Diverse Leaders in Law: Diversity, equity and inclusion—where do I start?

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Jocelyn Armstrong

It can be said that America is at an inflection point when it comes to the impact of race on the country’s citizens. While many of central Ohio’s large law firms have established diversity, equity and inclusion programs over the past decade to advance minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, some smaller firms may be looking for ways to get a program or movement started because of the current climate in the U.S.

While there’s no one right way to launch such an effort, they can take some tips from leaders in the region who have made diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives their professional forte.

Four of those leaders participated in Columbus CEO magazine’s quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum in April, which was presented in partnership with Barnes & Thornburg and Frost Brown Todd. The most recent discussion focused on how firms can begin the diversity, equity and inclusion journey. The panelists were:

• Jocelyn Armstrong, director of inclusion and outreach, Ohio State Bar Association;

• Kim Amrine, director of diversity and inclusion, Frost Brown Todd;

• Stephen Francis, president and lead strategist, Franchise D&I Solutions; and

• Kelly Atkinson, diversity and inclusion coordinator, Barnes and Thornburg.

The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Buy-in from the top

The foundation of any DEI program is getting buy-in from leadership, who carry the vision of an organization, Armstrong says. That includes internal leaders and board members who should make it a pillar of the firm’s strategic plan.

“Having the buy-in at that level means that you’ll have the resources you need,” Armstrong says. “That means people resources, that means financial resources, that means time resources—any type of resource that you would need because your leadership is saying, ‘This is important to us.’ ”

If DEI is a top-down idea, everyone in the firm will rally around the initiative because of the blessing from leadership, she says.

As a consultant, Francis says he can help a client establish a business case for a DEI initiative—the who, what, where, when, why and how— but that’s just about 20 percent to 30 percent of the work that needs to go into it. The majority of the work can’t be done by a consultant.

Stephen Francis

“There has to be arms, legs, walking, talking, living, breathing, top-down commitment every single day for the work to actually get done,” Francis says. “So I’m the planner, but you can’t plan without action and so that’s that 70 percent to 80 percent.”

Amrine says senior leaders need to do more than just be supportive. “It’s about being truly engaged in the work and being engaged on a daily basis so that it’s comfortable,” she says. “Speaking to it, driving change within your teams. And often senior leadership, who may not be diverse themselves and may not have diverse life experiences, may really struggle with the how and may need coaching on how to be engaged. How to show up and how to walk the walk and talk the talk consistently and constantly within their roles within the organization. And then at any level, that takes time, and it takes intentionality and coaching.”

Kim Amrine

Staffing DEI

Many law firms that have launched DEI initiatives have a person dedicated to it full-time. So, who should that person be, or not be, and who should they report to?

“I’m a firm believer that for this to truly to have a powerful impact, whoever is doing the full-time DEI work within the organization should be a direct report to the CEO or senior most leader within the organization,” Amrine says. “I think oftentimes when you see it as an arm of human resources … over time I think it’s difficult to have as big of an impact as quickly and intentionally because you don’t know everything that’s happening at the top level within the organization, sometimes behind closed doors.”

Francis says it could be a recipe for failure to pick a lawyer to lead the DEI initiative who has a busy practice focused on billable hours. “I think you have to have a diversity professional (who is) not practicing law within the firm to lead those efforts because it takes a 24/7, 365-day-a-year focus,” he says.

Armstrong cautions against picking a DEI leader simply based on their background or how they look. The person needs to have the right skill set and humanity, and the role includes being an educator and helping those in the firm impacted by societal events and possibly, second-hand trauma. “That opens the door for (the firm) to display humanity as an organization and to say to that person, ‘We understand or we are trying to understand and to be empathetic.’ ”

Kelly Atkinson

Atkinson recommends choosing someone who has influence with those who work within the firm, including non-lawyers and members of the community. As a non-lawyer, she might not have influence with lawyers in some firms, but her firm recognizes she brings a different perspective to the table. “Barnes & Thornburg is awesome at making sure we are thinking about all of our talent and not just half of it,” she says. “I’m really glad we’re showing people that we care about the wellness of every one of our talent.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.