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Investing in DEI: Opportunities and Challenges for Legal Teams and Legal Tech

Dec 16, 2021

When law firms, legal tech companies and corporate legal departments invest in DEI, what kinds of programs do they implement to recruit, engage and retain diverse talent? How can they leverage existing tools and processes, and what needs to change?  

In Blog 3 of our four-part blog series, CDS’ Michele Kell leads a discussion with women leaders from T-Mobile, Owens William & Associates, BakerHostetler and Relativity about the hard work that goes into making real, measurable progress when it comes to workplace DEI. The panel included:

Michele Kell, Director, Enterprise Operations, CDS (moderator)
Ellen P. Blanchard, Esq., Director, Discovery and Information Governance (DIG), T-Mobile
Zelda Owens, CEO, Owens Williams & Associates LLC
Mary Rechtoris, Producer, Multimedia & Design and Member, Relativity Women of the Workplace
Lauren Resnick, Partner, Baker Hostetler

Read on for a lightly edited transcript of their conversation. To watch the recording of the original webinar, Women in Legal Ops & Tech: Integrating DEI Into Your Growth Strategy, click here

Driving DEI takes sustained investment, energy, and effort.

Michele Kell:
Who often drives Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts in the workplace? 

Zelda Owens:
It’s often the people who are representative of the diverse group that are now being burdened with the responsibility of also wearing two hats – their full-time job, as well as being a part of a DEI committee or a steering committee. So that’s something that has to be addressed. 

Mary Rechtoris:
I can weigh in on that, because I’ve been involved with our Community Resource Groups, we call them CRGs, I know Lauren, you mentioned affinity groups. They have a variety of names. And it is a lot of work, not only from an hourly perspective, but it takes a lot of passion and energy. And I know being in a pandemic, a lot of leaders were feeling burnout and not necessarily seeing the impact that you do when you’re in person. And something we’ve done at Relativity, which I think is super valuable, is investing more in these leaders. We’re giving them training that’ll elevate them as leaders of the CRG, but also in their professional careers. I think companies can show their support by putting their money where their mouth is a little bit, recognizing that we see you doing all this work and that “we’re in” goes a long way. Because when you’re working from 8:00 to 5:00 and then focusing on improving your company, you want to make sure that the investment goes both ways.

Michele Kell:
I would imagine that investment helps. You’re doing two things at one time. If you feel invested, you’re going to stay with the company.

Mary Rechtoris:
Exactly, because if you’re putting in all this effort to create an environment where minorities and women feel like they belong, but the company is not really valuing that or recognizing it, you’re like, “Well, is this all for naught or what am I doing?” So showing that support is really important and for getting more people interested in CRGs and actually participating in them, because that’s important too to continue growing diversity throughout your company.

Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.

Michele Kell:
How can we get creative with sourcing diverse talent?

Mary Rechtoris:
You hear a lot in our field that there’s a pipeline issue. I want to have more female leaders, but we don’t have access to them, or I want more black professionals on my team, but I’m not getting the applications from those candidates. You have to really look at what are the structural barriers in place that are hindering people’s ability to even get into to this field?  One that I’ll talk about is getting into the classrooms is important. If you’re looking at this from a female perspective, we’re often socialized in certain ways where you might not realize that tech is even a viable opportunity. For example, you might be heading towards the English Communications route. This is coming from an English and Communications major. This is not to say that’s not a great career path, but I think it’s showing individuals, young women and minorities, that there are people who look like them in these roles. I think that’s first and foremost, getting into the elementary schools and early education.

And then something else that we’ve done – our CEO announced it a couple years ago at Relativity Fest – is that we’ve launched Relativity Fellows and that stemmed from the challenge we face in eDiscovery with developing more diverse talent and needing more certified users to meet market demand. We launched Relativity Fellows which invests individuals from overlooked communities who participate in a six-month program at Relativity where we give them the nuts and bolts on what eDiscovery is. They’re getting hands-on experience in our software where they get certified and they either stay with Relativity or they work with one of our partners.

I would say the ethos of that program is captured in a quote from Leila Janah, Founder and CEO of Samasource and LXMI, “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.” If you’re only recruiting from the same schools or people with the same training and background, you’re only going to have access to the usual pool of suspects and that’s going to be a lot of people that resemble the current leadership. So you’ve got to really evaluate some of the structural barriers in place if you want to diversify our field and become a more lucrative and successful company long term.

Break out of the ‘plug-and-play’ hiring habit

Michele Kell:
I do think since we’re in project management, we have fallen into that habit before. You look for a predictable profile. You look for Relativity certifications and the project management experience. This year we’ve started to change how we’re recruiting. We intentionally hired a different profile. Maybe they didn’t know Relativity, but they knew project management or maybe they were close to the field, but not quite in the field or they left the field and wanted to get back in. And in traditional times, when you’re busy and you’re crunched, you may not provide that opportunity. So we’ve done a little bit of that this year to change our game, but I think those with some operations experience know that usually you’re looking for a plug and play scenario, and that’s causing a problem. You have to move outside that plug and play mindset and start to look outside the box. So we’ve been doing that too. And it’s been great. We’ve seen amazing potential with the teams that we’ve brought in with that change in mindset. 

Mary Rechtoris:
Yes, I know at Relativity too, we rely a lot on referrals. And I think, we’ve had to be a little bit more targeted in articulating to people that you have to be more strategic in developing your network. 

A lot of people in your network are people that look and sound like you, just by nature of your educational background or where you grew up. You really have to look to forge new and different connections, if you’re going to rely on referrals to source your talent. 

Large corporations can be the catalyst for change.

Michele Kell:
Ellen, I’d love to hear from you from the corporate side. At T-Mobile, you have an opportunity with your team to help drive diversity since you’re the ones hiring outside law firms and solution providers. Do you want to talk about your experience a little bit?

Ellen Blanchard:
Yes, absolutely. Diversity is a big part of T-Mobile’s culture. We started what we call Employee Resource Groups. And we started six of those in 2013. And we’ve seen that program grow. In the same way that we’re seeing a lot more people supporting small minority-owned businesses in their shopping needs versus the big box stores, as clients of our law firms, we definitely have the power to be able to drive some of those initiatives and make sure that we’re not just asking our law firms to have diverse case teams and seeing lip service provided to that. We’re really making sure that the minority players on their teams are part of that decision-making chain and are the ones that are taking first chair on parts of trials.

And so there’s been a huge commitment. The legal team went through a preferred provider process as part of the merger. And a number of the questions that were involved were around diversity. And it wasn’t so much like if you didn’t have a diversity program you were out, it was more about here’s what we have now. T-Mobile is continuing to work with those folks on how to build up their diversity programs and processes. We are actually in the middle of a tech partner preferred provider process. And as part of our initial information request, we included questions about diversity. We ask if they have a diversity and inclusion program, making sure that they describe it in detail. So it wasn’t enough to have this broad commitment to diversity. We wanted to see all the ways that they actually support and embed diversity throughout their company’s practices. 

You mentioned the pipeline piece. I do think in this world, when it comes to tech partners, there’s still a challenge. As much as I would love to have more minority owned tech partners, there just aren’t a lot out there. So you really have to dig into the ones that are doing the work within their companies, to support that as well.

Diversity has become a business imperative. Just ask law firms.

Lauren Resnick:
I’m on the other end of what Ellen just described. And I have to say we’re living it. I don’t know if you all in the tech side of the business are living it quite yet, the way we are, but it’s coming. So let me warn you. And it’s a good thing. We are, when you talk about the importance of these issues, forgetting the fact that it’s the right thing to do. And for all the reasons Zelda said, it actually creates a more effective and better company. 

It’s a business imperative because we have multiple clients, folks like Ellen who are sending us surveys on diversity. They are asking for meetings to hear about it in person, what we’re doing at the firm around advancement and the promotion of women and diverse lawyers.

We are getting requests about the staffing of our matters and the statistics around women and minority staffing on our matters. And we’re even getting inquiries around who’s getting credit for bringing in the new matters. So there is significant demand from the client side. And what we are also seeing, and I don’t know, Ellen, if you all are involved in some of these as well, when it comes to the pipeline, we are partnering with clients. And it’s a great way to do something good together in addition to the traditional transactional work that you’re doing. We have summer associate internship programs where we’re partnering with clients to hire minority and diverse candidates that we can share and mentor together.

And we’re doing more recently and similar to the tech area, patent law, IP law has very low numbers of women and diverse lawyers. And we’re engaged in a pilot program with Facebook where we’re going to hire and train patent agents, and they’re going to be minority candidates. We’re going to train them. Facebook’s going to train them and they’re going to get the necessary certification and have that opportunity. So we need to dig deeper and develop programs that build that pipeline. We can’t just have clients demanding we hit numbers that we don’t have. We need to build the pipeline so that we have the numbers to meet that need.

Ellen Blanchard:
You’re exactly right. It’s hard to say, I need three minority partners on this project if the firm doesn’t have three minority partners in that area of the law. It’s not just us saying, you guys have to go do this, but I think that partnership is absolutely critical, figuring out how to do it. I love the idea of that partnership for summer associates. That’s fantastic.

A true commitment to DEI will help you recruit and attract top talent.

Mary Rechtoris:
An interesting area of this too that Zelda talked about is that you can have a really concerted effort to recruit diverse talent, but you have to make sure you have an environment in which they feel like they belong and can voice their opinions. And I know candidates are having a lot more specific questions for organizations about what they’re doing to further IDB. (We call it IDB at Relativity.) I know a lot of people call it DEI. But they can flag those surface level responses and want to know that the employer actually lives and breathes this and it’s part of their DNA. And right now, it’s a candidate’s market and they care about this. So if you want to attract that top talent, which every company should, you’ve got to make sure that this is really ingrained in your company culture.

Ellen Blanchard:
I’ve got an open position right now, had an open position last year, and we are absolutely seeing questions around what the company’s commitment to diversity is and what are the real concrete examples of that, because right now, especially in legal and legal tech, trying to get talent is hard. And I think the fact that T-Mobile has such a commitment to it is incredibly helpful as we’re trying to recruit and attract top talent.

Lauren Resnick:
And we’re seeing that on the surveys. So to Zelda’s earlier point about, I think you said 75% of the workforce by 2025 will be millennials. I think we were seeing in the industry-wide surveys among law students and associates at law firms around the country that their interest and commitment to diversity and inclusion is shooting through the roof. So if you want to attract and retain talent, we need to be doing this. And it needs to be organic. 

We did implicit bias training for all of our folks who were going to law schools to interview, because we wanted to make sure they’re focused on this front of center before they’re out there in the law schools talking to people. We wanted to make sure they were considering candidates in a holistic way.

We trained our executive committee on that as well. When you talk about getting it into the DNA of the organization, you really need to think at all the different levels where you’re doing it. But I agree with you, for us, it’s not just the clients demanding it, the talent themselves are demanding that you create that culture and it’s going to make us all better. 

Veterans are an untapped talent pool.

Mary Rechtoris:
I know something else to look at is that you may have certain policies in place that have certain biases that you don’t even know about. So I know at Relativity we’re really looking at our recruiting and onboarding process. And have similar to you, launched unconscious bias training. In addition to producing Stellar Women, I’m also a producer on our brand team. So I do a lot of video work. And we were profiling different Relativity staffers. And one of them was a veteran and we were talking about the difficulties veterans face in getting into corporate America after their service. And a big part of that is they speak a different language than corporate America speaks. They might not use phrases like “move the needle” or other corporate speak.  

Mary Rechtoris:
And that disconnect hinders their ability to get jobs and for corporations to really understand their value, because the way questions are phrased or job descriptions are written, it’s not conducive for certain individuals. So there’s a lot more examples of that, but companies should really be looking at these different aspects and seeing where there may be some bias in the process.

Ellen Blanchard:
I think they’re one group where they may not have, and I think Michele you mentioned, they might not have 10 years of Relativity experience, but they have other skills and you can train the Relativity piece. And it’s interesting, because we actually just hired a veteran last year on my team. And it was interesting to talk to him and think about how do the skills that he learned in the military transfer, because he doesn’t have the forensic experience really that I needed. But he had a lot of the other pieces that are going to have made him an amazing part of our team. And I think if you don’t look beyond some of those, easy ways to filter in some respects, you’re missing out. Because I know our HR team struggles trying to find eDiscovery people, because what does eDiscovery mean if you’re not in the weeds doing it.

And so trying to help them figure out what are the things to look for. And it’s an easy, “Oh, they don’t have Relativity, okay, I’m not going to pass that resume on.” And so it’s really rethinking how I’m talking to our HR screeners about the things that we’re looking for. And if every experience is the same and somebody has Relativity experience on top of that, then that’s great, but that shouldn’t be the only criteria.

Michele Kell:
The soft and hard skill conversation. And we’ve also hired some veterans and it’s the discipline and how they can approach problem-solving that really apply. But yes, did we have to teach software and other things? We did. But they did bring things to the table that I thought were very unique from their military background.

About the Author

<a href="https://cdslegal.com/team/" target="_blank">CDS Staff</a>

CDS Staff

Our leadership team and advisory consultants, project managers, and technical experts assist clients through all phases of the eDiscovery process.

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