Diversity depends on leadership

Law firm chief diversity officer looks at challenges, benefits of her role
By Lisa Vogt
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/23/2013

In January, McCarthy Tétrault became the first Canadian law firm to appoint a chief diversity officer (CDO) when I took on the role. And while this was a milestone for the firm, its diversity initiatives began much earlier.

In 1921, McCarthy Tétrault hired Edith Sheppard, becoming one of the first law firms in Canada to hire a woman lawyer. At a time when 99 per cent of law school graduates were men, and women had won the right to vote in federal elections only three years earlier, Sheppard began a tradition for the firm of investing in talent and investing in women.

Almost 10 years ago, Catalyst Canada was engaged to map the firm’s demographics and prepare a gender pipeline for the advancement of women lawyers. The study confirmed McCarthy Tétrault was like most of corporate Canada — “male, pale and stale.” It’s trite but not wholly inaccurate.

We knew we could do better. In 2011, we broadened our diversity mandate beyond gender to engage everyone and focus on inclusiveness. For the firm, inclusivity involves acknowledging, understanding and valuing all individual differences, and judging people as individuals rather than representatives of a group.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has famously encouraged women to “lean in” to their careers and contribute around boardroom tables. Diversity is about being invited to sit at those tables, but inclusivity is about being heard when a contribution is made.

Right now, 25 per cent of McCarthy Tétrault’s senior leadership team are women and 27 per cent of its board of partners are women.

Diversity and inclusivity are strategic priorities for the firm. They are not only the right thing to do, they are also a business imperative. An ability to foster an environment that attracts, retains and advances the brightest and most committed people is critical to the delivery of professional excellence and client service.

The business case is clear. Diversity maximizes the firm’s collective performance by encouraging intellectual debate — as lawyers, nothing is more satisfying. Research also indicates diversity is a risk management tool, which is particularly compelling in a profession trained for risk aversion.

There’s still a great deal to do, but thus far McCarthy Tétrault has built:

• a foundation of best practices that embeds diversity in its recruitment and talent management programs

• a national diversity committee that sets action-oriented goals each year and is accountable for them

• a business case for diversity articulated by its leadership team

• affinity networks, including a national pride network

• formal mentorship programs

• family-friendly work policies and benefits, including leading-edge parental leave programs and gender-neutral flexible work policies

• mandatory diversity training for all lawyers and staff.

The policies, programs and initiatives have won the firm external recognition, including being named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers, but success is not measured by programs and initiatives. Diversity is about cultural change and engaging everyone.

We are familiar with diversity fatigue and the frustration of one step back for every two steps forward, where only the step back is remembered. We also believe that at workplaces, especially the extreme work environment of legal practice, behaviour unintentionally but inevitably falls back to old habits if the drive is not maintained.

Chief diversity officer role about looking forward

Creating the chief diversity officer role is a commitment to keep focused on the way forward. It’s an acknowledgement that keeping diversity top of mind can’t be done off to the side or by a committee — we needed someone to own this.

The irony is that for a workplace to be wholly inclusive, everyone must internalize and own diversity. Inclusion needs to be about who we are, the way we work and, like excellence, expected from everyone. The ultimate objective of the CDO role is, therefore, to eliminate the need for the role altogether.

At professional services firms globally, the title of chief diversity officer is given to a practising equity partner who assumes leadership for the diversity mandate. The distinction is important because it goes to commitment from the top. We want leadership ownership, not leadership support. I came to this role after being an equity partner at McCarthy Tétrault for more than 20 years and being actively involved in diversity initiatives.

The immediate objectives for the role are both internal and client-facing. Internally, the responsibilities include oversight of the firm’s diversity initiatives and working with the firm’s professional resources team to develop and implement leadership programs. Externally, the role is one of seeking out and promoting opportunities to collaborate with clients on diversity-related events and initiatives.

McCarthy Tétrault intends to be seen as a diversity leader. The most challenging aspiration is to continue to recruit, retain and advance women lawyers into our partnership in significantly higher numbers. Our work environment is demanding. We also recognize that, given societal norms, more women than men will choose one that is less demanding.

This is a complex reality with no simple way through. Even so, our goal is to grow our partnership with women equity partners, with sustainable, long-term growth, to a leadership level among our peers.

We will do this by ensuring all of our lawyers, regardless of individual differences, who want to work as we do have an equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace and have flexibility at times in their career when work-life issues require accommodation. If there are ways of working in which excellence can be less demanding, we will find them.

Some of our recent successes:

• The percentage of women income partners has risen from a low of 27 per cent in 2004 to 45 per cent in 2012.

• The percentage of women junior associates is at a 10-year high of 53 per cent.

• The rate of advancement of women associates to income partnership averaged 32 per cent between 2003 and 2007, rising to an average of 42 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

• 50 per cent of the firm’s new equity partners in 2013 were women.

Success going forward will look like this: more women and lawyers from diverse backgrounds participating on and leading client teams and significant mandates each year; an increased percentage of them becoming equity partners; new and innovative diversity initiatives supported by lawyers at all levels; and work allocation that supports equal access to career-advancing opportunities.

Diversity and inclusion depend first and foremost on leadership at the top. The appointment of a CDO is a public and collective commitment by our partners to sustainable change. We have made that commitment with a great deal of pride in who we are, what we have done so far and, more importantly, what we will do going forward.

Lisa Vogt is a partner at the Vancouver office of McCarthy Tétrault and chief diversity and engagement officer. For more information, visit www.mccarthy.ca.

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