community and profession as a whole more inclusive and diverse.
From the January/February 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®