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A focus on change

The role of diversity and inclusion leaders at a law schools and firms has evolved and become more prominent over time

Michael Birchard

Michael Birchard

Twenty years ago, when Michael Birchard began working in the field, diversity offices were known for three things: food, fabric and festivals.

From events featuring traditional dishes, clothing or cultures of other countries, diversity efforts then turned to “putting out fires,” recalled Birchard, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Today, Birchard sees diversity, equity and inclusion efforts focusing more on systemic change to “close these inequities that we’ve seen persist over the years.”

Birchard, who joined Mitchell Hamline in June 2021, is among a number of diversity, equity and inclusion officials, committee and team members at Twin Cities law schools and law firms working toward that end. While such efforts may predate George Floyd’s murder, the racial and social justice movements it sparked appear to have added urgency to their work.

Erikka Ryan

Erikka Ryan

Since Floyd’s murder, Erikka Ryan, the Minnesota State Bar Association’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, has seen a cultural shift, with some firms committing more sustained resources into DEI efforts and hiring people of color.

“We’ve heard an excuse that it’s difficult to recruit and retain people of color and it’s been put on people of color, like they’re the reason,” Ryan said. “If they’re not being represented, that’s a reflection of something [firms] are missing because that community of legal professionals is out there.”

What Floyd’s death taught is that “we need to take some steps back and unlearn what we were doing before so we can continue to learn and grow,” Ryan said. “That might answer a lot of questions as to how we got here. Then we can move forward and continue learning.”

Law firm leaders shouldn’t wait until their workforce is diverse to make equitable decisions benefiting “others who don’t look like you,” Ryan said.

Ann Jenrette-Thomas

Ann Jenrette-Thomas

“From that we create systemic change,” Ryan said. “Over time that creates accessible opportunities for people of color and other marginalized identities to get to your space.”

At Stinson, the national law firm has seen a 120% increase in attorneys of color since Ann Jenrette-Thomas joined its Minneapolis office in November 2016 as chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Jenrette-Thomas’ goal is to make people aware of unconscious biases and instill empathy so they feel a personal connection to diversity and inclusion work while restructuring policies, procedures and norms to lead to more equitable results.

Jenrette-Thomas is increasingly using data to identify issues such as — hypothetically — women attorneys leaving a practice group at a certain stage and seeking solutions.

Ra'Shya Ghee

Ra’Shya Ghee

“In the industry, I think what’s next is more of a push on retention and advancement strategies,” Jenrette-Thomas said. “Why would they want to stay here? That goes back to building relationships across difference. That’s really the heart of why people feel connected.”

Organizations that are trying to cultivate diverse and equitable spaces have to commit to change, said Ra’Shya Ghee, assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Minnesota Law School.

“If you want diverse and historically excluded people in your organization but you don’t want anything about the organization to change, that is probably not an organization where diversity, equity and inclusion are going to thrive,” Ghee said.

Organizations that want to be diverse need to welcome contributions and feedback of all kinds of people, said Ghee, a racial equity educator and consultant who joined the U in August.

Sybil Dunlop

Sybil Dunlop

Student advocacy, Ghee said, helped lead to creation of her new role.

“A much broader swath of stakeholders is getting an opportunity to drive some change,” Ghee said. “It’s interesting to see this democratization of power happening.”

Greene Espel partner Sybil Dunlop, co-founder of the Minneapolis firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion practice and a national thought leader on the subject, sees opportunities for improvement throughout the profession.

Firms need to hire diverse attorneys reflective of the communities they serve, invest in them and give them non-biased feedback as they seek to retain them, Dunlop said. Corporate legal departments have to demand diverse representation and consider internal incentives for hiring diverse talent. Judges, as some in the district of Minnesota already do, can encourage dividing oral arguments to include younger and more diverse attorneys.

“The first step is to admit we might have a problem because then we’re more willing to put in place institutional measures to solve it, which is the best thing we can do if we’re trying to eliminate bias,” Dunlop said. “We’re much better at fixing problems when quantitative measures are in place.”

Janine Loetscher

Janine Loetscher

Greene Espel has revamped its feedback to focus on specific behavior rather than personal characteristics, Dunlop said. The tries to recruit from diverse pools, with women, people of color or LGBTQ-identifying individuals accounting for 15 of 16 partners made in the last decade.

Progress by Bassford Remele’s diversity, equity and inclusion team has accelerated since Floyd’s murder, said Janine Loetscher, team co-chair and a shareholder at the Minneapolis firm.

The firm last year established a scholarship for diverse and underrepresented students at each of Minnesota law school, Loetscher said. The scholarships will renew each year that the students continue in school.

Recent changes to leadership policies have expanded representation, resulting in three women joining Bassford Remele’s board of directors.

“I’m really proud of my colleagues,” Loetscher said, especially those who addressed their own “insecurities and discomfort” to support the changes. “I think a lot more people are willing to confront it so that things can change.”

Joel Nichols

Joel Nichols

For the last three years, faculty and staff members on the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s diversity and inclusion committee have been learning about best practices for creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, interim dean Joel Nichols said.

The law school is diversifying the art it displays, with a new Women’s Wall of Leadership, featuring female lawyers’ contributions to the law, Nichols said.

In the school’s atrium, Smithsonian lithographs of Native Americans represent area Indigenous communities. The university and law school have issued a land acknowledgement statement recognizing that they occupy the ancestral and current homelands of the Dakota people.

Curriculum additions focusing on diversity and racial justice include courses on Native American law, policing and the law and race, law and history, Nichols said.

“Our diversity, equity and inclusion work is rooted in our mission as a Catholic law school,” Nichols said. “It’s framed right at the core of what it means for us to be hospitable and fully welcoming to each person, to bear witness to the truth of human dignity in each person.”

Mitchell Hamline’s Birchard said the systemic issues the school is looking at include creating trusted relationships that attract students from historically underserved communities, connecting with and identifying how to teach students of all backgrounds, hiring and retaining diverse staff and faculty and diversifying vendors.

This fall, Mitchell Hamline joined with North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park to teach a new class on psychology, race and the law. Participants visit Mitchell Hamline’s campus in St. Paul next summer to learn more about law school.

“Our laws have evolved to where we almost have this thing called equality,” Birchard said. “But what we’ve been struggling with is this thing called equity. I think what we’re moving toward is thinking about things more systematically. We have to look at the bigger things.”

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