The Case for Hiring Diverse Lawyers: How In-House Counsel Can Attract Diverse Talent

  • June 13, 2019
  • Julie Sobowale

The Case for Hiring Diverse Lawyers: How In-House Counsel Can Attract Diverse Talent

Stuart Pixley was struggling. Along with senior counsel, he was negotiating a business deal for a client. Usually Pixley could hide his hearing loss by reading lips, but this time, with everyone sitting so far apart in the boardroom, he couldn’t see people’s faces clearly.

“I should’ve just asked for them to repeat what they said,” he says. “But the partner said that if we asked the client to say something again, they would think we’re taking too much time.”

Pixley decided he wanted to work in a more inclusive environment; for him, that meant looking outside of private practice. He began working at Microsoft in 2008 as Senior Attorney on its Antitrust Compliance Team, and, more than a decade later, he is now working in its Quantum and Silicon Systems Futures Group.

“In BigLaw, I didn’t see lawyers with disabilities,” he explains. “With in-house, there are other people with disabilities in the department and part of the company-wide community. I like connecting with the disability community.”

In-house counsel have the opportunity to lead the legal industry in promoting diversity and inclusion. While the focus in the last few years has been to push external counsel to have more diverse legal teams, legal departments still have work to do as well. In-house counsel need to go further, leading by example and hiring more diverse lawyers internally.

Before diving into the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, it is good to be clear about what this means. Diversity is about statistics and having a mix of people that match the population. The CCCA’s 2018 In-House Counsel Compensation and Career Survey shows progress in gender and diversity. For the first time, women outnumber men, 51% to 48%. One in five in-house lawyers are visible minorities. Six percent of in-house counsel are Chinese, 5% are South Asian, and 4% are African-Canadian/African/Caribbean, compared to 4%, 3% and 2%, respectively, in 2017. One percent identify as belonging to a First Nation, 2% are Métis and 5% have a disability.  

Inclusion, however, is a different story. This measures how comfortable people feel in their work environment and whether the workplace is accommodating.

For instance, can co-workers bring an ethnic dish to work without worrying about people being bothered by the smell? Do they feel comfortable asking for a special chair or desk because of a physical disability? Are they okay asking to leave work early to care for a sick child?

Perception is a major factor in accommodation. When Pixley was working in private practice, he remembers not being asked to go golfing with his co-workers. Pixley, who uses an electric wheelchair due to his cerebral palsy and no functional vision in one eye, believed he was not asked because he did not look like a “typical lawyer.”

“When people think of lawyers, they think of people on the TV show ‘Suits,’” says Pixley. “Those characters walk and talk and look a particular way. I don’t exactly fit that mold.”

Hiring People with Diverse Backgrounds

Lawyers with disabilities and racialized lawyers have a harder time fitting into private practice, and are more likely to work as in-house counsel. Legal departments offer an alternative workspace that fosters inclusion.

When organizations as a whole make diversity a priority, legal departments can use this opportunity to participate and get resources to hire and retain diverse lawyers. Pixley found a better fit at Microsoft because the company places a high value on diversity and inclusion. It has a Chief Accessibility Officer and a Chief Diversity Officer in its executive team to support its efforts to be diverse.

“In BigLaw, you have to be a revenue generator but you need mentorship and support,” he explains. “It was hard for me to get that, especially from anyone who looks like me or has the same challenges.”

Generally in-house counsel are looking for experienced lawyers, preferably those who have worked at large law firms for a few years. This requirement is a major barrier for underrepresented groups, who typically work in government, in smaller firms or as solo practitioners.

"I am often asked, ‘Will corporate legal departments recruit me if I'm working as a solo practitioner?’," says Pixley. "It's a pipeline problem. In-house counsel may need to expand our doorway."

You need a dedicated group of people to promote diversity. Ken Fredeen, General Counsel and Secretary to the Board at Deloitte LLP, is not who you would expect to get involved in such initiatives and he knows it. The self-described “typical, straight white guy” has served on the federal Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities Panel and received a number of awards for his work supporting diversity and Canadians who live with disabilities.

“Being inclusive in particular of people with disabilities is a key leadership quality,” says Fredeen. “It starts with building diverse teams, but to draw out the best in your talent, you need inclusion. What it means to be inclusive is evolving and that is why leaders need to constantly learn from, engage with and be authentic with their people in order to build and maintain high-functioning inclusive teams.” 

His passion for diversity and inclusion led him and other in-house counsel to found Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion, an organization committed to promoting diversity. In 2014, the organization created a scholarship fund for law students with disabilities, and in the future, it plans to create a database listing law graduates with disabilities so in-house counsel can easily connect with them.

When companies consider hiring people with disabilities, the conversation usually starts with accommodation. According to the Carleton University David C. Onley Initiative, which studies employee accommodation, 65% of employees do not require accommodation, and for those who do, the cost is less than $500 on average. Do an analysis of your work environment, considering not only cost but also what your workplace already does for current employees.

“By the way, when you create a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities, you create a workplace which benefits everyone,” adds Fredeen. “We are all more productive. For example, the sit-down/stand-up desk was created for people with back problems; yet, today, we all benefit from having this inexpensive option. I call this the ‘curb cut effect’ in our offices.”

Creating an Inclusive Workplace

Inclusion in the workplace is an ongoing process that must be nourished and encouraged. One of the biggest issues for people with disabilities, for instance, is perception. People do not want to be seen as different. When recruiting people with disabilities, think about how that person can contribute to your organization.

“Typically abled people are so quick to focus on disabilities, rather than the abilities people have,” says Fredeen. “In fact, innovation requires both diversity and inclusion, and people with disabilities are likely to enjoy huge innovative insights particularly when it comes to understanding and adapting technology. For example, a lawyer with visual impairment will likely be able to navigate technology in a paperless world much better than most of us. I call that an asset and I have seen it work.”

Become a mentor—mentorship is crucial for racialized lawyers and people with disabilities. Get involved with the CCCA Mentoring Program, and start a program at your organization to look at ways to bring in diverse law students for summer or articling positions. For instance, AdvanceLaw, a collective made up of over 200 U.S. General Counsel that shares performance data to identify and retain star lawyers, recently launched a mentorship program to help diverse lawyers make connections and advance.

Increasingly, in-house counsel are open to hire newly called lawyers. Helen Liu began working at Intact as an articling student in 2013 and now works as Associate Senior Counsel. To promote diversity in the profession, she became Vice-Chair of the CCCA Ontario Chapter. She also co-chaired a joint Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers and Ontario Bar Association networking event in 2017 to help close the gap between law firms and in-house counsel finding diverse talent.

“In-house counsel have an important role to play in promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal workforce,” says Liu. “Even more so than before, as in-house legal jobs become increasingly more attractive to young lawyers.”

At Intact, each department is required to go through HR training that has respect in the workplace and diversity components. Employees also attend webinars and in-person training sessions, and participate in Diversity Day, where different activities ranging from potlucks to guest speakers are held to promote diversity. The legal department decided to take it even further by holding a workshop about inclusive leadership last year.

“There must be an atmosphere where people feel welcome, where they feel included, which is one step further than just being part of a team that is diverse in appearance,” says Liu. “Some employers have diversity metrics and data, but it’s not just a numbers game. Inclusion has to be fostered.”

In-house counsel have a great opportunity to gain the competitive advantage of having diverse and inclusive lawyers onboard. This work is not only for the greater good but also to have the best talent working for your legal department.

“As general counsel, we have a unique and important leadership role to play within our organizations and in the legal profession,” Fredeen says. “We understand equality, and we know what equality and due process look like. I encourage people not just to speak up, but stand up and take action.”

Quick Resource Guide for Creating a Diverse Workplace

  • Rethinking DisAbility in the Private Sector: This 2013 report from the Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities includes examples from law firms on recruiting and retaining people with disabilities.
  • Legal Leaders for Diversity: The organization provides resources on how to promote diversity including a handy guide on how to be an advocate in your organization.  
  • Diversity Lab: This incubator offers creative innovative solutions for boosting diversity in the legal profession. The Lab successfully created the OnRamp Fellowship for women re-entering practice and held diversity hackathons across the U.S. last year.
  • The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession: This Chicago-based organization conducts surveys about diversity. Check out the comprehensive 2017 review of the legal profession and the business case for diversity report. The Institute will be completing a report on GCs and diversity in fall 2019.

Julie Sobowale is a writer and journalist.