The Importance of Corporate DEI from Two Legal Leaders

Corporate programs to promote diversity, equity and inclusion have come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June Students for Fair Admissions decision striking down college affirmative action. Two DEI legal leaders weigh in on why such programs are still needed—and beneficial.

Illustrations of business people with diverse backgrounds
Image by istock/ elenabs


Josi Swontez and Sheronda Rochelle Blackburn

November 1, 2023 04:00 PM

In recent years, corporate America has rapidly boosted implementation of programs focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Many Fortune 500 firms have not only dedicated time and resources to the cause but have created new positions for diversity-and-inclusion officers in the C-suite. Between May and September 2020, DEI-related job postings nationwide increased by 123%, according to the consultancy GRC Insights.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, however, has prompted many to ask whether DEI programs are still desirable. At the Chief Litigation Officer Summit hosted by the Marcus Evans Group in Carlsbad, California, this September, prominent corporate lawyers—Sheronda Rochelle Blackburn, and Josi Swonetz—pondered this question, offering their personal insights into why DEI programs remain important and how law firms and other businesses can continue to integrate them.

Why are diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging important in both the law and business?

We have seen firsthand how diversity drives innovation, better insights and better decisions throughout our careers and across the globe. Allowing people to bring their unique life experiences and perspectives to the table in a professional environment broadens outlooks. Similar people tend to think in similar ways, reach similar conclusions and have similar blind spots. Five team members brainstorming five ideas each can lead to between five and 25 ideas, depending on how similar or different their life experiences are. Research has also shown that diverse teams are better at making decisions 87% of the time over non-diverse teams.

BIPOC attorneys—those who are black, indigenous or other people of color—are just 21.1% of all lawyers and 11.1% of equity partners in U.S. law firms. A legal team made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds and perspectives leads to improved problem solving, fosters critical thinking and better advocacy skills, and results in more innovative ideas.

While increasing diversity is a first step, though, it is not sufficient. Employees need to feel that they have a voice and place at the table and that their work is valued the same way as their non-diverse counterparts. This is where inclusion, equity and belonging play a role. DEI+B creates a workplace that is welcoming to all employees and helps foster engagement, motivation, community and employee satisfaction. It’s also a useful tool for managing workplace difficulties including employee disengagement, “quiet quitting” and worker burnout. DEI+B focuses on creating an environment of psychological safety and inclusion enabling all workers to reach their potential. In addition, DEI+B activities and employee resource groups (ERGs) increase worker engagement, which in turn increases retention.

Lastly, DEI+B is also just good business. Having a diverse and inclusive workforce at all levels leads to increased profits. In fact, recent studies show that companies with highly diverse teams have an increased cash flow of 2.5 times per employee and are more productive by 35%. The same is true of law-firm profitability. Much of this can be attributed to the increase in demand and accountability over the past few years by corporate clients wishing to engage with more diverse law firms. Simply put, companies want to give their outside-counsel budget dollars to law firms that demonstrate a commitment to diversity. Many in-house clients will even ask beforehand about the makeup of the team representing them to ensure such commitments are being met not only in numbers but in practice.

What tips do you have for a company or firm to foster a more inclusive, equitable and diverse environment?

Josi Swonetz: Engage their employees and hold them responsible. ERGs are a wonderful means to provide a safe place for employees to be heard, but they need support from the company, including a platform and resources for development and training. Companies should also ensure that employees have the space and support from their managers to engage in DEI efforts. Finally, companies should continue to have courageous conversations about hard topics that affect their employees.

Sheronda Rochelle: Buy-in and messaging from the top down is key to creating a culture in which DEI becomes more normalized. Such a commitment from leadership includes investment in training, ERGs and diverse talent development from pipeline to retention. Organizations should also create safe spaces for employees to bring their authentic selves to work, especially at times when the outside world is so full of identity related complexity. Lastly, there are so many organizations out there doing great work in this space in the legal profession. Supporting and partnering with these organizations is an effective way to learn, invest in and advance your legal department or law firm’s DEI work.

Featured Articles
Two female and one male lawyer in suits having discussion
Improved Settlement Efforts in Dispute Resolution
By Mark LeHocky
Pixelated eye with rainbow effect
ADA Compliance: A Better Experience for Law Firms
By Gregory Sirico
Black background with colorful squares and faces
Best Law Firms® Research Explained
By Rebecca Blackwell
Person taking notes in journal with open laptop in background
Best Law Firms Informational Webinar
By Best Lawyers
Multicolored fingerprint displayed on screen
FTC Increases Scrutiny of Biometric Technologies
By Gregory Sirico