Pledging Action

From The Practice July/August 2023
Lawyer leaders commit to a more inclusive profession

Founded in 2009, the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) spent its first decade building an array of talent development programs that helped set a high bar for the legal industry. Then in 2020 LCLD launched the Leaders at the Front initiative, challenging each of their 400-plus members—powerful law firm partners and leading general counsel—to make a public pledge detailing their commitment to building a more inclusive and diverse legal profession. Today members of LCLD are making good on those pledges.

The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity

In 2004 Rick Palmore, former general counsel of General Mills, wrote “A Call to Action—Diversity in the Legal Profession,” an essay that took lawyers to task for their failure to make progress on diversity and inclusion. While it ruffled feathers, Palmore’s essay also earned a groundswell of support: more than 100 leaders of the U.S. legal profession signed on to his statement, calling for in-house counsel to do more to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations—and to insist that their outside counsel do the same. “A Call to Action” eventually led to the creation of LCLD, for which Palmore would serve as founding chair.

Dedicating itself to “leadership, action, and results,” LCLD began by building programs to advance diverse talent at all levels of the profession, from law school to senior management.

The LCLD Fellows Program, launched in 2011, provides professional development, peer mentorship, and networking opportunities to hundreds of diverse midcareer attorneys at LCLD member organizations every year. The LCLD Pathfinder Program does the same for early-career attorneys. LCLD also created an active alumni network for graduates of those programs, who now number more than 5,000. At the same time, LCLD was building out pipeline programs for diverse first-year law students—the 1L Scholars Program for summer associates and the Success in Law School Mentoring Program, designed for diverse 1Ls and staffed pro bono by mentors from LCLD member organizations.

“LCLD’s programs have been a huge hit with our members,” says Robert Grey, president of LCLD. “That includes the largest mentoring program in the country, which matches close to a thousand law students with attorney volunteers every year.” But talent development, he says, is just “one side of the equation.” The other side, he says, is what happens to that diverse talent in the workplace. “If those work environments are biased or unsupportive, it’s difficult for minorities or women, no matter how talented, to rise to their full potential.”

In 2020 there was a new urgency to the issues that have always been at the heart of LCLD.

Caitlin Puffenberger, LCLD member initiatives manager

LCLD’s board recognized that to truly make change, programs for individuals need to be backed up by culture and system changes within their organizations. From 2015 to 2022, LCLD hosted a series of leadership summits at Harvard Law School, where managing partners and general counsel worked together on strategies for building inclusive environments that would benefit all talent, not just the few. Out of that process came Leaders at the Front, an initiative launched in the fall of 2020 during a global pandemic and amid widespread calls for racial justice across the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd.

“In 2020 there was a new urgency to the issues that have always been at the heart of LCLD—developing diverse talent, making organizations more inclusive, building equity into our systems and processes,” explains Caitlin Puffenberger, LCLD member initiatives manager. “Leaders at the Front came out of that desire from our board to do more.”

For the first year, LCLD encouraged its members to voluntarily create pledges, but in 2021 the board went a step farther and required its 400-plus members to create “Leader Pledges” detailing their plans transparently on the LCLD website. The members responded en masse.

LCLD helped members create and refine their pledges by providing resources, hosting virtual meetings, and conducting one-on-one brainstorming sessions. “We knew that for some organizations, this was a big step, so we tried to provide as much inspiration as possible,” Puffenberger says. “We also made it clear that the goal was for each member to write the pledge that worked best for them and their organization. For most people, the end result was a pledge that both articulated things they were already doing and included new ideas from the LCLD community. It also helped that we were asking everybody else to do it too.” In the end, she says, members inspired one another to do more.

What’s in a leader pledge?

Successful pledges should be built on four “essential principles,” according to LCLD:

  1. Personal responsibility
  2. Organizational impact
  3. Transparency
  4. Accountability

LCLD provides templates for managing partners and for general counsels with suggestions both strategic (“I will use my voice as a leader in my organization and in the profession to advocate for DEI in the legal profession and in my community”) and tactical (“I will review my firm’s origination credit process to ensure that practices such as credit-sharing and developing are equitable). A series of questions like “What is our DEI team tracking?” and “What is our succession plan?” help leaders apply metrics to their platforms and think in terms of legacy and long-term success.

Those personal commitments—the pledges—were directly tied to a founding tenet of LCLD: to make real change, the leaders of the profession must be personally engaged in the process. Yet asking them to make commitments on behalf of their organizations was a greater challenge, as it required buy-in from top executives ranging from PR/marketing to the CEO.

We want to take DEI from transactional to institutional.

Robert Grey, LCLD president

LCLD’s timing was fortuitous. As we have previously written, in the last few years, it has become no longer possible for corporations to be neutral in the face of world events. In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, in particular, organizations around the world were funding diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially through investment in the economic well-being of Black people in the United States. A Washington Post investigation found that in the 13 months after Floyd’s murder, “America’s 50 biggest public companies and their foundations collectively committed at least $49.5 billion” toward initiatives confronting systemic racism—though the Post also highlights the need to track where the dollars are ultimately spent.

As LCLD makes clear to its members, some organizational commitments, like succession planning, require years of investment. Yet LCLD, by emphasizing innovation and collaboration, has begun to gather an array of strategies on how to do DEI better without spending huge sums of money. “What we’re trying to do,” says Grey, “is to work within our members’ organizational structures, taking what is normal and workable and adding DEI practices to it naturally, as opposed to creating a whole new configuration where DEI becomes as much a novelty as the experience itself. We want to take DEI from transactional to institutional.”

Tracking and accountability

There is also a difference between making a commitment and keeping it. That’s why LCLD is helping members implement their pledges. Inspired by one board member’s process for tracking pledge progress, LCLD built an online pledge tracker for leaders to keep tabs on progress toward their stated commitments.

“Because everybody’s pledge is unique, we couldn’t set a single goal that would work for everyone,” says Grey. Instead, the pledge tracker acts as a self-assessment tool and an opportunity to check in with LCLD in moments of struggle or inspiration. The pledges themselves are a way to crowdsource new approaches to common challenges—for example, if a member wants to know more about improving diversity in succession planning, the LCLD team can provide a menu of strategies that similar organizations are using. And as more members complete the pledge tracker, LCLD can focus on which strategies are really beginning to have an impact.

In addition to encouraging members to refine and upgrade their pledges, LCLD publishes an analysis of all 400-plus pledges, showing where people are concentrating their efforts and how firms and companies are tackling things differently.

Courtesy of LCLD.

LCLD is using these “impact areas” as the basis for further innovation by its members. In March 2023 the organization partnered with Jerry Kang, professor of law and former vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at UCLA, to host summits for managing partners and general counsel, doubling down on two important issues—succession planning and collaboration between law firms and legal departments. “From the very beginning, LCLD was designed for collaboration, a meeting of the minds, between general counsel and managing partners,” says Grey. “The more of that we do, the more successful we will be. In the grand scheme of things, collaborating and learning from each other makes everybody smarter.”

One member’s experience

When it came time for LCLD board member Dev Stahlkopf to craft her Leader Pledge, she knew accountability would be an important part of the picture. Stahlkopf, who currently serves as executive vice president and chief legal officer at Cisco Systems, was previously corporate vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Microsoft. In her more than 15 years of leading in-house teams at technology companies, she has never been shy about the importance of metrics—so much so that her pledge contains a section on metrics (in addition to the standard sections on personal and organizational diversity commitments).

“I have had the fortune at both Microsoft and Cisco,” she says, “of being at data-forward companies and in cultures that are comfortable with measuring ourselves, holding ourselves accountable, and then pushing ourselves further.”

Stahlkopf says that the process of building her first pledge (at Microsoft, another LCLD member organization) was more iterative. When she started at Cisco about two years ago, she was able to build on lessons from that first pledge. But even better, she also had the benefit of reading and taking the best from others’ commitments. It’s a rare time in corporate life when “borrowing is encouraged,” she says, “because you can take the great ideas of others—who are happy for you to take them—and then leverage the best of them to fit your culture.” At the same time, developing the pledge at Cisco also allowed her to learn about her new company in the first few months on the job. She would ask questions like, “How do we think about sponsorship at Cisco?” and “How about reverse mentoring?” and quickly learn about Cisco programs such as the Multiplier Effect and Proximity Initiative. Looking at those existing programs within Cisco’s culture—combined with lessons learned from her previous experience and other Leader Pledges—helped her see where she could double down for more impact.

One area where Stahlkopf felt passionate and wanted to drive change was diverse slating and interviewing: ensuring that interview panels and job candidates include diverse groups of representatives. While the concept was easy to articulate, the challenge was ensuring outcomes, which required careful measurement. “It’s tricky because applicants may not self-report their gender or their racial and ethnic diversity,” she notes. “So we have really imperfect data. How do we think about that?” Similarly, on the interviewers’ side of things, she notes that “we were having to do assessments manually—and when you’re doing a lot of hiring, that can be a really heavy lift.” Stahlkopf therefore pushes her team to think about constant adjustment—and continuous accountability. “I look at these issues on a weekly basis with my senior team,” she says. “We take a look at our diversity scorecard on a monthly basis and distribute it twice a month. We’re watching it all the time.”

As chief legal officer, Stahlkopf probably would have been looking at DEI regardless of her involvement in LCLD. But being part of the organization and the board has added something extra. Even more than figuring out what is working, she says, “it’s collaborating and sharing ideas about what’s not working that has been surprisingly helpful.” Everyone is trying to move the needle, she says, but “being able to have the conversations on both sides of that equation is actually what’s going to help us make progress more quickly, maybe even more than sharing the tactics that do work.”

At the crossroads

In the past two years, after committing billions of dollars to create a more just society, companies that made DEI commitments internally have allowed such goals to drift amid rising inflation, strained budgets, and threats of a recession. This has certainly been the case in the first half of 2023. After a 55 percent increase in DEI roles in 2020–2021, the past year has brought a tidal wave of layoffs: “The attrition rate for DE&I roles was 33% at the end of 2022, compared to 21% for non-DEI roles,” reported NBC. “Recession-proofing DE&I comes down to making DE&I practices foundational to an organization’s workflow,” writes Erin L. Thomas, chief diversity officer at UpWork. What does that mean in practice? For one, DEI work must become part of goal-setting with departmental heads required to document their efforts to management.

In the meantime, the legal profession still has miles to go—although there has been measurable progress in the past few years. The 2023 Diversity Scorecard from American Lawyer noted that 21.6 percent of lawyers in the Am Law 250 were “racially or ethnically diverse,” up from 20.2 percent in 2022. Given the economic and political winds of today, we’ll have to wait and see if such (incremental) progress continues or stalls out. But what the legal profession has, as opposed to corporate America, is an organization like LCLD. Their investment in trying to make true impact through accountability, collaborative coaching, and iterative feedback processes means that law firms and corporate legal departments have a support network to help them accomplish what they put in their pledges. And, as Grey says: “Our hope is that LCLD is a platform to give our members enough tools, enough interaction with each other, and enough expert guidance to take them to a higher level than before they met us. In the end, it’s all about leadership, action, and results.”