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Diversity Roundtable: Affinity Groups Find Common Ground

June 28, 2023

By Jeremy Conrad

D.C. Bar Corporation, Finance and Securities Law Community’s Diversity Roundtable

The D.C. Bar Corporation, Finance and Securities Law Community’s Diversity Roundtable event on June 27 drew 11 panelists who are responsible for advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts in government, corporate, and law firm environments. Speaking before nearly 50 attendees, participants spoke with candor about their personal experiences and common goals.

In her opening remarks, former D.C. Bar president Ellen Jakovic highlighted ongoing work on DEIA issues within the Bar, saying that, earlier in the day, the organization’s DEIA Task Force had convened to establish working groups committed to focusing on specific concerns such as pipeline issues and metrics. “We are in a unique position,” Jakovic said. “We are the largest integrated bar in the country, and we are among the most diverse bars in the country. We want to make sure that we take advantage of that and that the [D.C.] Bar is a place where everyone who is a member feels welcome and feels like they belong.”

Jakovic credited the Bar’s Communities for leading DEIA efforts. She cited the work of the Diversity and Inclusion in Business and Finance subcommittee and its chair, De’Ana Dow. Other panelists acknowledged Dow as a driving force behind the Community’s substantial efforts and as the event organizer.

Panelists shared their experiences, described programs they implemented, and swapped insights gained as DEIA advocates. Edwin Nazario, a partner at Reed Smith LLP, said that his firm had had some success addressing early pipeline issues by establishing a stronger relationship with a local historically Black university.

Many attendees perceived mid-career stagnation to be a significant barrier to true diversity within the profession. Moderator Neal Kumar, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, referred to the problem as a “leaky pipeline” issue.

Laura Astrada, head of risk and compliance at the Long-Term Stock Exchange, noted that collaboration among members of diverse affinity groups could help address barriers to career advancement, noting that her own successes were inspired by the advice and guidance of an ally. Astrada suggested that strengthening cooperation among affinity groups could generate a “pathway to success.” She went on to say that “the things that seem to work and resonate fast are the ones that really address intersectionality.”

K&L Gates LLP partner Craig Leen urged that diversity efforts include people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community, saying that DEIA initiatives often focus on racial and gender disparities. “Intersectionality is really important, and it’s a way for the DEIA committees to really stay on the cutting edge of diversity for law firms,” he said.

Addressing a practical concern, Leen noted that lack of representation and pay gaps remain major impediments to the advancement of the profession. Moderator Robin Nunn, a partner at Linklaters LLP, agreed, saying that “the tone is set at the top. You need to have the support of your leadership with DEIA issues, and you also have to fund the departments. You can’t expect an office of inclusion or a DEIA office at your firm to put on all these activities with no money. They must be funded.”

Participants proposed some practical steps toward closing these gaps. For example, Leen suggested that law firms voluntarily undertake pay equity self-audits. A true commitment to DEIA would include a serious look at pay gaps and deliberate efforts to close them, he said.

Pay gaps could also be closed by compensating efforts that benefit a company or firm’s DEIA efforts, or by compensating the added value brought to an organization by an individual’s language fluency, suggested Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP associate Melissa Colón. “If we are going to talk about compensating, promoting all of the assets and attributes that diverse folks bring in, we need to be sure that we recognize them and compensate them as much as we use them.”

Alicia Lewis, special counsel to the chair of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said that DEIA efforts could also address pay and opportunity gaps by becoming a part of organizational performance metrics. “On your performance appraisal, your evaluation, there should be a box asking how you participated in or supported DEIA initiatives within your division and have that tied to compensation.”

Members of the audience had proposals, as well. One attendee, serving as in-house counsel for Freddie Mac, said that clients can be an ally in DEIA efforts, as corporations have increasingly imposed stringent diversity standards on law firms. “In-house counsel can be your ally and help you push your firms to move in the right direction. Use people like me to help you,” he said.

There were early indications of the event’s potential for positive impact. Sam, a rising 3L at Howard University and a summer associate at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, said, “I’m really grateful to be here today. I’m a person who finds myself at the intersection of many diverse identities and, off-campus, this is the first event that I’ve been to that speaks to bringing diverse groups together.” Sam asked about whether an increased focus on intersectionality could improve efforts to achieve pay and representation parity.

Panelists proposed developing common DEIA goals that could be distributed and promoted, conducting events that draw participation from law firms across the District, and establishing a council that would encourage firms to commit to reforms.

In her closing remarks, Dow encouraged further cooperation among affinity groups. “When we did the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] event, guess who showed up?” Dow said. “An AAPI audience. When we did a Hispanic event, guess who showed up? A Hispanic audience. When we did Black-themed programs, guess who showed up? [A] Black [audience]. We are not supporting each other, OK? We all face similar challenges as lawyers in our respective roles and jobs and positions. We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to support each other if we are going to make progress.” Dow and others remarked that the roundtable event could be held annually as a step toward future collaboration among affinity groups.

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