Investments in Diversity Are Paying Off in the COVID-19 Era

 Investments in Diversity Are Paying Off in the COVID-19 Era

By Karen Kaplowitz

Law firms that have invested in protecting the careers of working mothers and fathers have been rewarded in the global pandemic. The firms with the strongest flex policies and diversity and inclusion programs are turning out to have created workforces that were better prepared to adapt to the new work from home reality. The firms that invested in diversity and inclusion now have lawyers and leaders who have led critical projects while working remotely and have lawyers with families who are used to accommodating their work demands. They have lawyers who have experience juggling work and family when nannies could not show up, daycare was closed or someone in the family got sick. They have lawyers who have been role models for years at doing excellent work while working from home, working reduced hours, and arranging for backup support in an emergency. Lawyers who have experience working from home and balancing work and family are the new masters of the universe.

In the last recession, diversity took a back seat and lawyers from underepresented groups were overrepresented in layoffs. Diversity Lab’s CEO Caren Ulrich Stacy recently noted in the National Law Journal that racial and ethnic diversity in partnership ranks decreased by over 14.3 percent following the recession and that 50 percent of the equity partners who were terminated were women even though women only constituted 16 percent of the total equity partners at the time. She urged firms to be vigilant about discrimination against diverse lawyers and recommended that firms “double down” on diversity.

To understand how diversity investments have paid off, we asked law firm diversity leaders how their firms have benefited during the global pandemic from their investments in diversity and inclusion.

Dechert’s director of diversity and inclusion, Satra Sampson-Arokium, reported that the firm’s numerous affinity groups “sprang into action to connect with people working from home to host regular virtual meetings, conference calls, happy hours, coffee breaks and in the case of the LGBTQ affinity group, a virtual book club.” Dechert’s Family Network co-chairs also alerted practice group leaders about the importance of consistent messaging—and boundaries—while lawyers and other professionals are balancing client demands, family needs and administrative calls. The firm also set up a dedicated intranet page for coworkers to share “the view from our new office” and hosted a program for lawyers and staff, “When Work, School and Home Converge: Parenting in Unprecedented Times” with parenting coach Susan Nason. The program was well-attended by women and men. Notably, there were men who shared their challenges in co-parenting with their working spouses and sought advice.

Dechert, a Working Mother Best Law Firm, and Working Mother 100 Best Company, which achieved Mansfield Rule 2.0 Plus Certification for 2019, also revamped one of the firm’s signature programs, the Sponsorship and Sustained Support program, which is designed to help senior women associates, counsel and national partners navigate the path to partnership. In the five years before the SASS program, 18 percent of new Dechert partners were women. In the five years since, 31 percent of new partners have been women. When COVID-19 disrupted plans for 71 women lawyers to attend a SASS conference in London in early March, the firm quickly pivoted to a virtual program which will reach more women and created smaller cohorts of women partners and associates to support one another through the crisis. Sampson-Arokium said that Dechert’s “women partners really stepped up to support women associates.”

At O’Melveny & Myers, the pandemic coincided with the appointment of several new office managing partners; four of the firm’s seven US offices are headed by women lawyers. O’Melveny’s Mary Ellen Connerty, leader of diversity and engagement, noted that the communal style of leadership often attributed to women has been a signature of the firm’s caring and compassionate response to the crisis. For example, Caitlin Bair, San Francisco office head, invites office members to Zoom lunches where folks enjoy their lunch while connecting with virtual tablemates in various “breakout rooms.” Los Angeles office head, Dawn Sestito, gathers photos of folks working at home and sends them out each Friday to the office along with celebration announcements. Amy Siegel, Century City office head, and her office partners personally called to check in on every associate and counsel. Amy Laurendeau, Newport Beach office head, offers virtual office hours—time that she and other partners preserve and offer to office members to ask questions or simply check in.

O’Melveny, which has been on the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women list and has achieved Mansfield Certification and Mansfield Plus Certification, is also leveraging its 34 employee networks. “These networks are great connectors of people in normal times. It was natural for us to turn to them for help checking in on their members and to help us ensure that no one was slipping through the cracks, particularly people who live alone or are overwhelmed. We are so fortunate to have the eyes and ears of our employee networks engaged,” Connerty said. The firm’s next step, Connerty added, is to conduct an anonymous survey to determine how people are feeling so they can compare the responses of those sheltering alone, sheltering with other adults, with children and with elders and take appropriate supportive action.

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Originally posted on Working Mother


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