CLI’s General Counsel Roundtable Offers Insight to EDI, Hiring, Post-COVID Legal World

Center for Legal Inclusiveness participants
This year’s general counsel roundtable from the Center for Legal Inclusiveness shared insights on leadership opportunities and the future of legal leadership post-COVID. / Photo courtesy of Center for Legal Inclusiveness

Each year, the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, a Denver-based nonprofit working to advance diversity in the legal profession, brings a wide array of discussions and options for legal professionals to explore and to learn more about equity, diversity and inclusivity.

One of the panels this year was a General Counsel Roundtable, which brought attorneys working for the attorney general’s office, health care and education together to discuss what challenges are facing law firms today in terms of EDI leadership and support — both in the pandemic and beyond it.

CLI CEO Sara Scott introduced the roundtable by calling it an “all-star event” and in her opening remarks noted that the panel and the topics discussed would reach beyond the usual  general topic discussions and leave lasting notes for thinking of EDI leadership.

This year’s roundtable included David Fine, general counsel for Metro State University; Natalie Hanlon Leh, the Chief Deputy Colorado Attorney General; and Michelle Lucero, general counsel for Children’s Hospital. The panel was moderated by WilmerHale’s Chalyse Robinson.

While the roundtable touched on many different aspects of EDI and COVID impacts on the legal profession, one key theme emerged: leadership is more than just hiring and vocally supporting people and initiatives — it’s also adapting long-standing principles to new challenges and times, and actively bringing people to the table to hear their concerns, give them a chance and make conscious decisions.

Robinson began by talking about how Black and Hispanic attorneys reported feeling more isolated at firms and feeling that if they took time off during the pandemic it could adversely affect their careers than their white counterparts.

Turning to Leh, Robinson asked how the AG’s office  tried to support the mental health of attorneys, and especially those of color. She described several instances of taking very new approaches to the pandemic, such as employee-run support groups, changes to attitudes on time-off and listening to staff to approach this change.

“I will say this has been a really significant focus for us over the last year,” Leh said. As the largest law office in the state with over 300 attorneys, and close to 600 total staff such as investigators, educators and program staff, the mental health has been a priority for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, she added. 

Leh said Weiser believes in operating the office as a safe space and promoting the well-being of employees. Some of the actions taken by the AG’s office included partnering with state departments to provide focus-programming events for employees such as town halls, virtual lunches and coping with difficult times. These programs started last year but continue today.

Specific training was provided to front-line leaders, the approximately 80 managers in the office who guide specialty practice areas, focused on training them to support their team members and to reach out to them and lead in a virtual environment, according to Leh. 

“And, particularly with people of color, to give them an opportunity to feel like someone knows them, to be heard, to have direct access to feel included as part of the organization,” Leh said.

The AG’s office also launched a Wellness Impact Team, which Leh described as a cross-disciplinary employee-driven group, that came up with ideas to support the organization including options and opportunities for employees, such as an attorney-led meditation class. While these opportunities are not mandatory, they are available for anyone in the organization to participate in.

Scott asked how the program was receptive to employees and how the program had been accepted. Surveys were a major tool used by the AG’s office to gauge the needs and concerns of the office staff, Leh said. Quarterly anonymous surveys were and continue to be issued, which have resulted in what Leh described as “heart-wrenching responses” about how hard and how much people are struggling to cope.

For Lucero, working in the healthcare industry, their employees were on the frontlines. The pandemic allowed the organization to think about making changes both for clients, but also for future leadership. After the BLM protests and the outcome of the George Floyd murder, Lucero said that the organization wanted to do what they could within their power to address equity options for communities.

“We really focused on health inequities of kids,” Lucero said. “We can’t change the judicial system, but we can really look at those health inequities.”

Challenges with equity in telemedicine, such as patients not having access to computers for follow-up appointments, led to a focus on getting tablets or other electronics into their hands to help. There were also discussions about how to create physical centers closer to children’s locations to obtain medical care.

“It created all of these opportunities I think where we would’ve done it anyway, but it gave it more juice,” Lucero said. She later added that the silver-lining of COVID is that, despite a lack of diverse leadership at Children’s, the onset of COVID allowed informal leaders to lead and show potential for movement up the leadership ladder who normally would not have been considered for those positions.

According to Lucero, Children’s has had chances because of the pandemic to look at people who wouldn’t be traditionally considered for roles, but based on performance during COVID, the organization is supporting non-traditional candidates to try to apply for positions.

“So, hopefully, we have more diverse leaders coming out on the other end,” Lucero said. 

Fine said that in the education world, he has become very concerned about the opportunities in people of color and different classes. 

At Metro, many students are first generation college students, Fine said. The school’s  enrollment was  hit hard, and that’s concerning as Metro is a pipeline for potentially diverse attorneys. Fine explained that he’s been mentoring a young woman through a law school program, and due to COVID, her family had ended up living with another family member — and has been really affected by the changes.

While the student he is mentoring is making it through, Fine said there are many students like her having an incredibly hard time. “I am worried about this pipeline issue, not only in the legal profession, but in the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country.”

Despite diversity being a concern for law firms for some time, Fine said firms need to pay attention even more so to pipeline issues today and to programs designed to grab potential lawyers of color at earlier stages. “I think it’s only going to become tougher,” he said about law school attendance diversity. 

Fine said that the senior leadership team of Metro is much more diverse than when he first started. He believes part of that is because an organization must be “super intentional about the pool of your applicants.” In some searches, Fine said, they had to tell recruiters to go back out and recruit beyond their usual pools.

“It makes a huge difference having a more diverse senior leadership team,” he said. He described it as a double-edged sword, explaining that some white candidates have articulated legal claims about being passed over for positions because of their race.

Robinson noted that focus on EDI has grown, and she asked how the panelists’ organizations have been doing things differently.

Fine said that in higher education, “it’s night and day around these kinds of issues” between law firms and education. Metro has a strong Chief Diversity Officer who’s  knowledgeable and pragmatic about these challenges, and is constantly working on diplomacy between different groups, and simultaneously keeps everyone focused on diversity across those groups.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming from the community on what are you doing,” Fine said, and having a diverse board guiding the college — of color but also politics, professional history and more — helps guide through diversity decisions.

Metro also produced a comprehensive legal study of faculty diversity programs within the school, Fine said. In terms of hiring, Fine said this legal study focused on what could be done legally in terms of hiring and making diverse choices.

He also added that many younger people look at EDI very differently than older people. He said he believes younger attorneys will have a very different view of the world from the generations before them, which also will make an impact on law firm management.

“I think the diversity officer role within firms is going to be critical in keeping this issue front of mind,” he said.

In terms of staffing cases, Leh said that a goal she’s been tasked with by Weiser is giving younger,  diverse people the opportunity to take on investigations and to work directly with her to learn how to handle projects.

“That’s part of the challenge of not just getting people in jobs, but give them opportunities to grow and take on big important responsibilities,” Leh said.  

Lucero also highlighted bringing those who might be eligible for leadership, and especially diverse candidates, into a room on projects to give them opportunities to move up the ladder. While this has been an issue for many years, Lucero said during her time working at a large law firm, she couldn’t have moved up without having chances to do so.

She said she almost lost a valuable employee at Children’s who told her, “You’re my greatest cheerleader, you’re not my great champion.” Lucero said that hearing that flipped a switch. She realized that she could talk constantly about how great a person was, but she wasn’t pulling the employee into the room and to make sure she had access to the decision makers.

“Remember, always, if you’re in leadership of a law firm or want to get into leadership at a law firm — insist on championship, not cheerleader-ship,” Lucero said. “Because that’s what’s going to allow you to make those changes and move up.”

 

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