By Gregory Olaniran , Partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP (MSK)

Corporate diverse team meeting

I have practiced law for more than a couple of decades, and have had the privilege of being involved in diversity and inclusion efforts in law firms for almost as long. Over time, I have witnessed increased awareness of diversity and inclusion issues and moderate improvements within the profession; however, there is so much more that must be accomplished. I offer below an organizational framework for developing a diversity and inclusion program. My suggested framework is based on my experience in leading comprehensive diversity efforts within a few organizations, and learning through working with leading experts and reading contemporary research. Although the proposed framework assumes an organization that is at the very beginning stages of instituting a formal diversity and inclusion program, I realize many are at various stages of developing their programs.

1. Assess who you are culturally.

Few people consider themselves unaware of or insensitive to diversity issues, and many equate their subjective, individual experiences with an understanding of populations of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. This is not uncommon in law firms. Candidly, it is rarely the case that an organization with no formal diversity and inclusion program is as aware of, or as sensitive to, diversity issues as it thinks it is. As the cliché goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Therefore, commitment to diversity and inclusion issues requires, first and foremost, an objective self-assessment at the beginning of the journey. That assessment must answer many questions about your organizational culture in the context of diversity and inclusion, including whether who your organization thinks it is culturally squares with who an objective assessment of its culture reveals it to be. Does your organization possess an awareness of and sensitivity to diversity and inclusion issues, and has it implemented policies that have resulted in measurable changes in its culture specific to diversity and inclusion issues? Few, if any, organizations experience that correspondence. The good news is that a lack of correspondence is (or should be) the catalyst for your organization to begin the journey to achieving who it aspires to be culturally.

2. Define who you aspire to be culturally.

If, like most organizations, your cultural self-assessment does not square with your self-perception, a well-executed self-assessment will provide an array of themes, patterns, and attitudes within the culture of your organization with respect to diversity and inclusion. These revelations present a tremendous opportunity for your organization to define what it aspires to be culturally in the context of diversity and inclusion. Aspirational goals can be both qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative goals include a commitment to education and awareness, which may include instituting lecture series by subject matter experts, establishing affinity groups, organizing formal mentoring programs, and holding networking events focused on diverse groups. Quantitative goals can include improving your organization’s recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse talent. This does not mean setting quotas for diverse talent; however, it does mean that the organization must engage in an honest, in-depth analysis to determine what needs to change, such that its processes do not unintentionally, but systematically, exclude diverse talent.

Revelations about an organization in a cultural self-assessment are not necessarily always negative. In fact, an assessment that reveals a deep loyalty to the organization, mutual respect between colleagues, and an openness to change on the part of leadership, among other things, can provide a solid foundation on which your organization can build its diversity and inclusion program.

3. Define how you wish to reach those cultural ideals.

With aspirational (i.e., bottom-line) goals now defined, and organizational priorities set, your organization must define the infrastructure it needs to implement cultural changes. Formation of a committed diversity and inclusion committee (or a similarly purposed group) is critical to this process. The baseline issues that need to be addressed by the new group include identifying employees whose membership provide a strategic advantage for accomplishing diversity goals; establishing long- and short-term goals, and related timelines; obtaining resources—human and financial—to support the efforts; and identifying the necessary leadership.

4. Connect organizational leadership to those ideals.

Leadership is critical in achieving diversity and inclusion goals. For any diversity and inclusion plan to work, it is imperative that organizational leaders not only believe in your organization’s diversity and inclusion goals, they must also communicate their support for the plan across all levels of your organization and participate in related activities regularly. A leader, or leaders, at the organization’s highest levels must be involved in all phases of implementing a diversity and inclusion plan. It is at these high levels that allocation of resources to diversity and inclusion goals—both financial and human—are determined. Therefore, the absence of such involvement suggests an organization has not yet prioritized its diversity and inclusion goals or its diversity and inclusion plan.

To close, keep in mind that diversity and inclusion are dynamic and ever evolving. For this reason, organizations pursuing diversity and inclusion goals must be committed to understanding the nuances of existing issues, as well as nascent issues, and adapting accordingly.

Gregory Olaniran

Gregory Olaniran

A Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP partner who represents clients in copyright, entertainment, and business litigation matters. Top Rated Intellectual Property Attorney in Washington, DC, Super Lawyers (2016-2018).