On a topic that’s often long on platitudes and wishful thinking, but short on results, “real talk” was the theme at the New York City Bar Association’s “Diversity and Inclusion” conference on Tuesday.
Hosted at the bar association’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the event included remarks from John Kiernan, the group’s newly minted president , as well as a keynote address from a Columbia Business School professor, a “fireside chat” between Big Law partners, and a heavyweight panel of general counsels and law firm managers.
Speakers at the event acknowledged repeatedly that the conversation about legal industry diversity — a notoriously intractable dilemma at big firms especially — is tiresome, at times.
“As a legal community, we’ve spent so much time and energy on these issues, and the needle isn’t moving,” said Maria Melendez, a litigation partner at Sidley Austin. “You can no longer get by saying you’re a promotor of diversity and inclusion. You’re telling me it’s important, I need you to show me.”
Perhaps with that history in mind, Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia University Business School who studies diversity, set a different tone early in the morning, warning the 120 or so attendees she planned to speak bluntly, “and then drop the mic.”
“Diversity is not about everybody singing Kumbaya and holding hands,” Phillips said. “It’s about hard work.”
She concluded, “If you’re leaving here, and you’re not going back to your companies and saying, ‘I learned something, and we need to implement it here,’ then you’re part of the problem.”
For most of the day, discussion centered on practical solutions for boosting diversity. One rift that emerged early and resurfaced several times was whether naked financial incentives are a legitimate method of tackling the problem.
“Research shows compensation is one of the least effective ways of changing people’s behavior,” said Anne Weisberg, Women’s Initiative director at Paul Weiss. “People who do these kinds of jobs are as much intrinsically motivated as extrinsically motivated.”
Melendez, who was the first Latina partner at Sidley, and shared the panel with Weisberg, disagreed. “For every dollar men get, Latinas are getting 50 cents,” she said.
At the GC and law firm manager panel, hosted after lunch, Nate Saint-Victor, a lawyer at Morgan Stanley who moderated the discussion, brought the topic up again.
“If you’ve seen the movie ‘Friday,’ Big Worm was very clear that playing with his money was like playing with his emotions ,” Saint-Victor said.
Horacio Gutierrez, general counsel at Spotify, said Microsoft, where he was previously GC, built in a two percent rate increase for firms based on diversity numbers.
In addition to Gutierrez, Atiba Adams, GC of MARS Global Chocolate; Elizabeth Moore, GC at Con Edison; Eric Friedman, executive partner at Skadden Arps; and B. Seth Bryant, founding partner atminority-owned law firmBryant Rabbino, all spoke.
One of the day’s more symbolic moments came when Loren Gesinsky, a Seyfarth Shaw partner attending the conference, asked whether the focus on specific identities drives away potential allies who think race is a social construct, and think gender and sexual preference are more fluid than sometimes assumed.
The question was directed at a panel that included Meredith Moore, director of global diversity and social responsibility at Weil Gotshal.
She had just finished a presentation on how to become an “upstander,” rather than a “bystander,” in diversity and inclusion discussions.
“I think that’s what’s beautiful about this,” Moore replied. “It’s not about boxes, who’s in and who’s out. Everyone’s coming together in this conversation.”
Gesinsky was one of a relatively small number of white males in the room, a dearth noted by several speakers over the course of the day.
“Next time you come to this, bring a white heterosexual male with you,” Melendez had told the crowd earlier in the day. “They have to be a part of the conversation.”