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The Role of the Diversity Professional

Many leaders and organizations, in LCLD and beyond, renewed their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2020. And for many, a major part of that renewed commitment is empowering the organization’s lead diversity professional.  

In response to this renewed interest in the role of the diversity professional, LCLD brought together a group of well-respected, change-making Chief Diversity Officers, and asked them how organizations can do better. The suggestions below are compiled from interviews with the diversity professionals listed here.

To see each individual’s full responses, click here

How can an organization elevate the role of their lead diversity professional?

  • Actually elevate the role.  A senior, chief-level diversity professional sends a message, both internally and externally, about the value your organization places on the role, and gives the individual the standing they need to build relationships and drive change. The lead DEI professional should report to a senior leader within the organization (CEO, Managing Partner, COO, etc.). 
  • Provide resources.  Your Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) needs the appropriate platform to do the work—both in terms of human capital and budget. If there is a gap between your expectations for this role and the resources your organization can provide it, it will be difficult for your CDO to implement the change you want to see. 
  • Engage your CDO in decision-making.  If DEI is part of your organization’s business or growth strategy, your diversity professional needs to be part of conversations around hiring, market, development, evaluations—anywhere that you hope to see progress.   
  • Provide access to leaders.  To build credibility within the organization, your CDO needs to be able to build relationships with the Managing Partner, the Executive Committee, partners and other senior leaders.   
  • Offer opportunities to engage with clients.  For law firms, giving your CDO opportunities to engage with clients enhances their status and helps integrate them further into your organization’s business. 
  • Find a champion.  For your CDO to be successful, they need a passionate, forward-thinking champion—an influential and respected leader within the organization who can help the CDO drive change. 

Once there is clarity around the expectations for this role, what would you tell a leader or organization to look for when hiring a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO)?

  • Strategic thinker.  Look for someone with a concrete plan for how to make change, not just aspirations for what they want to bring about, and someone who understands the impact of DEI on your business.
  • Creativity and innovation.  A successful CDO should have a proven track record of implementing strategic change. 
  • Candor in communication.  You need someone who can be truthful in difficult circumstances, who can deliver tough news, and who can communicate effectively up and down the organization.  
  • Compassion and courage.  Your CDO needs to be able to understand the experiences of others, to actively listen, and to lead with empathy and courage. 
  • Trusted advisor.  You must have confidence that the individual can become a trusted advisor within your organization. 
  • Well-connected.  A candidate with who is well-respected and has a broad and deep network will serve your organization well. 

In Their Own Words:

If you were tasked with developing an initiative that would level the playing field for women and lawyers from underrepresented groups, what would it be? What’s the one thing you think would have the most impact?

  • Culture. There’s magic in culture. As one diverse attorney recently shared, “What would the firm be like if it was designed for attorneys like me?” I want everyone at the firm to feel as though the firm was designed for them. – Mary Ellen Connerty, Director of Diversity and Engagement, O'Melveny & Myers LLP
  • Sponsorship.  Our objective is to address the challenges of access a multitude of challenges. Having a senior leader in the organization who is advocating for you, introducing you to opportunities, and getting your visibility addresses those challenges. – Yusuf Zakir, Incoming Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
  • Quality work.  Most minority associates’ careers are derailed because of a lack of quality work and quality feedback. Having the equal opportunity to get skill-building, developmentally-rich billable work would address that need. – Sylvia James, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Winston & Strawn LLP
  • Compensation.  Ensure that there is a mechanism to significantly increase equity partner compensation for those developing and elevating diverse and female lawyers to the equity partner level (similar to origination credit used in the business development context). – Carlos Davila-Caballero, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP 
  • Recognize talent.  There is no shortage of exceptionally talented women attorneys and attorneys of color. The keys are ensuring that opportunities are shared equitably, and recognizing that there is more than one model of leadership. – Melique Jones, Director of Talent Pipeline and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
  • Just do it.  Treat diversity as a business imperative, make some courageous decisions, and hire and promote more people from diverse backgrounds. – Don Smith, Chief Talent and Inclusion Officer, Crowell & Moring LLP 

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