The Importance of Diversity in Corporate Legal Departments

Although diversity is covered regularly in InsideCounsel's bi-monthly "Driving Diversity" column, it's always beneficial to reinforce such an important issue. This month, I would like to offer my thoughts and suggestions on the importance of diversity, and particularly the legal department's role. Every corporate legal department needs to set the gold standard for diversity in the workplace. The general counsel can't ask other executives of the company to develop diverse functional teams without first building a diverse legal department that demonstrates the values of diversity in the workplace.

Of course, the first task is to assemble a work force in the legal department that incorporates diversity among its legal, paralegal and administrative staff. However, merely building a diverse work force in the corporate setting is not the ultimate goal. This is where the management piece of the equation fits in. When properly managed, a diverse group will demonstrate increases in creativity and productivity, new attitudes among the department members, and the development of new processes and solutions.

How does a general counsel who has built a diverse legal department capitalize on the benefits of a diverse team?Encourage inclusion in making decisions. Actively solicit the views of your team members when making policy decisions that may affect the overall department and its interaction with the broader business clientele. The decision-making process should be a collective, collaborative effort. Recognize the added value that each team member brings to this decision-making process.

The general counsel must maintain an open mind prior to making a policy decision. Remind everyone that there is no one best way to approach a legal problem. Articulate that no one, including the general counsel, has all the answers. When the GC sets the stage in this manner, the department members will feel free to voice their opinions and listen to the opinions of others.Form project teams consisting of members from diverse backgrounds to handle special matters. It might seem the easier solution to build a project team that consists of members with the same background or previous experience with the matter. This group might be able to complete the project quicker but may do so by employing the same, previously used methods. Break that pattern: Construct a team of people and encourage them to use their different views and backgrounds to approach the matter in a new and better way. This will reduce or even eliminate the tendency to resort to getting the job done the same old way.

When your diverse team completes a project with a beneficial outcome, promote the success to your whole department and others in the company. Foster tolerance within the team. For those who are not used to working in a diverse work force, tension--sometimes under the surface--may arise as a result of the challenges posed by the differing views and backgrounds represented in a diverse team. Temper the opinions and egos of your team members so that no individual can undercut the goals of diversity. Encourage your team members who have demonstrated commitment to the goals of diversity to become involved in project teams outside the legal department. They will become advocates to the broader business community in confirming how diversity leads to the best business decisions. Remind everyone within the legal department that she has a role to play in making diversity in the workplace a vital tool. Each legal department member should be aware that she was selected on the basis of the unique background that she contributes. In order for a diverse work force to come alive and thrive, it requires the active engagement of everyone.

Thomas Lalla

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