Q&A with Manar Morales: Diversity & Flexibility Alliance Promotes Structures that Will Help Retention of Women

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

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Often one of the impediments for a law firm or corporate law department to better retain top-quality female lawyers is simply that those institutions may not know how to, or are unable to put in place the structures that would better promote and retain their top female talent. Enter the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, an organization that is dedicated to empowering law firms and corporations to successfully promote structures, such as flexible work schedules and inclusive work cultures, that lead to the advancement of women leaders.

Manar S. Morales, President and CEO of the Alliance, spoke with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) about how the organization works, and what it’s seeing in the legal profession around women.

Promoting Workplace Flexibility

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Could you tell us a little bit about the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance and how it came about?

Manar S. Morales: We’re a think tank that provides structural solutions and individual strategies for organizations to increase their effectiveness by leveraging flexibility and supporting the advancement of women. We develop partnerships with our members and collaborate on solutions that address the unique needs of each organization. We offer customized advisory services that support our members in their flexibility strategic planning, development of their women’s initiatives and the connection between the two. Through our Flex Success Frameworkwe are able to walk members through all the steps necessary to create and implement a successful flexible work policy that is supported by leadership and becomes part of the organization’s culture. Our members recognize that while it obviously benefits many women, flexibility is not just a women’s issue, rather it impacts everyone and can improve employee retention, morale and the bottom line of the business.

Manar S. Morales, President and CEO of the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance

Manar S. Morales, President and CEO of the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance

Our members, which mostly include law firms, legal departments at corporations and financial services firms, have access to our research, to a community of experts and peers and to our advisory services. We hold an annual conference in March in Washington, DC, where we present new research, offer opportunities for networking and arrange presentations from experts in the fields of diversity and flexibility. Our annual research on Law Firm Flexibility Benchmarking and New Partner data provide our members with crucial information that helps them develop real, actionable strategies that they can implement in order to move the ball forward.

TWLL: If I am in an organization that’s a member, what are your suggestions?

Morales: We hope that all of our members take advantage of all the services we offer. On our website, we post Action Steps each month on specific topics relevant to how your firm can be successful either as it relates to flexibility or the advancement of women. Topics include: How do you use your flex policy as a recruiting tool? Sometimes it’s more specific, like how do you create a robust telecommuting policy? How do you engage leadership in that conversation? How do you identify your glass ceiling and help women advance? In addition, we offer a Signature Seminar Series which are bi-monthly teleconferences led by national industry experts, Flex Advisor Workshops and a Flex Success Institute.

According to our research and the research of others, most firms already have flex policies in place, but they are not using them or implementing them in the way that benefits the firm or its employees best. One size does not fit all however. During our advisory meetings, we are very intentional about not providing model policies. We begin by walking our members through diagnostics to make sure they are solving for the right problem. We might suggest what they should think about in a policy, but firms need to interview all stakeholders when creating the policy. Each policy needs to address the unique needs of the organization and must have buy-in from all levels of leadership to truly create the culture change necessary. I think our customized approach allows us to help our members bridge the gap between policy and practice.

Recognizing the Desire to Change

TWLL: How does the research your group is doing impact these strategies?

Morales: Our benchmarking survey, for example, asks a lot of in depth questions about flexibility in law firms. We ask questions about holistic flexible work usage including reduced hours schedules, telecommuting flexible start-end times, annualized hours and job sharing by attorney position, gender, race and sexual orientation. We don’t shame anyone by publishing the results, we simply want firms to examine their policies and usage and help them to improve their policies. Some of what goes into our strategy and program development is based upon those responses, and seeing what kind of systems firms need to have in place.

We also provide our members with individualized research opportunities. Members have the option of requesting an individualized benchmarking report that provides specific customized recommendations relating to strengths and weaknesses identified in the report. In addition, we can provide our members with focus groups, individual interviews and surveys that help to identify challenges and hidden biases that need to be addressed in their firm.

We also talk a lot to our member firms about what sort of structures they need to have in place for an initiative to be successful. Even if you are looking at something like a women’s initiative, for example, what is the structure of that initiative? What is the structure that it needs to have in order to be successful and how are you measuring and tracking its success? We can also look at leadership development. What are some of the individual leadership development strategies that women can employ to become more successful?

TWLL: How do you recognize a firm that truly wants to create a commitment to inclusiveness and diversity?

Morales: Are they willing to do the work? Are they willing to have conversations in order to solve for the right problem? Sometimes a firm will say, we just need a policy, something drafted, and then just put it out. Great… but you’re not likely to see the benefits of that. We encourage our members to engage all stakeholders within the firm including professional development, recruitment, client relations, leadership, attorneys and staff across all offices. Firms can only reach a level of complete inclusivity and diversity when they have identified the challenges, they have buy-in and they have a structure in place to ensure that goals are being met.

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Once leadership is involved, the initiative should be rolled out like a business initiative, (You can’t just send out an email to the firm saying we have this new policy). I can gauge how much groundwork a firm is willing to do just by asking questions, to make sure they have the right buy-in for the policy. It comes down to if the firm leadership really understands the business case for the policy.

We formally recognize law firm partners who are working reduced hours schedules and maintaining a highly successful career through our Flex Success Award given at our annual conference in March. Additionally, each year we present the Flex Leader Award which recognizes a law firm Chair or General Counsel who demonstrates true leadership from the top and embraces the importance of diversity and flexibility. Beginning in 2017 we are planning to recognize innovative flexibility initiatives that are helping to take the industry to a new level.

TWLL: Where would you like to see this program be in say, five years or so?

Morales: I’d like to see flexibility become the default. Right now, we have to disrupt the default, which is that flex programs don’t work. Some law firms say, ‘Well, it’s just a 24/7 environment around here and flexibility doesn’t work’.

We are seeing a shift, however, and it’s great to see that flexibility is not being discussed just as a women’s issue. It’s being discussed as a talent issue, and a way in which you can leverage top-talent. And I think we’re getting there, although some firms need to be brought along a little bit more than others.

At the Alliance we are committed to helping our members integrate flexible work into their culture thereby improving recruitment, retention, moral and allowing more women in leadership positions. While most of our members are from the legal industry, we are finding that the financial, professional consulting and tech industries all face the same challenges and we have expanded our diversity and flexibility services to meet the needs of these industries.