There is plenty of passion in Dick Erickson’s voice when he talks about how important diversity and inclusion are for his law firm, Frost Brown Todd LLC. It’s not hard to see that the co-managing member of the firm didn’t wait for someone to twist his arm to start a formal diversity initiative.
“The simple answer is it’s the right thing to do, and we believe that if we have a more diverse and inclusive work force, then we’ll produce a better product and it’ll be a better place to live,” says Erickson. “That may sound trite, but it isn’t.”
Erickson’s view is that attracting and retaining lawyers who come from a wide variety of backgrounds is going to become a competitive issue in the legal profession before long, if it hasn’t already. Fundamentally, while encouraging and promoting diversity in the firm is the right thing to do, beyond that, it’s good business for the law firm that posted $131 million in gross revenue in 2006.
But law firms run on the clock, so billable hours are what bring in the revenue, and diverting any of that valuable time to efforts other than providing service to clients can be perceived as a drag on resources. So when Erickson and the firm’s executive committee decided to launch a diversity initiative, complete with a member devoting time to administer it, it wasn’t the easiest sell to the rest of the firm.
“Even more so than in other businesses, my partners are concerned with today, profits today, billable hours today, and diversity and inclusion is something that isn’t going to be done in a sprint,” Erickson says. “It’s not going to be done tomorrow, and it’s not going to produce immediate results, and it’s not something that you can snap your fingers and say, ‘OK, we addressed that, it’s done.’
“To convince them that it had to be a priority, where everybody looks at today and everybody looks at billable hours, and they don’t look at the long-term and nonbillable things, that’s a challenge in our environment. My analogy when I talk about this to people is, this is a marathon, and you have to be prepared for a marathon.”
The firm has been involved in diversity efforts that date back 15 years, including support of the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Minority Council, but as the business community increases its diversity efforts, Erickson knew the firm needed to redouble its efforts.
He’s heard executives and clients talk about how important diversity is to them and how their businesses were better as a result of having more diverse work forces. “Our lawyers and our management knew that clients were very committed to diversity and inclusion, too, so it made sense,” says Erickson. “It came relatively easy having laid all the groundwork for years, so they unanimously said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”
To break down some of the resistance to the effort and make the firm more receptive to it, Erickson brought in a Texas-based consultant, Hattie Hill Enterprises, to teach the lawyers and the employees of the firm the value of a diverse work force.
“She raised our consciousness and actually, as I think back on it, it isn’t rocket science,” says Erickson. “Diversity and inclusion are really about simple things. It’s about communicating, it’s about listening, it’s about people talking to people in the hallways. I think we started raising everyone’s level of consciousness, from the executive committee to the youngest attorney to all of our employees.”
Erickson says while the stage had been set and the case made for the value of diversity in the law firm, there remained the question of how to implement it effectively.
“Shortly after that, we took on the challenge of creating what we call a ‘director of diversity’ position,” says Erickson.
Making one person responsible for driving the effort was critical to making sure that it was successful.
“Things get done in our law firm the best when you have somebody who is really passionate about it,” says Erickson. “That’s how we’re successful with most things in our firm. You have one person be a leader, a spokesperson, an organizer, a prodder.”
Erickson says that putting someone in charge of the diversity initiative came to be seen by the firm’s executive committee as the next logical step in the marathon.
“I think Jill Burton [the firm’s executive director] and I were able to say to the executive committee, ‘Look, we’ve been working on diversity for a long time,” Erickson says. “We’ve been involved in the Cincinnati Bar Association initiative for a long time, we did the corporate council thing, we had Hattie Hill come in and give all this training, so this is the natural step, this is the natural progression.”
Once the executive committee gave its stamp of approval, the next step was to persuade the rest of the members of the firm that it needed one person to lead the effort. With the groundwork in place, it was a relatively easy task for management to make its case.
“Our executive committee at one of our membership meetings said to our members, ‘This is what we’ve decided to do, it’s the right thing to do,’” says Erickson. “‘We’ve created this position, it’s incredibly important for our law firm to do.’ So when management spoke in a united way and our whole executive committee supported it, then it was easier to get buy-in.”
The director of diversity works closely with the recruiting arm of the firm to identify minority candidates, but all of the lawyers are encouraged to participate in the recruitment effort of both experienced candidates and law school graduates. At the firm’s recent yearly meeting, for instance, Erickson ad-dressed its lawyers and reminded them that they play a key role in recruitment efforts.
“I talked about it and said exactly that,” Erickson says. “I said, ‘We need your help. You can’t just leave it to the director of diversity. You’re the future of this law firm. You know who the good, talented attorneys are out there. Help us. Call the director of recruiting and tell her who you went to law school with.’”
Erickson says no chance to talk about diversity is passed up by any member of the firm’s management.
“What we continue to do is when anybody in our management committee has an opportunity to talk about diversity and inclusion, we do it,” Erickson says. “So our role is to continue to talk about it. You talk about it at every opportunity.”
Making diversity everyone’s job
But while leadership from the top and dedicating someone to be responsible for a diversity initiative are necessary, Erickson says to make it work, diversity has to become everyone’s job. Simply creating the position of director of diversity isn’t enough to sustain the effort.
“You have to get everybody involved,” says Erickson. “All the lawyers have to work on diversity, and we try to get all of our lawyers, especially our diverse lawyers, good experiences with the clients.”
Erickson formed a diversity committee to work with management to implement specific strategies for success, including a firmwide training program, in-house learning opportunities on such topics as diversity and workplace harassment, and a formal equal employment opportunity complaint procedure.
The director of diversity spends a large portion of her time with the existing diverse work force to make sure that they get the training that they need. And each person is paired with a mentor in the firm. “We work on having mentors, people that minority attorneys can talk to in the law firm and learn how to get along in the firm, how to succeed in the firm,” says Erickson.
In some respects, attracting more minority talent and providing them with the best training and mentoring raises the bar for the firm when it comes to retention.
“One of the challenges is, if we’ve done our job, we don’t want our very best lawyers to leave and be hired away by corporate America,” says Erickson. “There’s always been that issue, but I think that part of the challenge, too, is that slowly but surely, law firms, let alone corporate America, are going to be committed to diversity and inclusion, and there’s a finite applicant pool,” says Erickson.
Erickson says that means that firms will be trying to attract the best minority talent to create more diverse workplaces for themselves. So how does Erickson hold on to the top talent, minority or otherwise?
“By trying to give them a good work experience, get them involved in as many interesting projects as we can, because we found out that that’s what all attorneys are interested in, exciting work projects,” says Erickson. “So we try to work with our department heads, our director of diversity works with them to make sure all our attorneys get good projects. That’s how they tend to stay in law firms.”
Erickson acknowledges that it is difficult to measure what the tangible effect of the firm’s diversity effort has been to date. He says that the model of women in the legal profession probably predicts a pattern that will repeat as more minorities are included in the fabric of his and other law firms.
Women have grown in visibility and stature in business, and as they have, women lawyers have had influence in winning women business leaders and owners as clients. He says minority lawyers likely will have a similar effect.
“I think because we and other law firms have done a very good job of getting women involved, I could go back and see a lot of examples where we’ve had success in getting women involved and getting business from women clients,” says Erickson.
Erickson says turning a diversity initiative into a head-count game is one way to measure progress but probably not a particularly effective one.
Says Erickson: “I think some people would measure it purely in numbers. ‘How many more diverse minority lawyers do you have than you had last year?’ There are people on the outside who may look at it that way.
“Hattie Hill would say that in the area of diversity and inclusion, the journey was more important than the end result. Well, what does that mean? Just going through the process, raising everybody’s consciousness, improving our work product, making this a better place, honest to God, that’s important to me. Can you measure that? I don’t think so.”
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