Creating Inclusive Legal Industry Workplaces in COVID-19

In her book The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh describes diversity as the “gateways” and inclusion as the “pathways.” This article focuses on the pathways that contribute to or cause barriers to an inclusive work environment, particularly in COVID-19 workplaces. Pathways include opportunities for work, for credit, for a voice in a meeting, for increased responsibility, for client interaction, for promotion, for compensation, and more. Within each pathway are macro- and micro-pathways. For example, handing over a large client in a succession plan is a macro-pathway; and inviting someone to a 15-minute meeting with a client is a micro-pathway.

An inclusive work environment, to sum up much research and writing on the topic, is one that fosters fairness and respect, authenticity and belonging, and voice and meaningful contribution. In every macro and micro pathway, there is potential for success or failure in building a more inclusive work environment. In the COVID-19 work environment, the pathways have been altered, requiring more attention to ensure inclusiveness, and an opportunity to disrupt long-held patterns.

Many legal industry employers transitioned to remote workplaces in mid-March to manage the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to their workers’ safety and productivity. Since then, some workplaces have remained mostly or entirely remote, and others have entered into a hybrid environment, where a sizable group of attorneys and staff members works remotely and a sizable group works in offices. Building inclusive pathways requires attention in all work environments, and remote and hybrid environments caused by COVID-19 present unique challenges and opportunities.

It is important to note that overarching judgments about the efficiency or efficacy of remote work arrangements, whether for an individual or for a workplace as a whole, should not occur during COVID-19. Remote work does not usually occur with an employee’s significant other, children, parents, dogs, cats, or loud lawn equipment present in the remote environment. Remote work also does not typically have the specific stressors of a pandemic attached to it, and we know many of these stressors, including COVID-19 itself, disproportionately affect people of color and their families.

Top Tip for Inclusiveness during the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 may create barriers to inclusiveness, but also highlights the need for more inclusive behaviors along new or altered pathways. Our top tip for inclusiveness during the pandemic: seek the pathways that have long needed adjustment, and use the pandemic as the opportunity to revamp those pathways. If the workplace or a particular group has not been inclusive in its recruiting, hiring, evaluation, opportunity, promotion, compensation, succession, or voice, use this time of disruption to introduce ideas that create inclusive pathways during COVID-19 and beyond. A few examples of common COVID-related issues and possible solutions are discussed below.

Example #1: Fairness

Common macro-level issue: A working group, department, or entire organization has not audited its primary pathways to ensure fair and equal opportunity (i.e. the working group has not assessed its methods of recruiting, hiring, evaluating, promoting, providing voice, providing opportunity to contribute, allocating work, compensating, or transitioning large books of business for equal opportunity).

Possible solution: During COVID-19, require working group leaders to articulate how they infuse the three inclusiveness components (fairness and respect, authenticity and belonging, and voice and contribution) into each pathway listed above.

  • Top leadership: Audit each primary pathway listed above and develop measurements to indicate comparative success across groups (or, at a minimum, conduct a workplace assessment to determine where bias exists).
  • Top leadership: Ask working group leaders to articulate how they will infuse fairness, authenticity, and voice and contribution into pathways like recruiting and hiring, evaluation and promotion, ensuring people’s voices are heard in meetings, equal opportunity for meaningful work, compensation and more; solicit group leader participation in actively seeking barriers (assuming bias, sexism, racism, homophobia may exist in each pathway) and engaging in behaviors that contribute to an inclusive environment.
  • Top leadership: After the pandemic, maintain and strengthen assessment of barriers and contributors to inclusiveness.
  • Group leaders: Assume and work to actively identify barriers to inclusiveness (including biases toward certain individuals such as sexism, racism, homophobia and others).
  • Group leaders: In support of or in the absence of an organizational audit, assess the group’s inclusive behaviors in one or more of the pathways listed above and develop methods for improvement (see suggestions below for specific pathways to address in COVID-19 work environments).
Example #2: Authentic Communication

Common micro-level issue: Group leaders connect more often and feel a greater connection to some group members, but not others; and in hybrid work environments, group leaders connect more often with group members in the office.

Possible solution: Require group leaders to hold periodic (weekly or bi-monthly) meetings with every attorney and staff member of the group to allow for authentic feedback.

  • Top leadership: Issue a statement that the organizational goal is to keep individuals and teams safe and as productive as possible.
  • Group leaders: Focus a part of each individual meeting on the unique stressors of the pandemic; family members who may be ill who require caregiving as a result of the pandemic.
  • Group leaders: Ask individuals about changes in their availability due to working remotely or stressors in order to gauge capacity and ability to participate in meetings with the group or clients.
  • Group leaders: At every meeting, continue to acknowledge the unique stressors of COVID-19 work environments.
  • Attorneys and staff: Frequently reach out to all working group members and engage in authentic conversation about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you and them; get to know members of the working group better.
  • Attorneys and staff: Assume bias exists (whether toward or against individuals, and whether conscious or not); watch for and interrupt behavior that thwarts authenticity.
Example #3: Voice

Common micro-level issue: Some members of working groups have fewer meaningful opportunities to talk, comment, provide an opinion, or engage with the working group or client.

Possible solution: Seek feedback from every member of the working group, ensure fair allocation of work, and provide every person an opportunity to speak in every meeting.

  • Top leadership: Require group leaders to attend at least one training a year on meeting facilitation, to include information about avoiding bias and improving inclusiveness (e.g. avoid interrupting anyone but, in particular, women and people of color; facilitate opportunities for introverts and people for whom it is less culturally appropriate to speak loudly or interrupt to be heard).
  • Group leaders: Provide an agenda in advance and welcome input on the agenda before the meeting.
  • Group leaders: At every meeting, create a time when group members are called on individually and have an opportunity to express their opinions about substantive agenda items.
  • Attorneys and staff: Request agendas in advance to provide ample time to consider the issues that will be raised; when asked to participate, engage in the conversation.
  • Attorneys and staff: Watch for opportunities to delegate work to, ask for an opinion from, or engage in conversation with those on the outside of the center (e.g. women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, individuals with disabilities, people newer to the group, younger people, introverted or quiet people).
Example #4: Meaningful Contribution

Common macro-level issue: Practice groups (or working groups of any sort) struggle to allocate work equitably across race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., especially in remote and hybrid COVID-19 work environments.

Possible solution: Ensure that group leaders make every effort to provide each member of the group fair and equitable opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the working group’s efforts:

  • Top leadership: Issue a statement that, at least during COVID-19, work allocation will be monitored for equitable distribution.
  • Group leaders: Eliminate all reliance on assumptions about availability when allocating work (i.e. require group leaders to communicate with all team members about availability rather than avoiding allocation of work to parents of young children or caregivers).
  • Group leaders: In hybrid environments, allocate work equally among the group members regardless of whether someone is just down the hall or working remotely; the same holds true of opportunities to interact with group members, group and organizational leaders, and clients.
  • Attorneys and staff: Delegate opportunity for work, for client interaction, and for participation in conversation equitably; make a point to delegate to those who continue to work remotely.

Viewing COVID-19 as a disruptor opens the door to change organizational systems and intragroup pathways and dynamics. Where possible, leaders should identify pathways and the ways in which each micro- and macro-pathway can enhance or create barriers to inclusiveness. At an organizational and department or group level, leaders might consider a formal assessment of the pathways and developing measurements for increased success. At a group and individual level, attorneys and staff members can remember that an inclusive environment fosters fairness and respect, authenticity and belonging, and voice and contribution and can infuse those concepts into pathways and interactions.

About the Authors

Winnie Hawkins
is a partner in Kutak Rock’s tax credit group in Omaha. She is co-chair of the firm’s National Inclusiveness and Diversity Committee and the immediate past chair of the firm’s Professional Development Committee. Stuart Hindmarsh is a partner in Kutak Rock’s corporate group in Fayetteville, Ark. He also is co-chair of Kutak Rock’s National Inclusiveness and Diversity Committee.

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