A few years ago, I participated in one of the many diversity panels I have been privileged to experience. My fellow panelists were four senior in-house attorneys from Fortune 100 companies--all well-known, iconic, U.S.-based global companies like my own. The topic of our discussion was "Marketing Your Firm's Diversity." The audience was predominantly brown, black, yellow and female.
As the microphone made its way down the line for our opening statements, I could not help but audibly observe that this diversity panel, like most others I have participated in, was not itself terribly diverse. Given the absence of white male lawyers in the audience, I concluded that diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is an issue that attracts a very discrete and predictable set of stakeholders--minority and female lawyers.
Where were the law firm leaders? Clearly there is a business opportunity to heighten their firms' relevancy in the current marketplace given minorities comprise less than 6 percent of partners in the top 250 law firms, according to a 2008 survey by the National Association for Law Placement. Where were the senior in-house corporate lawyers? Shouldn't they be assisting in the diversity effort, given minorities comprise only about
15 percent of all corporate in-house lawyers, with considerably fewer in senior roles?
Exactly who owns diversity and inclusion as an issue, an initiative and a mandate? Because if the right people in our profession don't own diversity--that is, if diversity and inclusion are not woven into the institutional fabric of firms and law departments--then my fellow panelists and I will be forever relegated to preaching to the proverbial choir.
After some reflection, I wondered whether the problem was the title given to the discussion. What if the exact same panel spoke on how to attract, retain and develop top talent in firms and law departments in a global marketplace? What if the problematic "D" word had been dropped from the title? Without diversity as the contextual premise of the discussion, would general counsel, managing partners, practice group leaders, recruiters and a host of other decision makers have considered that discussion relevant to them?
On another occasion, I was invited to speak to an audience of corporate professionals. In a brainstorming session with the event planner, I casually proposed a diversity-themed presentation. The planner very sincerely and candidly framed the ownership dilemma with her response. "Well John," she said, "we should probably consider topics of more broad-based appeal." She explained that diversity presentations in the past with highly regarded diversity speakers simply had not been well received or attended. She went on to explain that "not many 'diversity people' typically attend this conference."
Now when I am asked to speak, I survey the room to see who's there. That way, I gain insight into the vision and business priorities of the organizations present. We must reflect on our own organizations and ask the difficult question: Who owns diversity and inclusion here? Is it only the diversity committee? Is it only the highest ranking minority lawyer?
The good news is that the opt-out approach is not sustainable. Not for organizations that want to be relevant and win in the marketplace. Globally, the customer and the workforce will be significantly different--and more diverse--in the next 10 years. In this brave, new multicultural world of the 21st century--the age of Barack Obama, the age of a soon-to-be numerically dominant U.S. Latino population, the age of a global middle class population exploding to over a billion people, with China and India leading the way--it's time to stop looking for the diversity people. Folks, we are all the diversity people.