The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many longstanding cultural fault lines and accelerated other societal transitions that were already underway. Many of the changes wrought by the pandemic are therefore here to stay. It should come as no surprise, then, that the twin health and economic crises of 2020 will also certainly change how diversity and inclusion initiatives shape our workplaces for good — and forever.
The legal industry, like nearly every other industry worldwide, has been impacted over the past several months. As law firms and other legal organizations necessarily look to cut costs and adjust budgets in this difficult time, extra investments in diversity and inclusion such as affinity group conferences or gatherings, cultural celebrations and bias trainings, just to name a few, appear obvious targets. Likewise, the lack of access to safe, stable childcare and schools has impacted women and single working parents in a particularly stark and notable fashion. The digital divide has similarly been illuminated, and our new, pervasive reliance on reliable internet connectivity threatens to leave many women and diverse groups in the dark.
It would be too easy, however, to allow the COVID-19 pandemic to function as the end point for enhanced diversity and inclusion for our industry. Even to pause our efforts in this context would be disappointing and disastrous for individuals and the collective enterprise. Rather, there is a better way to frame the pandemic and its impact on diversity and inclusion efforts in our industry. This devastating pandemic, instead, should rightly be understood as the unanticipated catalyst for diversity and inclusion.
The traditional corporate environment has been shattered in the past two months, sending the entire legal industry into a remote landscape. We have been transformed from a world where we were lawyers first and everything else second (if at all) to fluid hybrid roles of lawyer-teacher-caregiver-short order cook-housekeeper and more. Our outside-the-office lives have now been inextricably meshed with our professional lives. We all know the sound of a fussy toddler interrupting a conference call to ask for a snack, the barking dog demanding to be let out or the alternating sounds of parental cooing with pointed, nuanced legal advice.
This is the symphony of life today and although these sounds have always been there, they were relegated to the background and more often forced out of view. This is a primary reason diverse groups have struggled in the legal industry historically — their unique experiences and voices were not given equal airtime despite all the creative and progressive policies, programs and benefits crafted in good faith and based on compelling data over the past several years.
The quest for an inclusive workplace, by definition, is the process of creating an environment where any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued. An inclusive climate embraces differences and offers respect in the words and actions of the organization so that all of its members are fully engaged and successful. The pandemic has unexpectedly gifted our industry that opportunity.
It is our job now to recognize that gift and harness it for the future. Diversity is fundamentally about seeing and supporting the multiplicity of backgrounds and demands on our time in a way that allows lawyers of all kinds to climb to the top.
If our incessant videoconferencing brings us into the living spaces of our colleagues, we will no longer be able to hide from the diversity of our realities. If we are compelled to ask and truly hear the answer to the question “how are you?,” then our bonds with our colleagues will be deepened and broadened in ways we couldn’t have foreseen. If we are forced to see our professional obligations through the lens of others who have different yet valid challenges, then we can form deeper team bonds and provide more nuanced, empathetic, practical legal advice. Cultivating a workplace that openly embraces our myriad experiences, fosters different modes of thought and allows for multiple intelligences is the essence of diversity.
Now that it is no longer taboo to schedule conference calls and Zoom meetings around doctors’ appointments, homeschooling responsibilities, other caregiving obligations or simply your mental health space, we can finally proclaim to inhabit inclusive work environments.
Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the way we work, to realign our expectations that life must bend to the dictates of work and redesign our workplaces, policies, benefits and our communication strategies to embrace and celebrate the fluidity of our new roles.
Ultimately, if we seize this unique moment and allow this transformation to wash over our workplaces permanently, then this terrible and tragic pandemic will usher in truly diverse and inclusive workplaces that allow all individuals, including diverse and underrepresented groups, to flourish.
— Ali Metzl is a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and founder and chair of Brownstein’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and Committee on Diversity, Inclusion & Equity.