In a previous interview, Michelle P. Wimes, Esq., the Director of Professional Development & Inclusion at Ogletree Deakins, identified challenges that diversity initiatives face and how to overcome them. Here, she describes how she laid a foundation for a successful diversity and inclusion program.
Jathan Janove: You joined Ogletree Deakins in September 2011. What was first on your agenda?
Michelle Wimes: I focused on creating a shared vision with the firm’s leaders. My goal was to create a coordinated, strategic approach to diversity as a business imperative, including integrating that approach in the firm’s professional development programs and overall firm strategy.
JJ: How did you get started?
MW: Before pursuing any particular program or plan, I felt we needed to create a foundation. We conducted a needs assessment and had a phenomenal response rate—86 percent! The assessment provided valuable insight into the firm’s culture, perceived needs, and priorities. And the information gained enabled us to go to the firm’s Board of Directors and make a credible case for what needed to done.
JJ: What else did you do to establish a foundation?
MW: We overhauled the firm’s diversity committee. When I arrived, it consisted of nearly 100 attorneys and lacked structure or focus. We created the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, which replaced the diversity committee, and limited the number of members to 14 shareholders who were well-respected and committed to diversity. The committee included attorneys from both majority and minority groups.
Working with the steering committee, we identified metrics and goals and set up periodic assessments. We developed attrition reports, gathered exit interview data, and compared minority employment in each office and geographic area to the relevant demographic data in each office.
We developed a list of activities for committee members including attending job fairs, writing articles or blog posts, organizing or attending diversity events, and mentoring diverse attorneys. Committee members committed to doing at least three of these items. We scheduled telephonic meetings every 60 days with 3 in-person meetings per year.
JJ: In an organization with over 700 attorneys in four countries, a committee of 14 seems small.
MW: We didn’t stop with the steering committee. We created an ambassador group. Ambassadors include shareholders, associates, and of counsel attorneys from majority and minority groups. There’s one in each of our 46 offices. The ambassadors disseminate information to attorneys in their offices about our programs and efforts and serve as our “eyes and ears” on the ground.
JJ: Since laying a foundation, what other steps have you taken?
MW: We created affinity groups for minority attorneys, such as African-Americans. These groups act as safe harbors facilitating open discussions about dreams, goals, challenges, frustrations, failures, and successes specific to that demographic. We’re adding structure such as meeting schedules, career development topics, and roundtable discussions.
In addition, we started ODWIN, the Ogletree Deakins Women’s Initiative, to create a forum for the candid exchange of views and to support this talent pool in developing books of business and moving into leadership roles at the firm. The group members meet regularly, share best practices, host retreats, and conduct webinars.
JJ: Was there a concern that such affinity groups might seem exclusionary?
MW: Some people had that perception, which I believe was misguided. In my experience, having affinity groups in which persons of similar races, genders, ages, or sexual orientations interact with each other actually promotes inclusion. People feel less isolated, more supported, and are more willing to reach out and connect with others from both minority and majority groups.
JJ: What’s on the horizon?
MW: We are focusing more closely on professional development—the steps our attorneys need to take to be successful in our culture, environment, and a rapidly evolving legal industry. Although our professional development initiative applies to all attorneys, we will also be tailoring these initiatives to meet the needs of different audiences, such as millennials, LGBT attorneys, and attorneys in other minority groups.
JJ: How important is professional development to diversity and inclusion?
MW: It’s essential. Minorities in majority-run organizations more frequently experience gaps in understanding expectations, receiving constructive feedback, and accepting feedback. Minorities disproportionately lack mentors, coaches, or trusted supporters who will tell them the unwritten rules of success. These gaps impede professional development, negatively impacting the overall diversity initiative and depriving an organization of talent that goes untapped.
You may have a vigorous recruitment and hiring program. However, if you don’t focus on the professional development of the diverse employees you hire, your diversity initiative will suffer.
JJ: What other steps are you taking?
MW: We plan to interview 50 of our top performing attorneys. From these interviews, we will create a profile of the core competencies, skills, actions, and behaviors necessary for success—whether it’s regarding client relations, legal advocacy, or working with others in the firm. We want to outline a path our attorneys can follow as they progress from junior associate to shareholder.
We are creating a professional development framework and learning-management systems to make this path clear. We’re establishing benchmarks and providing resources including coaching and mentoring in which top performing shareholders will be matched with top performing diverse attorneys.
JJ: What kind of support have you had?
MW: It’s been tremendous, starting with that 86 percent response rate I mentioned. The firm has made a substantial economic investment, including in a full-time professional development and inclusion staff that will soon be growing to seven. We’ve enjoyed enthusiastic and energetic participation in the Diversity and Inclusion Steeringmittee, ambassador program, and the Professional Development Steering Committee that we started. The firm’s Managing Shareholder, Kim Ebert, has championed our cause and has served as chair of both steering committees.
JJ: How did you get such support?
MW: By pairing core values with business objectives. We’ve shown that diversity, inclusion, and professional development aren’t just the right things to do; they improve the bottom line.
The awards and recognition we’ve thus far received have helped us attract and retain high quality minority and majority attorneys. Attracting and retaining high quality attorneys translates into high quality service for our clients, which of course translates into outstanding business results.
We represent employers all over the world in labor and employment law matters. Many of our clients have their own diversity initiatives. They give preference to and in some cases require their service providers to demonstrate their commitment to diversity. They want their legal counsel to reflect the diversity of the clients they in turn serve. We’re now able to do this.
I’m grateful to work in a field that combines good moral sense with good business sense.