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Applying equitable design principles to the law with Aubrey Blanche

Aspiring to have an equitable organization that fosters inclusion and diversity is one thing, genuinely actioning it is another. Realizing the benefits your people and organization will reap from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is the first step, creating a realistic plan for equitable business outcomes is the next. 

Aubrey Blanche, Senior Director of Equitable Design, Product & People at Culture Amp, shares her expertise with the InView community as to how an organization and subsequently in-house legal teams can embrace and action DEI: getting executive buy-in, harnessing data for equitable decisions, and organizing and coordinating grassroots efforts. 

DEI can be overwhelming, and Blanche’s advice is to begin by focusing on the equity component. Creating equitable processes inevitably helps people move towards diversity and inclusion. “With Equitable Design, the philosophy is about enabling each person to do their own analysis to determine the one thing they can do at this moment that creates more equitable outcomes for their organization,” she says. 

That may materialize as designing an organizational equity strategy or, if you are a mentor, ensuring the time you give to a mentee from a majority group is matched by time given to someone from a minority or discriminated-against group. If you are an operations analyst, being equitable is asking the question: Are we collecting equitable data from all groups and if not, is this really compliant?  

Blanche’s business case for DEI is simple. “We know that diversity of experience can create more internal conflict but also leads to better ideation, innovation, financial performance, engagement, and employee happiness.” Yet she forewarns that although a business case may grab the attention of the C-suite and Board, you don’t want to build your DEI efforts off short-term business metrics. “Because if you're having to make a business case that says we shouldn't discriminate against people, that's a pretty low bar.” 

DEI efforts should be based upon a genuine desire to create more equitable workplaces and opportunities for marginalized people and that requires having the long term in mind. 

Blanche says a common misconception regarding DEI is that “people hold it to a lower degree of rigor or a higher degree of rigor than is appropriate”. Some simply think of DEI as having conversations or education, and although that's certainly a piece of the puzzle DEI should be a strategic business priority. This means having aligned leaders who are well-versed or willing to learn about creating equitable organizational outcomes and have agreed on buy-in to collect data on DEI.

On the other hand, it is paramount to remember that DEI is aiming to reconcile historic and systemic inequities, which doesn’t translate to quarter-on-quarter improvements. Metrics and data are important to track progress but, as Blanche points out, you should not expect “a 1000-year-old problem to be solved on a quarterly earnings report cadence”.

People have differing opinions, and sometimes these opinions clash when determining which groups are in the most need of equity and who has been disadvantaged by other groups. Blanche looks to the past to ask if historical events and behaviors have caused ongoing and current-day inequities for a group in society. “If you, in the current day, are actively benefiting from those systems, what we're asking is that you use that benefit in a way that helps the community.” 

For those of us privileged either by race, gender, class or education, Blanche urges that we acknowledge our privilege and subsequent responsibility. By doing so we can actively lift others up which will allow us to help right historic inequities that continue to oppress people today.

Law is a profession steeped in inequity. It is a profession where women, people of color, and disabled people are still fighting the glass ceiling. The American Bar Association’s A Current Glance at Women in the Law reveals some sobering statistics. Women make up 22.7 percent of partners and 19 percent of equity partners in private practice. In corporations, they make up 26.4 percent of General Counsel at Fortune 500 companies and 23.8 percent in Fortune 501-1000 companies. 

A 2018 American survey by Vault and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association
determined that 35.7 percent of lawyers in private practice are women, with only 8.57 percent women of color. They also found that 82.64 percent of all lawyers are white/Caucasian, 16.84 percent are people of color and 0.44 percent are disabled. Whilst white males make up only 34.0 percent of associates in law firms, they account for 53.6 percent of partners. 

It is glaringly obvious that the law is not a diverse profession nor representative of the population. Indeed, Blanche points out that the legal profession is rife with “institutional historical discrimination”.

Legal professionals can be traced 3000 years back to the ‘orators’ of Ancient Greece who provided legal advice but could never formally present themselves as lawyers due to the restrictions of Athenian rule. Things progressed through the Roman and Byzantine Empires. “By the fourth century things had changed in the eastern empire: advocates now were really lawyers,” says Schulz Fritz. 

Yet although the law is three millennia old, it wasn’t until 1869 in the American state of Iowa that Arabella Mansfield became the first recorded female lawyer and attorney. It has only been in the past 150 years that women have had sway over the legal rulings and laws that uphold our societies. 

Conscious hiring is an obvious way to create equity, but this requires some cultural changes from legal firms and corporations. Firstly, is not hiring based upon ‘culture fit’, although this term is thrown around in HR departments. Blanche points out that culture fit is further homogenized and creates a single-flavor team. “Look for diversity of experience when hiring; explicitly look for differences as the thing that is desirable in the process.” 

When hiring graduate lawyers, don’t make attendance of an elite university a prerequisite, rather look for candidates who have diversity of experience. “From a statistical perspective, you're better off hiring a systematically excluded person who is not from a top tier college because they'll likely have all of the skills and none of the entitlement,” says Blanche. It’s often the oppressed who have worked harder and overcome more obstacles to get to the place they are in - especially lawyers. 

The law has a long way to go to become equitable and actioning this can seem overwhelming. Blanche's advice is to bring everything back to the mission statement: How can I make this process more equitable? 

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