Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) issues have become more pronounced during the pandemic. Litera Sales Director Abhijat Saraswat is joined by a panel discussing the ways that technology can assist DEI professionals build a new way of working. Using technology and data to change the way work is allocated was one of the key strategies the panel focused on. Read transcript
Senior Director, Litera
Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Ice Miller LLP
Senior Project Manager, Foley & Lardner LLP and DEI co-chair (ILTA)
Welcome to Legal Tech Matters A Litera podcast dedicated to creating conversations about trends, technology and innovation for modern law firms and companies, big and small
DEI issues have become more pronounced during the pandemic, and our panelists today will explore how we can leverage technology to assist AI professionals to work in new ways. As we look toward new horizons.
Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this panel. I am delighted to have such an esteemed collection of leaders, thought leaders, and we'll be discussing, as Mona described, a very important topic. So the goal for the panel today, which I'll be sharing, is really for us to elevate the discussion around DEI. So as a panel will aim to ideas on how technology can be leveraged to assist the AI professionals in a new way of working.
Before we do all of that, we get started with a quick round of introductions for everyone watching this live. Please feel free to suggest any questions and comments. I'll be watching that throughout. But to kick things off my name is Abhijat Saraswat. I'm a senior director at Litera and I'll be hosting the panel and starting with my first panelist, we have Dr. Karina Willes. Karina is a senior project manager at Foley and Lardner. She is a passionate and award-winning diversity and inclusion advocate, communications researcher and instructor, a proven project management professional with a number of interests around strategy with internet and intranet. Karina also serves as the chair for the International Technology Legal Association, ILTA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, and is at a co-host of I Believe and newly released podcast called Equitable Conversations, which goes and actually focuses on taking the DEI beyond a buzzword. I stole that very much from the podcast.
Next up, we have Gillian Power, who is the chief information officer for Latrobe GPM. She is responsible for aligning the strategic direction of the firm's technology, information, governance and management and information services. She is an active member of ILTA Community as well, having served for five years as a community member, including two as a thought leader for the annual conference. She also co-chairs the ILTA DEI task force.
And last but not least in the order of the boxes displayed on my own, my screen is Kristen Matha, who serves as Ice Miller, director of diversity and Inclusion. She's responsible for operationalizing the firm's diversity and inclusion strategy, using data informed and a collaborative approach. In her role, Kristen is focused on developing equitable systems and process and processes that grow a more inclusive culture. And through through this work, she ensures there's alignment with the firm's talent development strategy and business outcomes.
So across these three fantastic panelists, we'll dig into a lot more. Hopefully you'll hear a lot less of me going forward, and I firstly, thank you so much for joining us all throughout the U.S. and I guess to get started, I wanted to ask the panels. We hear a lot about DEI. We hear a lot about it as working. We hear a lot about it as improving. Do you think there's been significant changes in the last few months?
If you look at the timescale of six to eight months, has there been significant improvement in how law firms and legal professionals are viewing DEI initiatives? And I'll start with Kristen. You're on my top right, if you don't mind.
OK, thanks. You know, one area that I think I have seen significant change in my role is the way in which clients are engaging our firm on the RFP process and throughout the duration of the relationship to take a deeper dive as it relates to the demographic makeup of client teams.
How work is being distributed, many more client billing, partner focused meetings around the work that the firm is doing and how we're working to advance the ball. And then having a meeting of the minds in terms of where the client is moving and what their values are and what they want to see in their outside counsel. So I have definitely seen a marked change as it relates to client engagement in the space over the last six to eight months.
Yeah, and I certainly hear the same sentiment as well. And so a lot of this is like.
Frankly, a lot of things can happen in a law firm are driven by declines and most verticals too. Karina, how are you and I suspect in your ILTA role? You have a wide purview of what's happening across the industry. Is that a trend that you're noticing as well? Are you seeing a lot of the clients demand more representation, better diversity across the panel firms? Or are you hearing something different?
You know, actually in my current role, I don't have a lot of visibility into that type of progress.
You know, I'm a legal technologist. And so the information that I have is really based on the articles that I read and conversations that I have. So I don't see that. I guess, you know, in addition to being a legal technologist, I'm also a adjunct assistant professor and I have a do have a particular interest
in diversity, equity, inclusion so I can provide a little bit of my perspective. I guess I think from what I'm seeing that there's also a lot of dirty equity, inclusion, fatigue setting in across the industry. I think that there are I've seen I've certainly seen articles about it recently about how people are sick of, I shouldn't say sick, but getting tired of hearing people talk about diversity, equity, inclusion without making any real progress, particularly after the George Floyd incident, firms held a lot of educational sessions about racism and creating environments of inclusion. Certainly, a lot of articles have been written.
Public statements were made. Panel discussions like this one have been held, but I'm I'm personally, I'm really curious on whether or not there has been a significant, measurable change made within the industry. I think all of the things that I just mentioned are really important, but I think that there still is a need for institutional changes to be made to create an environment where everyone feels like they belong and that they're valued. So and we could talk about that a little bit later on. But well, I see that there has been some progress made. I don't know necessarily that we've made as much progress as we should be.
I agree with that, and I think my intent with the panel today is not to assume that everything is going perfectly fine, right? And I think we should absolutely dig into what's not working, why it's not working and actually what we can do different. I'm hoping as we move through the discussion, we cover some of that. Gillian, you're part of the firm's leadership team. How do you view this from a strategic and a leadership perspective? I've seen a lot more firms certainly have pronounced roles like Kristen's, for example, and that's not common. But that doesn't mean that nothing's happening either. How do you balance that at a leadership level?
Well, coming back to the first question with certainty, clients have shifted from asking for DEI in general to demanding it, right? So there's definitely they want evidence. And that's I mean, there's other areas to RFP, some outside counsel guidelines where where they're demanding more evidence. But those trends have been building even before, even before this year over the pandemic or any of the events and tragedies from, you know, from last year.
And I at my firm, where we're unveiling a new strategic plan and diversity, equity and inclusion is the central pillar of the firm's go forward strategy. And it's been supported and backed at the absolutely very highest levels of the firm. And that is from my position. It's wonderful to see where, you know, primarily located in the Midwest, but it's now being, you know, significantly operationalized and also looking at PR firms. This is the approach of getting it to the fact that it's part of the DNA of many firms. This is very much the case in this incredibly incredibly encouraging.
I do believe that there's this incredible headwind that slow. Occurring in the DEI space, and, you know, I think that there are certain there are certain actors that are choosing to weaponize against DEI and not not to speak about the US because many people know that I came across an article recently where in France, the, you know, certain political factions have essentially exploded a lot of the language and have now started railing against workers. This is the latest thing, right?
And it's a and it's a rapid phenomenon that's occurred within the space of about six months where certain parties have chosen to have chosen to weaponize that. And I think we can't have this discussion about DEI within within firms and within legal organizations without access, without acknowledging the larger outside context where we're operating in, because there's no
boundary between what happens within the walls of the firm and what happens without. So I think that there's an incredible challenge for leadership to be very, very clear about what the firm's position is and to and to signal the authenticity of that position.
And I'm certainly proud of my firm for its position that it's taken on many things and it takes a lot of courage for leadership to do that. It's table stakes in many regards.
Yeah, and but both of both you and Karina touched on a core theme, which is DEI must become a core value of the firm, a central pillar, the DNA of the firm. Of course, all of these things are much easier to just say out loud. And as you said, it requires tremendous courage to put into practice and even more, even more so, making sure that it trickles through every aspect of the firm, right? Both top down and bottom up. How, how and and you mentioned that clients are demanding to see data, whether it's our RFPs or otherwise. What kinds of things are any of your firms? What are you tracking? How do you make sure that there is an improvement happening?
Is it anecdotal information? Is it looking at, you know, certain statistics? How do you see that anything that you're doing as a business, as a firm is making an impact, at least internally, the things you can control and that goes to all of you?
Well, the old adage is, if you don't, if you don't measure it, you don't treasure it, right? And I think firms have to become exceptionally clear about what their lead metrics are and what their metrics are measuring it, measuring the number of partners. Is is in some regards the LAG metric, right? That's a that's almost an end of the human capital supply chain. Sorry to put it in such technical terms, but it is right. I mean, you should see your partnership classes each year and gain increasing diversity because you've laid the groundwork many years before right and and you've done the work on retention, you've done all those pieces. And people are Kriten and all of her peers in terms know there's something incredibly well and toil toil away that tirelessly for many years before the results are seen on the like on the lag tracks.
I think I'm on the lead metrics. It's looking at work allocation that's looking at opportunities. It's looking at fairness, of fairness, of opportunities for people. It's the hiring process. We know all of these things, but they have to be they have to be very they have to be very well orchestrated and operationalized.
Kristen, your role is so data centric. I'm curious to hear. Yeah, I'm curious to hear your perspective on this.
Yeah, I think your firm is currently operating under a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan that we established back in 2018, and that work included representation goals and it looked at it both, as Gillian mentioned in terms of, you know, obviously the demographic makeup of the partnership. But it was also breaking down the pipeline to partnership in evaluating how folks are moving from the progression in that associate in council space and having those representation roles gave us a way to contextualize how we were doing, where our gaps were.
And then obviously being able to to analyze that data and a disaggregated way to really dig in on how women of color are progressing, getting opportunities, you know, retention in comparison to white men and white women and so on and so forth.
And you know, that has led us down a path of continually using data and leveraging data to make the business case for transformational change, redesigning talent management systems. It's one thing to educate folks and try to convince them to change their habits and their decision making. But we're humans, and we know that's incredibly difficult. And so this bias is baked into our systems as well, and data plays a key point in making the pitch of we need to throw out the way we've been doing attorney evaluations for the last ten years because it's creating these disparate outcomes. Let's get back to the drawing board and data is a powerful tool in making that happen from from a leadership standpoint.
Yeah. And I think that's a that's a great segue. We have a question that's come in from one of the viewers. So how does DEI play a role in technology selection or initiative? So I had a little bit about that, and we'll put a bookmark in going a bit deeper into managing bias and reducing bias. But it'll be good to hear how you're looking at technology to assist with these DEI initiatives.
So, yeah, happy to happy to hear perspectives on that. And Karina, maybe from you as a technologist,
You know, I haven't seen, you know, real life examples of where this is taking place in my firm. I just haven't had any insight into that or been involved in that. But what I can tell you is that I've recently had a conversation with our director of diversity, equity, inclusion. And you know, she's shared similar thoughts to what Kristen just expressed about, you know, the importance of data and not just managing the pipeline of getting new associates from diverse backgrounds or underrepresented backgrounds into the firm, but also looking at the data to see the progression throughout. You know, I guess I was. So the progression from associate to partner and where the statistics at every level are changing across the board.
I just saw a recent article in the American lawyer where they talked about how firms are paying premium prices for recruiters to place lateral candidates from underrepresented backgrounds in firms. You know, this brings a lot of ethical considerations into view, but a lot of people are seeing this as like a supply and demand issue. But I'm really looking at it from a technology perspective. And how can we take attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds and get them involved in projects? How can we perhaps implement ERP solutions and things like that to really manage how projects are staffed or to get those associates from underrepresented backgrounds involved in the high profile really career developing projects that are coming to their firm
So that they can become more engaged in their firm and feel like they belong or have a sense of belonging in the firm so they stay around so that they develop and become partners in their firm and future leaders.
Yeah. And I mean, retention is top of mind for, I think every business, especially right now, and this is one part of that. It's also, I think I've noticed this with colleagues who are in the industry as it can just be a exercise of, well, it just put someone of color in this role, so it helps, you
know, the numbers look better for the firm. And that does happen. It happens everywhere. So and of course, it's difficult to tackle systematically how to do that in a better way. But you know, to your point, how do you help? People feel more included, genuinely included in that process.
You know, I don't want to take people down the academic path, but you know, it brings me back to like a foundational theory that I learned, which is called uncertainty reduction theory.
And it's where in initial interactions between human beings, the motivating factor is to reduce uncertainty about the other person's behavior. So as you reduce uncertainty, when you learn about the person that you're interacting with, you become more comfortable with them.
Because as you discern similarities between that person and yourself, you feel like you're better able to predict how they're going to behave. And during this process, you develop an affinity for the other person. Typically, when you perceive these similarities and it kind of explains how we tend to develop relationships with people who are like ourselves.
Right? And a lot of academic researchers have kind of expanded this and used it to describe working relationships and how we like to work with people who we perceive are similar to ourselves. And so it makes sense that in law firms over, you know, decades, centuries, probably, you know, work has been kind of distributed to teams based on relationships.
And so these teams have typically been people who look like one another. Right. And I think a key to really making systemic change or institutional change within law firms in the industry is to kind of change that model and change how work is distributed and how teams are formed.
You know, certainly we wouldn't want to break up a team that's functioning highly functioning together. But I think it's really important to look at other tools that can help break these barriers down so that teams can be based on who best fits the work and not necessarily who has relationships with each other.
Absolutely. And I think at the moment, things like work allocation, tool capacity management tools, those are certainly being increased, increasingly used within law firms. How and how is all of this impacted with people working in a remote way, in a distributed way, in a hybrid way, in a lot of cases, and for those organizations that have decided to completely forgo the office? How does that manifest itself in practice? So curious, Gillian, what's the makeup of the firm? Are people in the office? Are they hybrid? How do you how do you tackle a lot of your strategic initiatives to adapt in that kind of way of working?
We've been a bit more conservative than other firms in terms of return to office and offices are open, but we're already asking people to be back in the early part of January. But it's all the hybrid going forward, like many other firms. The asset that I mean, I think I think engagements and belonging is is an incredibly difficult problem that we're all solving on the fly because the the old modes, the old modes of promoting belonging and identification with the employer and the firm as a whole and its culture, they're just not going to work anymore. And you know, I think I think people are tired, right? I mean, I think that's just the general kind of really strange fatigue that everyone's experiencing. And I wish I had more answers to it. Right. It's an immense challenge.
And I think it has, even though in that in the earlier stages of the pandemic, there were a lot of articles talking about the benefits of remote work for diverse people. And I think that those still hold true. I think they're certainly there. But I think we're facing some really unique challenges as organizations with how to support culture, how to support engagement as we move forward. I'm fascinated to hear what Karina and Kristen's thoughts on experience as well.
Kristen, we can go to you next if you like.
Oh, thank you. So we actually returned to the office on Monday with moving into, though a more hybrid, flexible work environment that we did not have, you know, prior to the pandemic.
And we were intentional in ensuring that that policy was equitable for business professionals and attorneys. And oftentimes, I think business professionals and the DEI work in that space in legal organizations can be overlooked. And so I think that's, you know, obviously a key piece as we continue to move forward. You know, if the law firm is operating in a free market work allocation system where essentially, you know, the supervising partner determines who's who's going to get that opportunity, you know, the the adage of, you know, walking down the hall and seeing who's in an office or knocking on the door.
It was, you know, part in practice. And and and then obviously, you know, as Karina mentioned, terms of affinity bias. Oftentimes, if we work well with someone and oftentimes it's someone that we see ourselves in. We continue to feed that person and go back to them over and over. And so I think the remote work piece has been a challenge of being seen and getting into the mix, especially if you joined the firm during the course of the pandemic.
So a lot of work, I think, needs to be done in disrupting that free market system in a way that provides opportunity for all and not based on, you know, and you know, it's asking partners and senior associates to work outside of their normal patterns and habits, and that's challenging and difficult. But I really do think that is a space where folks need to focus because, you know, when I recently attended a session on work allocation and not getting work and not getting those opportunities is the number one reason associates are leaving firms. And so this is at the crux of retention globally as well as DEI
yeah, and Karina curious to hear your thoughts as you talked about. I'm by no means an expert. And as far I know that certainly recognition is a core, a core pillar of that, right? How do you improve personal security, reduce misrepresentation and increase recognition of the problems in this instance? Yeah, I'm curious how, especially as you get more and more laterals who've never been to the office, which means they probably haven't met. A supervising partner, there's a real challenge there. You know, just of not even knowing who is available and who exist and what the skills are because you're right, Kristen, and in the old days, you're looking to an office and someone looks not completely out of their mind because they're not buried in paperwork and you will pull them into the transaction.
How does that work today? How does that work with Zoom? How does that work with, you know, I'm, you know, I assume your firm, like many others, are growing as well. So how do you manage that as you bring new people in with training and and coaching in that sense?
it's that question for me. It is, yes. You know, I don't know. I don't have the answers to this. I wish I did. You know, I feel conflicted about the impact of remote work and on a firm. In one respect, it kind of levels the playing field a little bit in that, you know, educational activities and things like that are maybe have been made more available to people across the firm where, you know, something might have been offered in one office of a law firm to a select group of people.
Perhaps it's more likely that it was opened up for more people to attend because it was offered virtually. So in one respect, you know, there might be a little bit more opportunity in that way. But it's also silenced voices those voices of new people who don't have the developed relationships or or, you know, people perhaps mostly just that they haven't developed relationships so that they can't get somebody, you know? In the in in how Kristen described it, you know, walking down the hallway and knocking on the door and, you know, someone's not going to pick up the phone and call them or Skype a person if they don't have a relationship with them.
And, you know, I don't know how a firm would overcome that in a purely virtual work environment in our firm. You know, we have moved back. Each of our offices have kind of come back on their own schedule to working in person and in some cases with a more flexible work from home kind of opportunity. But there has been a lot of stress, a lot of statements made about wanting the attorneys in particular to be back in the office because they need to be able to develop relationships. And, you know, for the purpose of working more efficiently and effectively.
So so we hadn't had a challenge that in 2020, we did a significant merger as the third third largest merger in 2018 and 2019. And then everyone went remote, you know, 2 months after the merger was effective. The way that we've addressed that is we've had very intentional power hours, which have been using very breakout rooms and other technologies. And that has really been to foster introductions between people in different practice groups. And and it's it's it's been very intentional set of remote networking opportunities and they've they've had a significant diversity, equity
and inclusion focus to them as well. Certainly, people are very eager to be able to go and have dinners together and to do some of the more traditional face to face stuff. But but I think that there's a model there for how technology can be used intentionally. I think that the misnomer is to think that technology is the impediment or remoteness as the impediments because, you know, I've had I've had people just because people are in the same building doesn't mean that they feel incorporated and included, right? It just it doesn't.
And I think the biggest structural shift that I'm interested in is inevitable. I mean, if you're only asking people to come to the office two or three days a week, you only need 50% of your real estate, which is second or third largest expense of most firms. As the office space gets redeployed and the spending becomes optimized. I think it does actually free up a lot of opportunities for very intentional community building, network, network building and stuff like that.
But you've got to kind of Typekit, you've got to divest some of that real estate portfolio in order to, you know, spend the money on the flats and the dinners and all of those networking opportunities and stuff like that. I think we're going to see a rise of that because it's going to be the only way to mitigate the issues of inclusion and culture and presence and visibility that will continue to fester within within a remotely hybrid environment.
Yeah. And I challenge any fan that tells me that a lot of these issues are bad just because, you know, people are not in the office anymore because there are plenty of examples out there where and there's a big difference between distributed and remote first. And there are organizations, smaller law firms as well as non, you know, non law firms that are completely remote. And you have to be intentional. Add to your point in being able to solve for some of those problems.
You have to think about them proactively. And so much of that is around not having to just put out fires all the time right now. Not just reacting and being proactive and pausing to work on. And of course, one of the things we didn't touch on today, probably a whole other panel on itself is mental wellbeing and mental health that's attached to all of these things together. So I think that that's absolutely fair. And then you are focusing on just reducing a lot of these potential issues. You know, I think that's my very simplistic view of this world is. You have to sort of focus on reducing some of the problems that you have today, but also start thinking about putting things in place that will pay dividends and the compounding way and six, seven, eight months time a year's time because I think certainly for law firms, that's a big problem.
Everyone tries to solve the problem today, and most things are not that easy. And fortunately, I'm also conscious of times that we have about five minutes. I want it to as we start to wrap up, ask each and each and every one of you to do, I guess, share. I don't know how many people are listening live, and we'll be listening to this as a recording. But for everyone that's thinking through this and I've had a couple of comments here and there, but what is one thing that you would ask of this audience, whether they're in house or in a law firm, to action? And so it will actually make an impact because, you know, Kristen you mentioned at the beginning, I believe that there is maybe it was Karina. There's a lot of fatigue around this. There's a lot of talk around this. I want this to be a meaningful, meaningful panel and where people can actually be inspired to take action and change something, even if it's more so happy to go with any one of you. But if someone has an answer to mine, we can go to you first.
I've got one. It's the same suggestion I would have made pre-covid and reach out to people who aren't like you and and make connections with them. Clients find commonality as opposed to differences. But it's actually easier now, right? I mean, you just this. You can call anyone on teams or Zoom, you know, anywhere in the world, anywhere in the organization and just make those connections and check in with people. That's how they're doing. Just basic, basic humanity, right? It's achievable. And in many regards, even easier with electronic means.
Absolutely. And Kristen I'll get to you next.
Thank you. I would my recommendation would be to audit yourself. Go back over the last six months looking at your calendar. Who have you assigned work to? Who have you brought in to a pitch? And you're in a business development context? Who have you mentored and then take a step back and evaluate that list? Is it majority of folks that look like you and or are you, you know, reaching out outside of perhaps your your your trusted circle and broadening those relationships?
I think that audit and self-reflection is a powerful way in which we can hold ourselves accountable to make more inclusive and representative decisions going forward in those spaces where we have power and we can make these decisions and kind of build off of Gillian's piece building those relationships. So then you can put those folks in position to participate in pitches, take on work assignments and the like.
Yeah, and there is a lot of data out there that cross collaboration, especially within a law firm, has significant benefits not just to individuals but to the profits of the firm as well. And if anyone's ever looking for research on that, Heidi Gardner, I know, does a lot of work around that.
Yeah. Over two decades of research shows diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams significantly, right? So, yeah. And Karina,
I'm going to say basically the same thing that both Gillian and Kristen said. But maybe from a more specific technology perspective, I'm going to say, you know, take a look at your work allocation processes and tools and see if there is a way that you can improve those processes so that you're giving interesting work, meaningful work to people across your firm. Attorney and business professionals alike, may make sure that those folks from underrepresented backgrounds are getting interesting work to do so that they can be more engaged in your firm. That, I think is the number one thing you can do to increase retention of those individuals, and those individuals could very well, you know, have the makeup to be, you know, the future leaders of your firm. You want to keep them there. They're not going to stay if they don't get the work that that is meaningful to them.
Yeah, absolutely. And what I loved from the three responses is A they are relatively simple to get started with B, they stretch all the way from low tech and just reaching out to someone that's not like you through to medtech and auditing your calendar, perhaps. And then of course, you can build on that with technology tools and data layers to start improving that. So I thank you all for your time today for a wonderful discussion. For anyone watching. Thank you for watching, and please reach out to our panelists. If you'd like on LinkedIn or simply Google the name, you'll be able to find them. Thank you so much for watching this session.
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