5 Tips for Successful Diversity Programs

offering diversity programsFor the past decade, Illinois has encouraged attorneys to take a diversity program to fulfill part of their CLE requirement. Over that decade, we’ve seen the percentages of diversity programs offered and taken in Illinois remain practically unchanged. We’ve seen some well-done diversity programs that have been poorly-attended, while hearing from some attorneys that they don’t attend diversity programs because they’re not well-done. And we recognize the criticisms shared in many articles on why diversity programs succeed and fail.

At the same time, the current demographics of our profession and the changing demographics of the public we serve make that need even more urgent. The movements across the country, the debates happening in legislatures, the marches and strikes and protests and counter-protests, the recognition that formerly excluded minority groups want their voices to be heard, all make it clear that there is a long conversation on diversity that we are still having. Including the viewpoint expressed by many in the still-strong majority who feel their voices are being silenced in the dialogue.

Given all that context, how can you – the managing partner, the bar association president, the diversity director – hold a successful diversity program that recognizes all of these competing factors? Here are some ideas that I’ve learned over the years:

1. Understand and set goals.

This is a basic rule of any training. If you as management do not know what you want from your diversity program, and explain to your facilitator, then your facilitator will not be able to appropriately tailor the message and will be speaking to people who aren’t primed to listen. Have you spoken with your diverse attorneys and staff, and your non-diverse attorneys and staff, to learn what they’re struggling with? Are you having a retention problem? A promotion problem? An inclusion problem? Understand why you’re bringing in a diversity trainer, then have her teach with that understanding in mind.

2. One size diversity program does not fit all.

Every organization is different, and in each of our different organizations, there are sub-groups with very different diversity challenges. So instead of bringing in a diversity speaker to talk to your entire legal organization, think about how it might be a different conversation for your senior partners, your junior associates, your staff, your paralegals, your minority attorneys, and so on. And think about the wide range of topics that can be covered in a diversity program – compensation, recruitment, succession planning – all of which are crucial to understanding perspectives and changing behavior.

3. Be realistic about what people want out of your diversity program.

It’d be nice if everyone is attending out of a sincere desire to be more inclusive. But the reality is that lawyers are taking time in which they could be billing clients to attend this program, So be explicit about why it benefits attendees to be at the diversity program. Have your diversity trainer make a business case. Talk about leading. Explain why a diverse team is a stronger team. Appeal to the sense of justice. Talk about competitive advantages. Explicitly answer their unasked question – “How will this benefit me?”

4. Emphasize problem-solving skills.

Diversity programs, at the core, help people recognize that other people bring different perspectives and skill-sets to the table. But that’s only the start. See, it’s great to recognize that different people offer different perspectives. But at the end of the day, it’s possible that the older male white partner may genuinely still disagree with the opinion that the younger female Hispanic associate brings to the table. And vice versa. So if you leave it at, “Everyone has diverse viewpoints. They should just talk to each other and figure it out,” then you’re not providing your lawyers with the skills to actually address those problems. Ensure your diversity program emphasizes listening skills, conflict resolution skills and problem solving skills. It will help when conflict arises, which it will.

5. Diversity programs are not, have never been, and will never be enough.

Diversity programs start a conversation that it’s likely many of us are unwilling to start. As I’ve written about before, people find it difficult when to talk about difference, particularly with race. So once that conversation starts, keep it going. Schedule a lunch to have participants discuss what they learned and how they’ve changed their behavior. They can even criticize the diversity program. Hold a book club. Host a team-building activity. The diversity program has readied people to talk and listen to each other so give them venues to do that.

Next, recognize that a diversity program is only the beginning. Changed recruiting practices, feedback and evaluation. Targeted professional development. Formal mentoring programs. Diverse compensation committees. Diversity managers and task forces. Those are all proven long-term solutions to diversity dilemmas. Diversity programs are the prologue; the rest of the book is up to you.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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