Championing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Alumni with DEI expertise offer insights into building a better workplace culture
As the nation has grown more diverse, the legal profession has lagged in representation. The racial and social justice movements arising after George Floyd’s killing, however, are having a major impact on the legal profession, including law firms, corporations, and public sector organizations.
From corporate legal departments to private law firms and consulting roles, Minnesota Law alumni are striving to advance principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) where they work, with their clients and in the profession.
Building relationships is key to helping diverse attorneys succeed, says Roshan Rajkumar ’00, co-managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Bowman and Brooke, co-chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee, and an adjunct professor at Minnesota Law.
It’s also critical to the health of law firms and the profession.
Rajkumar’s way to “radically support” the success of people at all levels of his firm is to let them know who he is, often inviting them to his home for a meal.
At Bowman and Brooke, associates can have a diverse partner in another office who serves as their affinity mentor in addition to an in-office mentor, Rajkumar says.
“How do you convince an associate, in particular diverse associates who are highly coveted in the legal market and not just in the Twin Cities, to come to Bowman and Brooke?” Rajkumar asks.
“I can offer you my mentoring, coaching, opportunities for substantive work, chances to run cases, and I will always have your back. I’m not just going to know you at the office. We are going to play tennis, I’m going to invite you to a concert, I will get to know your family, you’ll get to know mine.”
Rajkumar implores others to do the same, “to be open to relationships with people who may not look like you or have a background like you have.”
He has similar advice for students he mentors and new attorneys. “You need to realize from the first year of law school going forward, every relationship will matter in some way.”
With the challenging state of diversity in the Twin Cities legal community—where racial and ethnic minorities in 2020 represented 10 percent of attorneys at big firms, compared to 18 percent nationally, according to a Minnesota Coalition of Bar Associations of Color report— Rajkumar recommends that law students and lawyers explore affinity bar associations “to see people who may look like you.”
“I have to remind people all the time that DEI is about all of us,” Rajkumar says. “It’s not just up to the Brown and Black attorneys or the diverse attorneys to keep things going. It’s all about everyone feeling like they’re part of something, that their voice matters and they have the opportunity to be successful.”
CREATING A CULTURE SHIFT
Ra’Shya Ghee ’13, an adjunct professor at Minnesota Law and a racial equity educator and consultant, helps organizations create a cognitive infrastructure and shared language to support employees in practicing racial equity goals. She focuses on anti-racism because diversity efforts typically are ahistorical. “It starts with what we want to do, not why we need to do it,” she says.
To make progress in racial equity, organizations need to shift from addressing “historically underrepresented” people to those “historically excluded,” Ghee says. That acknowledges the intention that created racial inequities and the intention to undo them.
As part of a culture shift emphasizing new norms, organizations also need to cultivate space, in the office or on digital platforms, for racial equity work. Employees need opportunities to report incidents of racial insensitivity or racial hostility, perhaps an anonymous system that’s rehabilitative rather than punitive.
Racial-equity efforts should begin with an assessment or audit to establish a baseline. Organizations should measure progress regularly, adjust when necessary, “and calibrate those adjustments based on impact on those most burdened by the dynamics you’re seeking to migrate,” says Ghee.
Organizations should incentivize participation rather than mandate it, but employees and applicants should know that racial equity skills and knowledge are a consideration in hiring and advancement.
“I’m really invested in doing it in a way that is collaborative and engaging and meaningful. If people of color could solve these issues on our own, they’d be solved,” Ghee says. “We need everybody. We can’t leave anybody behind.”
DEI AND CORPORATE GOVERNANCE
The way companies address diversity, equity, and inclu- sion has evolved—as have opportunities for lawyers to contribute, says Ann Anaya ’93, who joined AmerisourceBergen as senior vice president and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer in January. She previously served as chief diversity officer and vice president of global inclusion at 3M.
Diversity efforts initially were a part of human resources and largely focused on representation, Anaya says. As this work matured and became a higher priority among corporations, 3M, for example, embedded inclusion as a culture pillar, a first step toward accountability for employees contributing to an inclusive culture.
The approach to DEI advanced again after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, which sparked civil rights and social justice movements around the world.
“Companies that didn’t already have fully dedicated chief diversity officers hired them,” Anaya says. “They had a broader discussion about corporate citizenship, social justice, and the role corporations play in addressing disparities and inequities.”
Anaya says her legal background, including serving as a federal prosecutor before joining 3M, was essential in advocating for expanding DEI efforts and spurring supporters to take action.
She helped bring together members of 3M’s employee resources networks who wanted to be part of the change. The company created a CEO Inclusion Council so resource network members could advise on what was working and what wasn’t.
Those were among efforts that contributed to an increase in the share of employees who felt included from 71 percent to 76 percent from 2017 to 2020 in 3M’s global inclusion index, Anaya says.
Anaya sees this year as a pivotal time for advancing DEI. Companies like AmerisourceBergen have made commitments to social justice and civil rights by endorsing the United Nations sustainable development goals for environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). The hope is that pursuing ESG goals will embed DEI into enterprise strategy. Says Anaya, “The strategic question to pose is, where are we uniquely positioned to advance equity in systems, cultures, and communities?”
She hopes lawyers and law firms will take notice.
“As lawyers, we should think about the oath we take and the purpose of our profession—justice and outcomes related to equity,” Anaya says. “How are we being inten- tional about where we can make a difference with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion, both in our profession and in the system of justice that we support?”
Bryan Browning ’08, assistant general counsel, head of global disputes for Michigan-based Whirlpool Corporation, says the lack of diversity in the legal profession is striking. Browning is also the general counsel of the Hispanic National Bar Association and a former president of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association.
Nearly 88 percent of the nation’s lawyers are white, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2021. Blacks accounted for 5.4 percent, Asians 4.7 percent, and Hispanic and Latinos 6.9 percent. Women made up about 38 percent of attorneys.
“In a job that is focused on the fair administration of law and justice, it is completely disproportionate that in a country where we are so diverse and becoming increasingly more so, there is this stunning lack of it in the legal profession,” says Browning.
Corporate legal departments can make a difference, Browning says. For one, they can incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion principles into outside counsel guidelines and requests for proposals.
From there, companies can pursue many different strategies for effecting change, such as requiring the law firms they work with to have both a relationship and successor partner, one of whom must be diverse. This strategy creates a pipeline of diverse partner talent that provides great substantive results for the company, Browning says, and addresses the severe lack of diversity in law firms’ equity partnership ranks.
In addition, corporate legal departments should collect and track the time diverse attorneys spend working on their matters, ensuring that teams doing that work reflect the company’s goals, Browning says.
Legal departments also should consider the strategies for ensuring compliance that work best for them–the proverbial carrot or stick approaches. For instance, a legal department might award a “success bonus” of 1 to 5 percent of receipts for the year to a firm that surpasses the company’s diversity metrics, Browning says. In contrast, a legal department may have provisions for withholding a percentage of fees for non-compliance with those metrics. And for continuing non-compliance, a firm may be removed from a panel counsel program or have individual matters pulled in favor of a firm and team that consis- tently meet the company’s diversity goals.
These are not foreign concepts to the profession, Browning says, and numerous resources available can help both law firms and corporate legal departments develop robust diversity policies. Local and national affinity bar associations warmly welcome the opportunity to work with firms and legal departments on recruiting, retaining, and advancing diverse attorneys.
“There is all this attention, all this effort, and all this visibility being brought on DEI in law firms and corpora- tions,” Browning says. While year-over-year progress has seemed slow, Browning is hopeful there is a growing appreciation that being intentional about DEI issues is not only in everyone’s financial interests, but also is the right thing to do.
EVOLVING EDUCATION AT LAW FIRMSMyrna Maysonet ’96
, partner and chief diversity officer at Greenspoon Marder, oversees diversity initiatives for the firm, which has 200 lawyers and 24 offices around the country.
Greenspoon Marder’s goal is to be as diverse and inclusive as possible, says Maysonet, who works in the firm’s Orlando, Florida, office.
Measures include evaluating and re-evaluating hiring partners to make sure they’re offering diverse candidates. Anti-bias training has been effective in hiring and in the disciplinary process.
With lawyers ranging from baby boomers to Generation Z, the firm offers diversity and other content in multiple formats, including blogs, webinars, and small-group meetings, Maysonet says. After George Floyd’s killing, the firm had Black members discuss their experiences as African Americans and hosted an educational session featuring a well-known African American author and activist who described encountering and overcoming discrimination in the early 1960s.
Gender and gender identity, transgender rights, and gay equality are other subjects of the firm’s educational efforts, Maysonet says. Such issues have been a particular focus because of the 2016 mass shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 53 at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Greenspoon Marder’s DEI policies and the numbers and roles of diverse attorneys on potential work are part of pitching and negotiating business with corporate clients.
“Any law firm that’s not doing that is behind the eight ball now,” says Maysonet, a labor and employment attorney who advises clients on their policies. “You can have the most comprehensive policy, but if you don’t put it in practice and have analysis and evaluation, it’s useless.”
To help retain attorneys, the firm offers flexibility in work-life balance and practice areas, Maysonet says. Not everyone wants to be a partner, and someone who started out in litigation might be more successful in a transactional practice.
“We can’t treat lawyers as one size fits all,” Maysonet says. “We need to offer the path from associate to partner, but not everybody in that group is going to stay there, so we have to be willing to work with people. Those days of just being a lawyer and billing 1,000 hours are gone.”
PARTNERSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT
Rich Nymoen ’95, diversity, equity, and inclusion director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, says advancing DEI requires policies against discrimination and sexual harassment and systems for receiving and investigating complaints.
It also requires partnerships internally with manage- ment, human resources, and communications, as well as with external stakeholders such as ethnic professional groups. A health care organization where Nymoen worked would invite such groups to hear presentations on areas of interest and do informational interviews with organizational leaders, who would collect resumes for future consideration as jobs opened up.
Nymoen would like other employers to adopt the state’s policy on non-affirmative hires. The policy requires a hiring manager to submit a written justification for hiring a non-underrepresented person.
“We all have unconscious biases that you don’t realize are operating when we’re making major decisions like this,” Nymoen says. “Requiring people to put in writing why they made the decision can help confront those biases. I think we’ve really seen an increase in diversity hiring because of that.”
Having diverse candidate pools and interview panels also are among practices that can help counter such biases and support hiring of underrepresented people, Nymoen says.
Employers need to change approaches if their DEI policies and practices aren’t producing diverse applicants and hires.
“It’s important to monitor what you’re doing, and if what you’re doing isn’t working to try something else,” Nymoen says. “Don’t just go through the motions.”
Another pitfall is doing nothing with a DEI plan, which Nymoen encountered previously when he audited contractor compliance with diversity hiring goals.
“They would just put the plan in a drawer and wouldn’t put it into effect,” Nymoen says. “You have to plan your work and work your plan so that you’re actually making efforts to make your workplace more diverse and equitable.”
PUTTING DEI INTO PRACTICE
Wendy Moore ’05 focuses on the intersection of race, law, and legal institutions as an associate professor in the department of sociology at Texas A&M University. She analyzed racial dynamics in top law schools through a critical race theory lens in her bookReproducing Racism: White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.
Structural racial hierarchy influences the experiences of people of color in law schools, firms, and other organizations, Moore says. Acknowledging that and committing to creating a climate that values racial equity are foundational steps.
Creating that climate requires buy-in from those advancing racial equity efforts, Moore says.
They are “the folks who are going to do the work to educate themselves, to listen to what BIPOC or LGBTQ+ lawyers are telling them, and to meaningfully make changes,” Moore says.
Organizations further should “materially value and reward” that work, including recruiting and retention efforts.
“It guarantees that you’re going to get people who are innovative and thoughtful and want to do the work, and can give you all of their energy in that area,” Moore says. “It signals to folks that this is very important to this organization.”
Diverse attorneys should have a space where they can discuss incidents of racism or racial inequity. Trust them, rather than commissioning another diversity study.
“If you want to alienate BIPOC folks in your organization, tell them that you’re going to do a study about it,” Moore says. “If a person of color is saying this was the issue here, we don’t need to study it. We’re going to believe them. Let’s take action.”
Moore says firms could consider adopting her practice of speaking honestly about past problems. When she is recruiting students of color, she openly discusses past racist incidents on campus but also explains how the school has taken such incidents seriously, supported students subject to them, and connected them with other students of color.
While visiting elite law schools for her book, Moore saw huge oil paintings of old alumni lawyers and judges—all white. Any pictures of Blacks showed them protesting as part of the Civil Rights movement.
“Those things send signals about whose space it is,” Moore says. “Law firms, corporations, and schools spend a lot on their built environment. If they get artwork featuring people of color or by BIPOC artists, that shows the firm or the company’s values. Research shows that it makes a difference in terms of climate.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer based in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.