Q&A with Gabrielle Lyse Brown: City Bar Hopes Much More Detailed Benchmarking Report Will Drive Diversity Improvement

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, New York City Bar Association, Q&A Interviews, Surveys, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

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Quantifying diversity has become a big challenge for the legal industry as the numbers of women or minority lawyers entering the upper echelons of law firms remains low, despite good-faith efforts and diversity initiatives pursued over the years.

Now, the New York City Bar Association has released its 2015 Diversity Benchmarking Report that the City Bar says it hopes will increase accountability and move the dialog around diversity from a general one to one with more detailed and concrete steps toward success.

Gabrielle Lyse Brown, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the City Bar discussed the report’s findings with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Tell us about your research and the overall work of the New York City Bar Association on Diversity.

Gabrielle Lyse Brown: The City Bar has been collecting and analyzing the benchmarking data of our signatory law firms since the creation of the Office for Diversity in 2004. After more than a decade of watching the metrics change incrementally, we created a task force to update the survey and strengthen the impact of the resulting data.

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Gabrielle Lyse Brown, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the New York City Bar Association.

The 2015 benchmarking survey included several significant updates, including the breakdown of individual racial and ethnic groups for men and women attorneys at all levels, as well as new sections on workflow and bonus structures within the firm, engagement in pipeline efforts, and a “better practices” section to highlight specific firm initiatives that are yielding results.

To increase accountability, we made the survey mandatory for all firms in order to be listed as signatories to our Statement of Diversity Principles, and each firm’s confidential, individualized report was sent directly to the Managing Partner. Additionally, we have created an internal plan for follow-up and supplemental programs in the coming year with City Bar committees and affinity bar partners.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: What are the key highlights from the report?

Gabrielle Lyse Brown: Our primary goal was to inform and motivate our readers — we wanted to advance the conversation from a general concern about the state of diversity in the legal profession to a detailed dialogue about specific challenges law firms are facing and highlight possible solutions.

With the quantitative data, we wanted to increase transparency and clearly identify the problems on a granular level. This year, rather than reporting stalled progress for minority attorneys as an aggregate, we could identify the stark under-representation of Black/African American and Hispanic attorneys beyond the associate level. We also sought to highlight practices that law firms have employed that seem to be working with regard to enhancing the careers of diverse attorneys.

Our qualitative research revealed a number of impactful efforts to retain and promote minority and women attorneys. And we are well-positioned to serve as a clearinghouse for this information, encourage collaboration and effect meaningful change amongst our signatory firms.

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Separately, for individuals reading the report, we wanted to empower women and minority associates to use the data and recommendations to make proactive efforts to assess the availability of these opportunities in their firms and networks — for example, finding a sponsor, asking for feedback or seeking external leadership opportunities.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: What findings surprised you?

Gabrielle Lyse Brown: I would not say that I was surprised by any of the report’s findings, as I am driven by these numbers in my work daily. I am hopeful that the report’s numbers, along with the compelling graphics, will serve as a catalyst for law firms. In particular, I hope that firms will assess the detailed data points regarding Black/African American and Hispanic attorneys at the partner level and in other leadership bodies. As a profession, we have been discussing the lack of diversity in the leadership ranks for years, but have often countered this with “good news” stories about successful women partners and the development of women’s sponsorship initiatives. However, the fact that Black/African American and Hispanic partners are at 0.5% and 0.7%, respectively, is a critical data point that we as a profession have an obligation to improve.

The voluntary attrition data, especially at key points in the associate pipeline, is also alarming. Our profession needs to keep pace with millennial lawyers who want to see opportunities for career growth and job satisfaction, or we risk losing them. This erosion of the associate pipeline for minority and women attorneys makes promotion decisions more difficult when the pool of diverse talent continues to shrink.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: You mentioned that this was the first time the information was broken down by ethnicity. What did you discover?

Gabrielle Lyse Brown: As I mentioned before, this process shed light on the alarming lack of minority women in law firm partnership and leadership bodies. It also demonstrated that, for women attorneys, there is greater racial and ethnic diversity as you advance to leadership roles; in contrast, the percentage of white men continues to increase steadily from associate to equity partner. For the first time, we were able to evaluate the pipeline from junior associates to overall firm leadership and compare with attrition data, two critical elements of our research, as they specifically relate to each racial and ethnic group.

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We partner closely with several affinity bar associations in the New York City area, and hope that this specificity will help them to support their membership and their partner firms with the resources and programs they provide.

Data is an important tool for driving change — it helps to streamline the process of making everyone in the firm fluent on the overall landscape, and you can’t fight it. So we are proud to be able to provide this information and then work with our signatory firms to advance their diversity efforts.

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: How can the law firms act on the information?

Gabrielle Lyse Brown: We have tried to make this very easy. As a first step, law firms should read the general findings and their individual reports, and use this information to identify their own specific challenges. They should then use the bulleted recommendations and best practices that we included in the report as a foundation for their own efforts. We have been working with each individual firm to help them understand their reports and create individualized action plans for the year ahead.

For the individualized reports, with the support of our exceptional team at Deloitte, we replaced the charts of data comparison with user-friendly, visual graphics to help streamline the process of making leadership and other key stakeholders at the firm fluent in the successes and challenges.

Finally, true success will come when individuals with power and authority in their firms make a genuine commitment to advancing their peers. Collecting the data and reporting the metrics will never be enough. True movement depends on targeted efforts to enhance career opportunities for diverse attorneys — for example, coaching, sponsoring, providing business development opportunities and offering external leadership development options. These require a personal investment by all stakeholders which, I believe, can really make a difference.

We hope that with these updates to our survey, the firms can apply actionable next steps and that the numbers will continue to improve in the coming years.