Improving Inclusion One-on-One: 5 Skills for Law Firm Professionals

In the wake of the recent nationwide demonstrations for racial equality and justice, many law firms are taking a hard look at diversity and inclusion initiatives within their organizations and wondering what concrete steps they can take to do better.

It is heartening to see firm leaders reflecting on how they can contribute to a more equitable landscape in the industry, as well taking action to support Black attorneys—and members of other minority groups—in their firms right now.

Importantly, many Black law firm professionals are identifying this moment as one that presents an opportunity for important, uncomfortable conversations—ones that can inspire meaningful change. Tiffani Lee, Partner at Holland & Knight, powerfully captures the importance of this dialogue in a recent article, saying, “As individuals and law firms, replace polite conversations about unconscious bias with courageous conversations about race and racism. A courageous conversation is one that is often difficult to have but necessary, and when done effectively, can have a dramatic impact on how we lead ourselves, our teams and our organizations.” I encourage you to read her full article here.

While it may be difficult to engage in conversations around race, inequality, and injustice, the consensus is clear: Silence—or avoiding difficult conversations—is not the answer.

How you can contribute to inclusion

You may be wondering what you, as an individual, can do to contribute to such conversations and make your workplace more inclusive—as well as support your Black colleagues and members of other diverse groups.

There are many opportunities for individuals to take action, and what makes sense for you depends on your own circumstances. That said, one powerful starting point can be focusing on the quality of your interactions with your colleagues—creating space for candid conversations without defensiveness and increasing your engagement with creating an inclusive atmosphere.

As an executive coach to attorneys and law firm leaders, one area of my expertise that I hope can be useful in this moment is the refining of core emotional intelligence skills. Studies have shown that such “soft skills” not only have a measurable positive effect on the bottom line, but also improve relationships and morale. These skills can be powerful tools in creating a more inclusive atmosphere in your one-on-one interactions and among the teams in which you work.

Below, we’ll explore five key emotional intelligence skills and how you can leverage them to show up for your Black and other diverse colleagues and support change at your firm—right now.

1. Self-awareness

Cultivating self-awareness forms the basis of ongoing improvement—both personal and professional. When you engage in the continual process of reflecting on your inner world and how it drives your external behaviors—both obvious and subtle—you gain a powerful tool for growth. Set aside some time (even just a few minutes) every day or week for self-assessment. Ask yourself what went well and where you struggled, how your actions may have affected other people, how your behavior may have been perceived by others, and—importantly—what internal beliefs, unconscious biases, and emotional states may have been behind your actions.

You can apply the practice of self-awareness to increase your skill at promoting inclusion. Notice the moments when your colleagues seemed to feel supported by you. What words did you use and what inner resources did you draw from? Pay attention to instances when you might have missed an opportunity to ensure all perspectives and identities were respected and acknowledged. What was happening for you in those moments? Watch for behaviors you exhibited that may have cut off open discussion. Self-awareness is an ongoing process, so look for books, webinars, and articles to bolster your efforts at habitual self-assessment, as well as awareness of the perspectives of others.

2. Active listening

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a passive approach to receiving a speaker’s message, whereas listening—genuine active listening—is a proactive approach involving your full range of senses and focus. When actively listening, you make a conscious decision to (i) train your full attention on the speaker; (ii) notice not just their words, but also their tone of voice and body language; (iii) allow them time to explore their thoughts instead of jumping in; and (iv) demonstrate that you’re listening with non-verbal signs like maintaining eye contact, mirroring facial expressions, and blocking out distractions. Active listening helps you succeed at work—whether you’re receiving important information for a delegated task or engaging in strategic planning with leaders.

Active listening is one of the most effective ways to communicate your support for colleagues. Don’t assume you know what the other party needs or start a conversation by sharing your perspective. Instead, ask open-ended questions, like “Is there anything I can do to support you today?” or “What can I do that would make this week easier for you?” Then shift into active listening mode. Remember that you’re not asking your colleague to educate you—you’re inviting them to tell you how you can best meet their needs. And to make your listening truly meaningful, take concrete action based on what your colleague has to say.

3. Empathy

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes gives you the perspective necessary to see issues and problems from all angles, to come up with creative solutions, and to avoid becoming defensive. You certainly already practice empathy in your work—for instance, by seeing issues from your clients’ perspectives and by developing convivial relationships with your supervisors and teammates. By engaging in active listening, you can understand what the other party is experiencing and empathize with their needs.

In relating to others, the progression of empathy is compassion—translating your ability to understand another person’s perspective into a willingness to offer concrete help. This is where “the rubber meets the road” when it comes to supporting colleagues who may be facing added stress right now due to concerns related to systemic racial inequality. When you see that a teammate is struggling, start by imagining how they might feel—and then ask yourself what you could do to help. While it may be tempting to think it’s not your problem unless you’re asked to help, keep in mind that for many people of color, asking for help in the workplace can feel especially fraught. Proactively ask colleagues what you can do to support them—this is how you put empathy and compassion into action.

4. Ongoing learning

Ongoing learning is crucial to your career advancement—and it’s about more than developing new legal skills or gaining practice area expertise. Mentorship programs help attorneys develop the interpersonal skills necessary for client management, business development, and leadership that spurs ongoing career growth. Supervisors at all levels find more success when they continually hone their management and leadership skills.

In the same way that ongoing learning furthers your career, educating yourself about issues concerning systemic racism and inequality prepares you to support your colleagues and advocate for positive changes in your workplace. You’ll be better equipped to see issues from the perspective of diverse attorneys and other professionals, which will increase your empathy and capacity to promote inclusion. Take responsibility for your own ongoing learning—a plethora of books, articles, podcasts, and more have been recommended in recent weeks. A quick online search will give you a wealth of excellent resources (you may wish to start with the information and suggested readings in this Harvard Business Review article).

5. Challenging yourself

Advancing your career requires that you take on new challenges in your work, actively develop the emotional intelligence skills that drive successful collaboration, and commit to ongoing improvement. Anyone who aspires to career growth already seeks new challenges in their work and develops the inner resources to meet those challenges.

Just as you challenge yourself professionally, consider how you can challenge your own habitual thinking and internal biases. By making this effort part of your overall development, you can become a genuine resource to your colleagues of all identities. And at the end of the day, you’ll likely find that such efforts benefit you in many areas of your life—engaging with broader issues is often the basis for more meaningful work, both at the office and in the world.

No matter your seniority, you have an opportunity to be a leader in promoting inclusion—and you can start with simple, powerful techniques to support your colleagues. Perfection isn’t necessary. What’s required is a willingness to develop the skills that will help you and your team build relationships that create a more equitable environment for everyone.