Our world is becoming more diverse by the day. The 2020 U.S. census revealed that the number of multiracial Americans has increased since the last census. By 2045, non-Hispanic white Americans will no longer make up the majority of the U.S. population. In the legal industry, while white men still dominate the role of general counsel in the Fortune 1000, the percentage of women and attorneys from under-represented racial and ethnic groups comprising general counsel has been trending upward.
With law firms’ entire client base becoming more diverse, firms need to start preparing for this future of legal practice. By understanding why it’s crucial – and by using some of the same techniques and skills you’d apply in creating an inclusive conference session – firms can begin to create more inclusive workplaces that will better connect with and serve their more diverse audiences. Here are four steps to creating an inclusive conference session – and that will also help you prepare your law practice for the future.
Step 1: Understand why representation matters
You often hear the phrase “representation matters” – but do you understand why? If you’re used to the leaders of your organization and your colleagues and clients all looking like you and sharing similar backgrounds, it might not be readily apparent to you. But if you walk down the halls of a firm and none of the pictures of past leaders look like you, you can start to question whether you have the qualities to be successful and become a leader there. You also may become keenly aware of anything about you that is different from those you see in power – and then spend time covering up, code-switching, and buttoning up (and quieting down) anything different about you from others. Those activities take time away from more valuable tasks, and often result in employees not fully and confidently connecting with colleagues or clients – and frequently lead to people leaving to go somewhere they feel they can bring their authentic selves to the table.
But your law firm’s diversity (or lack thereof) also matters to your clients. It can be crucial for clients to see lawyers who look like them, because it can help build trust and a sense of comfort in the relationship. Clients may feel that a lawyer who looks like them is more likely to empathize and understand their situation, which can lead to a stronger attorney-client relationship. It can also help clients feel more confident in their legal representation and more likely to follow through with the advice given by their lawyer. Additionally, most general counsel work for companies with goals of creating diverse and inclusive teams; they expect their business partners to strive for the same. Beyond all that, clients, like everyone, just want to spend time with people they like. If they connect well with their outside counsel and enjoy working with them, they may turn to working with them repeatedly.
Similarly, a diverse group of speakers at a conference matters to an audience. If all the speakers in a conference session are of one demographic, while the audience is diverse, it can be off-putting. Beyond that, it can dilute your message. Suppose your session focuses on the future of your specific practice area, how innovation and technology might transform business, or what ESG strategies clients should pursue. In that case, a panel of speakers from more than one demographic, age group, or type of organization could undercut your message. You’re also missing the chance to highlight new voices that could resonate with your audience and provide a unique and exciting perspective they may not have considered before. Beyond that, if you don’t have a diverse slate of speakers, you may get called out on social media for having a #manel or #wanel.
Step 2: Consider all types of diversity.
Diversity can take many forms but most commonly is thought of as the inclusion of individuals with differences among race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, culture, socio-economic status, education, language, or physical abilities. You may not be able to see all differences (such as neurodivergence or being non-binary). As mentioned, diversity in these visible ways is vital for connecting with your desired audience (whether clients or conference attendees).
But in the context of organizations and workplaces, diversity can also refer to the inclusion of individuals from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives who have different thoughts, ideas, and approaches to problem-solving. Hiring attorneys and legal professionals with different backgrounds can help your law firm see different perspectives and develop better, more creative solutions and clients. A knowledge management professional from another industry may bring new ideas that your team has yet to consider to better serve clients.
Legal conferences often feature more lawyers from big law firms than solo or small practitioners – who often experience different types of client engagements and could share those insights. Similarly, with a conference panel, speakers from various parts of the legal industry and roles will engage your audience and connect with a broader range of people. For example, conference organizers can include a law firm attorney, innovation or marketing professional, and in-house counsel to share differing perspectives on a topic in one session.
Step 3: Intentionally cultivate a diverse group of applicants.
Because most lawyers in the U.S. are white men, you must use some intention to ensure that you have a diverse group of applicants to consider. Sometimes that means not just relying on the applications you receive, but ensuring your open role is posted where underrepresented students and attorneys may see it. That may mean explicitly building relationships with attorneys and law students involved with affinity bar associations or hailing from historically black colleges and universities and first-generation programs. Consider attending events or conferences focused on affinity groups, such as Lavender Law or the National Asian Pacific Bar Association annual conference. You will meet both potential future employees and potential new clients.
Searching on LinkedIn can provide a great way to find attorneys and professionals with expertise not currently in your network. It’s also a great way to discover new voices and perspectives for a conference session. Beyond that, ensure you use your network to get the word out, from posting on social media to making sure friends and connections know you’re looking for diverse voices and perspectives to join your team.
Step 4: Ensure you create an inclusive space.
To attract candidates from backgrounds underrepresented in the legal profession, ensure you’re creating an inclusive space where everyone feels they can bring their authentic selves to the table. Too often, firms hire diverse attorneys and legal professionals, but soon they feel their differences are tolerated but not valued for bringing a different perspective. If that’s the case, you will not keep them for long. Make sure they have a seat at the table, and if they don’t speak up – ask their opinions. Suggest them for writing and speaking opportunities – then amplify what they’ve accomplished to clients and potential clients, through emails, at meetings, and on social media. Include them in pitches – and the actual assignments.
With a conference panel, you can do the same thing so that all your panelists can speak and share their expertise with the audience. Encourage your speakers to get to know each other, connect, and stay around afterward to engage with the audience. Making the session interactive, where the speakers engage directly with the audience, will help build more relationships for your speakers. As a conference session organizer, using social media will help amplify each of your speakers and boost their visibility in their organizations, with their clients, and throughout the legal industry.
If you follow these steps, you and your law firm will get known as one that values diversity, inclusion, and equity, and is ready for the future practice of law.
About the Author
Sameena Safdar is is the founder of Amplify Your Voice, LLC, which helps companies and individuals find their voice and niche in the world. A former practicing lawyer, she has spent years working in large and small legal technology companies, first in sales and then in legal marketing and branding. Contact her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.