Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

DEI Leaders’ Roundtable

June 14, 2022
| DEI Special Edition 2022

De’Von Douglass is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Greater Boston Legal Services.

In the summer of 2020, the United States experienced widespread civil unrest following searing displays of the devaluation Black lives that were played and replayed across our video screens. The violent acts that catalyzed the protests were physical manifestations of decades of unaddressed racial pain, and they were all the more devastating because they occurred in the face of a global pandemic that cried out for increased solidarity, not increased brutality.

As the sheer rawness of these atrocities spurred an increase in the support for the movement for Black lives, it seemed that many individuals and organizations were finally becoming more open to addressing the collective racial pain in this country. The discipline of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), with both internal and external elements, became corporate America’s answer to the demand to ‘do something’ in the face of this new pressure to respond to the moment. But so far, for too many entities, including those in the legal sector, DEI has not yet lived up to its potential.

For many organizations, typical internal response began by reviewing compliance with federal, state, and local regulations on antidiscrimination. The discerning CEO would call upon their team to go beyond basic compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; this often meant analyzing the defects in inclusion policies that had failed to achieve meaningful equity. Next, affinity groups proliferated. Then, a person of color in the human resources department had diversity added to their job description. Then the one-off zoom training on implicit bias was rolled out – often well-meaning but not well-attended.

As for external responses, law firms, universities, and nonprofits all wanted to signal that they could be tolerant and welcoming. At 12:01 a.m. on June 1, companies’ LinkedIn backgrounds dutifully switched from their normal brand to some version of rainbow for Pride Month. But much like one-time training sessions untethered to meaningful systemic changes, these signals provided only the veneer of progress.

For those of us from historically marginalized communities, our identities are not as thin as bumper stickers, social media filters, or flags plastered on office doors. We cannot remove them or attend to them only in 30-day increments. While visual signals of a company’s intentions to be open can indicate a willingness to start on an inclusion journey, these gestures remain far from the change we need.

Systems of oppression are upheld by policies, practices, and physical spaces. And all of these were imagined and designed by people. That can seem terrifying: human beings created these deeply unjust systems and continue to perpetuate them every day. But my hope as a DEI professional is that, if taken seriously, our presence in these organizations can equip those of us in the legal profession and across sectors with the tools to both squarely confront these cancerous systems of oppression and courage to simultaneously recognize that if people created these systems, people are equally capable of rebuilding them in an equitable and inclusive way to reflect values of diversity and belonging.

Take for example the City of Boston’s Resilience Strategy. In partnership with 100 Resilient Cities and the Rockefeller Foundation, Boston released a plan to begin addressing the racialized outcomes in the region. One key shift was the creation of a cross-departmental team focused on using data to measure how Boston’s municipal policies disparately impact communities of color. The program also provided training and a toolkit to assist policy makers and community leaders in addressing the harm caused by city policies. Concrete, measurable, actionable steps for which leadership can be held accountable.

At their best, DEI programs will foster these kinds of organization-wide, measurable, actionable steps that are commensurate with the gravity of the oppression we are fighting. Celebrations of Pride Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month are important, but they will ring hollow if not accompanied by challenges to management structures to reflect true inclusivity. The only way to make a zoom training on bias useful is to ensure that it is the baseline, not the high water mark, of our efforts to interrogate how we, individually and collectively, perpetuate bias and how we can carry through on our commitment to dismantle systems that inhibit true inclusivity in the legal profession and beyond.

April English is Chief of Organization Development & Inclusion at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General; Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.

In reflecting on diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Massachusetts legal profession, I take as my starting point the day I began my legal journey, twenty-nine years ago. Having graduated from an Historically Black Women’s College, my first day of law school orientation was a complete culture shock. I had gone from seeing people who looked like me every single day for four years to being one of only fifteen Black law students in my class of over 200. Our small community of fifteen made it through what were some of the toughest years of my life. We survived being purposefully and intentionally called upon whenever the class read any cases that impacted the lives of Black people: from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education, there was no escaping it. And if the Black students who were put under this microscope expressed multiple points of view about the issues raised by those cases, we were dismissed as “all over the place” simply for reflecting our non-monolithic reality. We survived that environment because we had Black professors who cared about our success and nurtured our matriculation; because our Black dean told us “look to your left and right because you will graduate with that person sitting next to you”; and because we had a network of faculty, alumnae, classmates, the Black Law Students Association, and each other to keep us grounded and mindful that it takes a village. We survived because of that community.

Law school was the beginning of my acutely feeling like the minority, and nearly thirty years later, that feeling still persists in this profession. After participating in conversations that led to the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Well-Being’s Affinity Bar Report, I see that I am not alone in feeling that I am being treated differently the moment I step foot onto the courthouse stairs, into a conference room for negotiations, or into a board room. I am a minority because I am the only person, or one of a handful, who looks like me in those spaces. I am treated differently because of systemic racism and how pervasive it is in our legal system. As a Black woman, I am still assumed to be the defendant or defendant’s relative, not the lawyer.

I credit the American Bar Association for openly addressing the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession with its Model Diversity Survey and Resolution 113, which finally catalyzed a focus on the well-being of lawyers, including our Black lawyers, lawyers of color, LGBTQIA+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities. But it has taken quite a long time for us to get here. George Floyd’s horrific murder had the effect of casting in starkest relief these deeply-ingrained inequities; while it is gratifying to finally be listened to, it is also tragic because we understand just how much has been sacrificed to allow us to finally be heard.

James Baldwin said, “the horror is that America changes all the time without ever changing at all.” I feel the same can be said of the legal profession’s progress in this area.

One significant positive change is that DEI specialists are now part of bar associations, law firms, and public service entities. There is certainly additional intentionality to increasing diverse representation across such organizations: hiring practices are beginning to include standardized questions, panels are becoming more reflective of diversity, and efforts have been made to eliminate as much bias as possible throughout the hiring process. However, I would still ask everyone to look in the courtrooms, conference rooms, and board rooms and tell me whether change has truly arrived. Do we feel included, welcomed, and as if we belong at these tables and in these rooms? Are numbers substantially increasing at law schools, law firms, on the bench, in leadership, partnership, and equity? The fact that these questions persist tells us all we need to know about how meaningful progress has been.

After nearly three decades in the legal arena, it’s about time that I should truly matter beyond just words, really be included, feel like I belong, and no longer feel like the minority. But until we fill these tables in these rooms with faces of the global majority, we will walk the same strenuous path as those who came before us, with the burden of blazing trails even in 2022 and beyond. The work to dismantle centuries of systemic racism continues and it is a direct charge for the legal community. We must be the change we want to see starting today.

Kathy Cloherty Henry is Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Chief Human Resources Officer, Eastern Bank.

One of my first impressions in 2016 as the new General Counsel of Eastern Bank was the diversity represented at each of the meetings I attended – from our operational headquarters in Lynn to our Board meetings in Boston. My impressions were reflective of Eastern’s long-standing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which was the subject of an article the Wall Street Journal in 2020—an unusual spotlight for a Boston-based community bank. And while Eastern has a powerful story to tell about DEI, and while we are proud that 50% of our Board of Directors is comprised of women and people of color, and 67% of our workforce is female and 28% is diverse, we have more work to do.

As a result of the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, Eastern’s leadership has become more intentional and action-oriented in our approach to DEI.

  • First, we took a deep dive into our data. We soon understood that while we have a richness of diversity at the non-officer level of our Company, we have become less diverse in the more senior levels of the organization. We were tracking our diversity hiring—which was impressive—but not tracking where the diverse hires went within the organization or monitoring turnover by race or gender. And we did not track all the different ways our community may be diverse, and our lack of visibility into dimensions of, for example, those with disabilities, made it harder to track progress on that axis of inclusion. We are now tracking data across our talent lifecycle and will be rolling out an enhanced self-identity tool.
  • Second, we set measurable goals. Simply stated, we want to reflect the communities we serve at every level of our organization. We want to reflect the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) census data in our footprint by 2030 based on current census data with projected growth in specific diverse communities.
  • Third, we incorporated these goals within a strategic plan, the Road to Equity, which reflects DEI objectives across all of Eastern: human capital management; products and services; supplier diversity; and our philanthropic Foundation.
  • Fourth, we put in place a governance structure to support and drive progress and accountability on the Road to Equity, from our Board of Directors to Executive Leadership, to a newly formed DEI Steering Committee with leaders of our employee resource groups and external board members.
  • Finally, we educated all stakeholders about the Road to Equity, starting with employees, so that everyone understands the “why” behind this imperative. We buttressed the rollout with ongoing seminars and live sessions on Understanding Racism and Driving Organization Change to further drive home with managers and all employees alike why Eastern, a recognized leader in this space, has more work to do.

We rolled out the Road to Equity about a year ago and are seeing early progress. We created a dashboard so that all divisions have easy access to the demographics of their teams to better plan for talent management that supports greater diversity. We created enhanced onramps into areas of our Company where diverse talent is under-represented, and require diverse candidate slates for recruiting senior positions. We increased supplier diversity spend year over year and have transformed the Foundation’s grant application process to better understand the diversity of the communities benefitting from our support and partnership.

We’ve hit some bumps in the road and expect there will be more. The biggest challenge has been retaining high potential, diverse talent, who are heavily recruited and have much to offer. Relatedly, we’ve struggled to grow diverse talent at the senior levels of our Company, where the overall population is small and turnover is low. We must be more strategic, more intentional and more energized. But we will stay the course.

Cherina Wright is Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Adjunct Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School.

From law schools to law firms to courtrooms, the legal profession has promoted itself as one that stands for representation and fair access. Yet, both the quantitative and qualitative data has shown that the profession is still overwhelmingly White and majority male. The lack of inclusivity is one of the biggest drivers for our growing DEI initiatives.

I began my role at Suffolk Law in August 2020, right when we as a country were at the height of two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. The COVID-19 pandemic was uncharted territory in many respects, but it also exacerbated disparities in healthcare treatment for Black and Brown communities that were long-standing. At the same time, Black and Brown people found themselves yet again reminded of the inequities and inequalities in the legal system and how the police show up for us. It has been a challenging and rewarding two years since the country and the legal profession decided to take a renewed stance on racism and other forms of inequities that plague us. These too have become drivers for my efforts.

Changing our frame so that we view law school not as a gatekeeper, but, instead, as a part of the pathway, or pipeline, to the legal profession has been important to our work in shifting the culture at law schools. We can’t diversify the legal profession without diversifying law schools. To do that, it is equally important to design meaningful points of entry for prospective law students from underrepresented communities as it is to establish impactful resources and initiatives for students after they become members of the law school community. That has meant having real conversations about past practices, however difficult, so that a common understanding of our strengths and weaknesses can allow us to come together to create actionable change.

For Suffolk, these changes include two new scholarships, a pipeline program for underrepresented students, and an alternate admissions program. Our free pipeline program provides pre-law undergraduate students with the opportunity to take legal classes that mirror the 1L experience, get one-on-one application assistance from experienced admission officers, and meet practicing attorneys. Our alternate admission program was created for applicants who show exceptional potential for law school academic success but whose LSAT scores are below the median for the entering class; studies have shown that many students from historically underrepresented backgrounds who do not have the same access to the expensive test prep programs or mentors in legal community find themselves in that category.

In addition to broadening access to law school, our initiatives recognize that law school itself can be inequitable and isolating for underrepresented students once admitted. That is why we have empowered our affinity student groups to bring their authentic selves to the hallways of our institution. And that is why we have created programs such as Progress to Success, which provides extra support to diverse and non-traditional law students in three parts: a pre-orientation summer academy so students can begin their law school journey in community with people who look like them and share their experiences; a peer mentorship program for first-years; and a continuing community enrichment program that features workshops on professional development, networking opportunities with diverse alumni, study skills sessions, and, eventually, bar exam preparation sessions. These initiatives provide diverse students with practical academic, professional, and community support.

My work as a DEI professional in the academic legal setting is about ensuring that all law students successfully find their way through that legal pipeline. This includes breaking down barriers so that our diverse and non-traditional law students enjoy the same access to scholarships, job opportunities, and bar resources. If being hired as a licensed attorney is not the outcome for these students, then that pipeline will have failed in some way and we will have to redouble our efforts. It continues to be my role to support the legal profession’s desire to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive – a goal on which law schools must lead.