A recent webcast brought together experienced and diverse corporate counsels to discuss diversity, inclusion, and equity in the legal profession. The Anne Arundel Bar Association sponsored the Webcast: Perspective on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity from Corporate Counsel on January 14th. The panel included corporate counsel from diverse backgrounds: Nick Austin from Wells Fargo, Sebastian Kurian from Google, Mai Pham Robertson from Fannie Mae, Lacey Rosenberg from McKinsey and Company, Shayon Smith from The Hershey Company, and Jessica Thompson from The Walt Disney Company. The event was moderated by Marilee Miller, a partner with Rifkin Weiner Livingston, LLC.

Ms. Miller began the discussion with some facts showing a 10-year trend of growing diversity within the legal profession nationwide. In 2020, 37% of all lawyers in the United States were women, compared with 31% in 2010. Also, in 2020, 14.1% of members of the bar were people of color. That’s compared to 11.4% in 2010. 

Panelists were asked what the terms diversity, inclusion, and equity meant to them. Ms. Thompson explained they are not synonymous. The three taken together can form a pyramid. Diversity is the base of the pyramid.  Where many institutions fail is that they stop at Diversity. Inclusiveness is the next step. It means, as Ms. Thompson explained, “You can’t tell stories about us without us.” Equity is at the top of the pyramid. Equity requires an understanding of barriers to ensure everyone has access. 

Several of the speakers agreed that the needle is moving on diversity, inclusion, and equity. Part of the reason is financial. Many large organizations find that a diverse workforce makes good business sense. A diverse workforce mirrors the growing diversity of their customers. In addition, it is not uncommon for shareholders and investors to be very specific about what they want to invest in; for example, many will not invest in a company that doesn’t have a woman on the board of directors. 

In many instances, corporate counsel are helping to drive diversity not just within their departments but also within outside firms they hire. Google, for instance, wants diverse firms to represent them. And it’s not just Google. Many corporations will ask about team composition and want to see diversity in their outside counsel.

The challenge remains to find qualified candidates of diverse backgrounds. One barrier for some candidates is getting in the door without the benefit of in-house connections. But many companies have made the base of the pyramid — diversity — a priority, and they are looking at creative ways to be more inclusive. Some companies have made diversity of the workforce a metric tied to a manager’s compensation and bonuses. Another suggestion from the panel was for hiring managers to consider schools that may not be traditional places for them to look for talent, such as historically Black colleges or universities. 

Finally, the panelists were asked how individuals could affect change in the culture. Mr. Kurian emphasized that individual conversations were very important. He described a chat he had with a White male colleague who really didn’t understand the idea of White privilege. Mr. Kurian explained how no one looked at the White man and wondered if he was a lawyer when he walked into a room. It is not the same for Mr. Kurian, who is a man of color. The frank conversation helped Mr. Kurian’s colleague to see a different perspective. The panelists agreed that people need to be courageous and speak up to push the needle forward. Ms. Smith said, “Be the change that you want to see.”