By Timothy Downing, Ulmer & Berne LLP

At a time when the country is extremely divided, a broad and inclusive approach to diversity can actually bring people together. By working together, acknowledging and embracing the differences that all people have, and focusing on the various strengths we all bring to the table, diversity is a way to find common values and goals that can lead to less division going forward.

In the context of law firms, diversity and inclusion are also good for business. Diversity and inclusion lead to better decisions—with the input of more diverse points of view—and provide a greater variety of personalities and a more interesting and enjoyable work environment. A diverse workforce also allows a law firm to expand its client base by appealing to a greater number of potential clients.

Although law firms have generally expressed the desire to promote diversity and inclusion, many have not been very successful at actually becoming diverse and inclusive places to work. While this situation is improving, most firms continue to struggle with diversity and inclusion, especially at the management level.

Clients today, especially larger, publicly traded clients, are demanding firms change if they want to remain on “approved counsel” lists. These clients value diversity and inclusion for altruistic reasons, knowing that diversity enriches the work environment and encourages growth through exposure to new ideas. They have also seen the impact that diverse and inclusive teams have on their bottom lines.

About 10 years ago, clients started asking their law firms to look more like the communities and companies they serve. In response, many firms tried to promote diversity and inclusion by, for example, creating diversity and inclusion committees.

The committees were tasked with promoting diversity and inclusion, and in many cases, made real, positive impacts. However, the committees were often ineffective because they lacked the authority and influence to affect change. Even when a committee was able to recruit diverse candidates, training and retaining these candidates was beyond the committee’s scope. These firms often did not do enough to help diverse lawyers advance and thrive. Clients took notice and began demanding that firms do more in order to continue to receive work.

Cutting-edge firms have recognized this problem and made promoting diversity and inclusion a top priority. To stay ahead of the curve, they have begun to do something that companies started doing years ago—appointing chief diversity officers (CDOs).

CDOs play a critically important role at law firms, as they are tasked with not only ensuring that diverse lawyers are recruited and hired, but also that they are properly mentored and provided opportunities to work on significant matters, so they can advance. CDOs are also tasked with developing, implementing, and supporting policies, programs, processes, and initiatives that can be used to educate both employees and clients regarding diversity and inclusion best practices.

Finally, law firms have begun appointing CDOs because, like the companies that hire them, they are businesses that need to generate significant revenue and profits. They have read the studies that talk about the impact a diverse and inclusive workforce has, not only in creating an environment where employees can reach their full potential, but also on generating revenues. And virtually all of them have reached the same conclusion—having diverse and inclusive teams in the workplace creates the best outcomes and generates the most revenue and profits. So expect to see more firms hiring or appointing CDOs in the future.

Timothy Downing

Timothy Downing

Timothy J. Downing is the Chief Diversity Officer of Ulmer & Berne LLP, a law firm headquartered in Cleveland, with additional offices in Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Boca Raton. As Chief Diversity Officer, Tim helps to support Ulmer’s successful diversity and inclusion initiatives, and works to increase the firm’s internal and external diversity and inclusion programming and community involvement, while overseeing its implementation and execution. In addition to serving as Chief Diversity Officer, he remains a fierce advocate for clients and focuses his practice on complex business, and employment and labor, litigation.