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Rebecca Bernhard, co-chair of diversity and inclusion at Dorsey & Whitney, speaks Tuesday at the Minnesota Lawyer L!VE D&I Breakfast. At right is Ann Jenrette-Thomas, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Stinson Leonard Street. (Staff photo: Kelsey Broadwell)
Rebecca Bernhard, co-chair of diversity and inclusion at Dorsey & Whitney, speaks Tuesday at the Minnesota Lawyer L!VE D&I Breakfast. At right is Ann Jenrette-Thomas, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Stinson Leonard Street. (Staff photo: Kelsey Broadwell)

Workplace equity: Minnesota Nice or Minnesota Ice?

James C. Burroughs, the state’s chief inclusion officer, moderated Tuesday as panelists wrestled with how D&I efforts can be addressed by Minnesota law firms. (Staff photo: Kelsey Broadwell)

James C. Burroughs, the state’s chief inclusion officer, moderated Tuesday as panelists wrestled with how D&I efforts can be addressed by Minnesota law firms. (Staff photo: Kelsey Broadwell)

Long gone are the days when law firms were the exclusive province of white men. But that doesn’t mean firms today aren’t faced with a perpetual struggle over how to use effective diversity and inclusion policies that not only establish an equitable work atmosphere, but also improve recruitment efforts and benefit clients.

That was the conundrum on the table at the first Minnesota Lawyer L!VE event during a breakfast panel discussion Tuesday at the office of Bowman and Brooke LLP in Minneapolis. A panel moderated by James C. Burroughs, the state’s chief inclusion officer, wrestled with how D&I efforts can be challenged by partners, clients, and even Minnesota’s notoriously chilly reputation toward non-natives.

First the good news: Twin Cities firms are finding a variety of ways to nudge D&I efforts along. Roshan Rajkumar, a partner at Bowman and Brooke, said his firm makes it a policy to pair associates of diverse backgrounds with an attorney who has a strong book of business and will advocate for the younger lawyer.

“We let them know that the onus is on them to build their career, but also that there’s someone up the ladder who can put in a good word,” said Rajkumar.

Better recruiting

At some firms, these efforts are initiated in part out of the need for effective recruitment and retention. “We looked around and said, we need to do better,” said Janine Loetscher, co-chair of Bassford Remele’s D&I committee. “We joined Twin Cities Diversity in Practice (diversityinpractice.org), we’ve put in place new parenting and day care policies, and associates and shareholders are paired up for informal monthly meetings.”

Those efforts, however, can only be truly effective when they have sincere buy-in from all involved – and that needs to include avoiding “affinity bias.” Burroughs said that when he was at Dorsey & Whitney, a partner told him his default was to give work to associates “who look like me.”

“He wasn’t being nasty, just telling me who he was used to working with,” said Burroughs.

Ann Jenrette-Thomas, chief D&I officer at Stinson Leonard Street, said that stubbornness or malice toward D&I efforts at her firm has led to partners being demoted or fired. “If leadership isn’t going to have your back, you’re going to continue to see bad actors abuse their power,” she said

A significant barrier to effective D&I policies is the inherent bias that is often built into law firms – from snobbishness over one’s law school pedigree to the fallback of giving less conspicuous and rewarding assignments to, say, female associates – only to have that associate spinning her professional wheels years later because she was given research documents to work on rather than depositions, or other assignments that make stronger stepping stones.

“We can’t rely on people’s good will,” said Jenrette-Thomas. “You need a structure that will find bias and course-correct.”

Minnesota ice

What are some of the components of that structure? One is an ongoing conversation about succession, leaving the door open for attorneys of all backgrounds to inherit lucrative books of business. Another is taking the time to get to know the cultures of your firm’s diverse attorneys – and not just on Cinco de Mayo.

A third is speaking up when a client says something derogatory about a diverse group, not just conceding later that you should have spoken up. “Train your partners how to have a ‘pushback’ conversation with clients,” said Jenrette-Thomas.

A final, more subtle ingredient in making attorneys of diverse backgrounds more comfortable in your firm is stepping outside of the self-satisfied cocoon known as “Minnesota Nice.” In fact, just the mention of the phrase made panelists groan and shake their heads.

“I would have been a very lonely person if I hadn’t been married when I moved here,” said Rebecca J. Bernhard, partner and diversity co-chair at Dorsey & Whitney. “Get to know people outside of lunches and happy hours.”

Lawyers are born listeners when it comes to client needs, but their ears often remain shut when they’re in the role of employers, said Bernhard. “It sounds facile, but if we listen more, we’ll have a better idea of where we need to be.”

The panelists agreed that any D&I measures should be implemented proactively – before valuable talent gets away.

“When a good lawyer leaves and firm leadership says, ‘He didn’t give us a chance,” said Rajkumar, “the question to ask yourself is: Did you give him a chance?”

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