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Leading diversity in-house

|Written By Helen Burnett-Nichols
Leading diversity in-house

Through their role as a client, there is no doubt that many in-house legal departments have the power to push for greater diversity within the profession. But for many corporate counsel, the key to developing the most effective inclusiveness strategy is to join up with colleagues in a collective effort to evoke change through the entire pipeline.

Similar to initiatives seen in the United States over the last decade, corporate counsel-led diversity programs have sprung up in Canada in the last few years, urging corporate legal leaders to join their peers in signing on to promote diversity within their own departments, and also when selecting outside firms.

One of the newest such efforts, Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusiveness, launched in May with 40 general counsel signatories, a number which has since grown to 55.

“This is probably one of the first initiatives I’ve seen where there’s been this much excitement and energy around it, so I’m very, very positive about it. I’m really looking forward to the conversations,” says Terrie-Lynne Devonish, chief counsel at AON Canada, and a recent signatory to Legal Leaders for Diversity.

Kevin Derbyshire, general counsel with DuPont Canada and co-founder of the Canada-wide initiative established by general counsel, explains that its purpose is to promote and encourage greater diversity and inclusion in the signatories’ own businesses, as well as co-operate to foster the same values throughout the legal profession and the larger Canadian business community.

A similar program, A Call to Action Canada, had its first event in 2009 and is based on the 2004 U.S. initiative of the same name. The program also runs conferences and summits every year and currently has eight signatories, with

GlaxoSmithKline Inc. as the most recent participant.

“We are looking to in-house counsel to take the lead on this issue by using their economic leverage as clients to push for diversity,” says co-founder Joy Casey.

Ritu Bhasin, a diversity specialist with bhasin consulting inc., says while companies need to have their own diversity initiatives that are relevant based on their organizational culture, there is also a lot of strength when industries and sectors come together on an initiative like Legal Leaders for Diversity because it allows counsel to share thoughts on what works and what doesn’t.

“It also helps to provide a strategic roadmap for those organizations which are more in their infancy,” she says.

Indeed, Ken Fredeen, general counsel at Deloitte & Touche LLP and co-founder of Legal Leaders for Diversity, explains that as senior people within the general counsel community, the founders of the initiative are able to offer help and support along the way to other corporate legal departments who may be starting diversity policies from scratch, and perhaps don’t know where to begin.

For example, Legal Leaders for Diversity has developed a list of 17 best practices, which signatories can benchmark against their current efforts, find the gaps, and take steps to address areas where they might not have been as strong. One of the benefits of the group, says Derbyshire, is that it involves practical steps that corporate counsel can take to implement and advance diversity and inclusiveness actions within their companies.

“To the extent you’ve got people who may not have, for one reason or another, thought about diversity a lot but want to sort of start into it, it gives you a very good list of best practices. You’re not going to be able to take on all 17, you take some subset of that and begin the process,” says David Allgood, executive vice president and general counsel at RBC, and one of the co-founders of Legal Leaders for Diversity.

From the American perspective, Lori Garrett, vice president and managing director, southeast region for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, says these programs allow corporate counsel the opportunity to be active, without requiring the same resources or cost associated with undertaking a program solely in-house.

In the United States, for example, the MCCA runs the KAN-Do initiative, a program adopted by a number of corporations that encourage their in-house lawyers to sign up as mentors and connect with diverse lawyers across the country.

In the view of several corporate counsel, recent Canadian initiatives have been designed specifically for the needs of in-house departments, rather than run by human resources or external law firms. “For those of us who have been in the in-house game longer than we were in the private practice game, or certainly our careers have developed in the in-house realm, having an in-house-led initiative is exciting, because it really does take into account the type of business we do, the type of practice we have, which I think is important,” says Devonish.

Sanjeev Dhawan, president of the Ontario chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel and senior legal counsel at Hydro One, also highlights the importance of a “made in Canada” solution like Legal Leaders for Diversity, given the differences in history between Canada and the United States, and in ways of doing things in both countries.

While he says Legal Leaders for Diversity and A Call to Action Canada have the right idea, Dhawan adds that his department hasn’t signed on. He explains that Hydro One’s own diversity policy is working well, and each organization has its own approach. “It’s not to say that if you haven’t signed on, you don’t embrace the spirit of what they’re advocating,” he says. “But I think as a principle, we as an organization — our corporate diversity policy overlaps with a lot of the intent of the policy.”

Whether as a signatory to a corporate counsel-led diversity initiative or not, many in-house counsel acknowledge and hope to exercise their role as leaders in this area within the profession.“We do have a certain influence on the private legal community and one element of our thinking was to essentially provide leadership and show a good example to the outside law firms. Not to say that they weren’t doing some diversity things, but we thought that they perhaps could do more,” says Allgood.

“When a company can turn to its legal service providers or potential legal service providers and say as part of the pitch, ‘you need to tell me what you’re doing within your organization, within your law firm on diversity and inclusion in terms of initiatives, but also tell me what your numbers are, tell me what your plans are for this upcoming year’, that can have a real impact,” says Bhasin.

At the same time, the issue of how best to handle relationships with firms that may not put diversity at the top of their agenda can be a challenge.

For example, for several in-house counsel, the part of the A Call to Action Canada statement where signatories “intend to end or limit our relationships with firms whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse” has been a point of resistance to joining the initiative, says Casey.

However, she says the possibility of consequences for outside law firms that do not place a high priority on diversity is fundamental to the success of inclusiveness initiatives.“There has to be an economic reason because the moral suasion just isn’t good enough. For better for worse, it’s not good enough. And what will make a difference is the economic driver,” she says. “Firms that have done this and have taken it on with passion in the States, they don’t easily terminate law firms. If they see that a law firm is sort of falling back, they talk with them, they sit down with them, they try and find out what’s going wrong.”

Daniel Desjardins, senior vice president and general counsel at Bombardier Inc. and Quebec regional chair for Legal Leaders for Diversity, says keeping firms engaged is key. “To change their view, the only way you can do that is through an active dialogue. Close the door on them, as I said, and you go nowhere and so if you want to have change, you’re best to continue this relationship,” he says.

But Paul Saguil from the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers says there is also a question of enforceability.

“How is it that you’re going to hold law firms’ feet to the fire if they don’t do this and it’s easy to talk about it when everyone’s views are sort of aligned, but it might be more difficult when the client’s needs go one way, and their demands may go one way, and these principles that we’re trying to uphold are sort of pulling them in a different direction. That’s, I think, where the rubber hits the road,” he says.

While the FACL supports the initiatives, Saguil says the organization is hoping to see measurable and tangible progress within a reasonable timeline, which might be more qualitative in nature rather than strict numbers and quotas.

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