Sedgwick Diversity Symposium
Sedgwick's inaugural Diversity Symposium on June 15, 2010, highlighted the benefits of diversity in businesses and, in particular, law firms, as well as the challenges of creating a diverse work environment. Keynote speaker Peter Lawson, Managing Director of P.A. Lawson Management & Strategy Consultants Limited, presented four compelling arguments for diversity as a driver of business performance: (1) you end up with richer ideas and richer solutions that allows for an environment that cannot be achieved with one single viewpoint being presented; (2) a diverse environment appeals to the brightest and best talent available; (3) a diverse law firm is better able to engage a broader base of clients, and a firm must be prepared to communicate and deal with those diverse clients in a more culturally sensitive and understanding way than ever before; and (4) diversity drives bottom-line business performance by fostering greater ideas and solutions, and greater employee and client satisfaction. Thus, creating a diverse workplace starts a ripple effect that ultimately results in a more profitable and successful business.
Mr. Lawson presented examples of businesses that thrived as a result of authentic programs designed to recruit, retain and advance diverse employees. Such businesses included PepsiCo, Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, IBM and others that implemented robust diversity programs resulting in higher employee retention rates, greater client satisfaction/retention, broader opportunities in diverse markets, and increased bottom-line business performance. For example, PepsiCo's aggressive program, which included setting forth specific goals and holding individuals responsible for increasing diversity in the company, resulted in a 50 percent decrease in PepsiCo's attrition rate among all employees. While more law firms are following these large corporations by recognizing the advantages of diversity and ramping up their efforts to increase it, the task is not easy. Creating a diverse environment can be challenging, especially in the legal field.
Difficulties exist on many levels, including recruiting, retaining and advancing diverse attorneys. In a panel discussion, guest speakers Maria Blanco, Berkeley Law professor and executive director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity; Anne Carnegie, senior counsel for Kaiser Foundation; and Monique Lanhorne-Johnson, Napa County Superior Court commissioner, spoke about strategies for recruiting and retaining diverse women, and the challenges to creating a diverse workplace. Recruiting is particularly difficult, given the limited number of diverse candidates. Blanco noted that the number of Latina lawyers in the United States is astonishingly low. The judiciary is similarly affected. Lanhorne-Johnson, the only African-American on the bench in Napa County, California (where there is also only one African-American district attorney), noted that in California, only 18 out of 58 counties have an African-American sitting on the bench. All also agreed that attrition rates are higher among diverse attorneys, which is one reason there are fewer diverse partners and attorneys in leadership positions. However, the panel also agreed on strategies for meeting the challenges involved in creating a diverse environment.
All panelists agreed that mentoring is key, and discussed the role their mentors played in their successes. Anne Carnegie shared that many firms are retaining more female attorneys by implementing "authentic" diversity programs, which include mentoring by other female or minority attorneys. In addition, to address the disproportionate attrition rate among women, more law firms are allowing more flexible work schedules so that female attorneys can better balance their careers and families. Most importantly, to be successful in creating a more diverse environment, the leadership must be committed and demonstrate that commitment with actions, not just words.
The impact of leadership on creating a diverse work workplace was addressed by a second panel of speakers, Suzanne Kounkel, Deloitte partner and National Consulting WIN leader; Christopher Bisonette, senior counsel of Sempra Energy Utilities; Judy Miles, general counsel and executive vice president of Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, LLC; and Leo Martinez, dean of Hastings Law School. Leaders in successful businesses have demonstrated their commitment to diversity in various ways. For example, Bisonette spoke about Sempra's diversity initiatives and a mandate to first seek out and select law firms that are women and minority-based. At Deloitte, Kounkel leads the WIN program, an initiative for the retention and advancement of women that includes offering (to men and women) flexible work schedules.
While attempting to create a more diverse environment, leadership must avoid making common mistakes. Miles cautioned against attempting to increase the number of female or minority attorneys by hiring attorneys simply because they are diverse. Instead, firms are better served by focusing their efforts on providing support to the diverse attorneys already employed, and on hiring diverse attorneys only if they are the right fit for the position. Bisonette believes that forced mentorships and mentorship programs "by assignment" are not successful, and that the most flourishing ones are developed when two people with something in common (not necessarily race, gender or sexual orientation) are drawn to each other and commit to developing a relationship. Martinez added that it is important that the mentee be dedicated and take the initiative in developing the relationship. Finally, Kounkel warned against leadership that is "all words and no action."
While all the speakers agreed that creating a diverse environment is critical to business success today more than ever, all recognized the challenges in doing so. However, a diverse workplace can be achieved if a firm, and especially its leadership, are truly dedicated to an authentic program that includes a commitment to specific goals, accountability for achieving diversity, mentoring programs and flexibility in the workplace. With such programs in place, a firm can achieve greater employee and client satisfaction, which ultimately results in a more successful firm. As correctly summed up by Bisonette, "the most successful companies are the most diverse."