Diversity Equity and Inclusion are top of the agenda for many law firms, but there's no silver bullet to effectively implementing programs and strategies that drive meaningful change.
Today on CMO Series REPRESENTS, Yasmin Zand is fortunate to sit down with Courtney Carter, Director of DEI at Jenner & Block, to unpack her remarkable journey and the profound impact she's making on her firm.
Courtney discusses the firm’s cornerstone DEI initiatives that have proven to develop and advance diverse lawyers, the common missteps and misconceptions that have historically hindered law firms in their DEI journey, as well as practical takeaways for law firm leaders, marketing and business development professionals and clients, alike, to take the industry forward.
Yasmin: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the Passle REPRESENTS podcast. I'm joined by the wonderful Courtney Carter, who's the Director of Diversity Equity, and Inclusion at Jenner and Block. Good morning, Courtney.
Courtney: Good morning.
Yasmin: So, today, on this episode, we're fortunate to sit down with Courtney and unpack her remarkable journey, discussing the initiatives that have proven to develop and advance diverse lawyers, the common conceptions that have hindered law firms in their DEI journey, as well as practical insights, industry leaders can take back to their own firms. Courtney, I'm so excited to have you on today. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.
Courtney: I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.
Yasmin: Of course. So we can start with a couple of questions that we have first. I think everybody's just dying to get a little piece of your brain. So I'll start off with this first one that we have here. Can you tell us about your career journey into your current role at Jenner?
Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. So, I'm a lawyer by trade and I practiced law for a few years after law school. Before switching gears and spent some time working at a couple of nonprofits where I taught a little bit, I started to dabble into DE&I work. And really, that was when I thought I really enjoyed this, it combined all of my interests and I started thinking that I wanted to focus my career on de I within the legal profession to sort of bring all of that together.
So immediately prior to starting at Jenner, I spent a few years working at Diversity Lab. That was, you know, eight or nine years ago and Diversity Lab wasn't even called Diversity Lab back then. It was, you know, sort of a pretty new start-up working with Caren Ulrich Stacy and a couple of other folks and just really creating what would become Diversity Lab. And it was fantastic because I really got to dive in and be on the ground when we were planning and scoping out the first then called the Women in Law hackathon. And now it's grown beyond women in law, just focusing on diversity more generally. But I got to work with a number of firms that were going to participate in Diversity Labs. One of their signature programs, is the OnRamp program, which takes women who have left the workforce and had a gap, whether they started a business or had a family or we had some women who had partners that were in the military and so they were moving frequently and we're looking to get back into the legal profess profession. And so I got to do everything. I mean, that's sort of how it is a start-up, and the great thing is it was all focused on creating a more inclusive legal industry. And that really spoke to me. I loved the work that I was doing. And I guess, see, I've been at Jenner for about 7.5 years, I guess about almost eight years ago. I had some colleagues and friends who were working at Jenner and I knew about Jenner's commitment to DE&I and I loved what I was doing at Diversity Lab, so I really wasn't looking for a job, but I had to mount reach from a former boss at Jenner and they were looking to hire someone in DC, to join the DEI team. And honestly, I said I wasn't looking to leave Diversity Lab, but I knew that Jenner was a fantastic firm and I was excited about the opportunity to work within one organization and to focus on moving the needle within that organization rather than working with a number of different organizations, which I was doing at Diversity Lab. So that's how I ended up at Jenner. I've been here about 7.5 years and it's been a fantastic experience.
Yasmin: That's amazing. So you mentioned that you really were able to get started with Diversity Lab. So how did Diversity Lab come to you, I guess, or what was the impetus for that?
Courtney: Yeah, it's a great question. So it was really just through contacts. I was working and running a legal diversity pipeline program at NALP, the Association of Law Firm Career Professionals. And that was a two-year fellowship. And as that fellowship was nearing its end, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. And one of my colleagues now suggested that I reach out and speak to this woman, Caren Ulrich Stacy, who I had never heard of. I didn't know. And he said, you know, “She's doing some really interesting stuff around DE&I, and you should connect with her.” Caren and I met, and I set up a call just to get to know her. And honestly, we just hit it off and when she offered me an opportunity to work with her, it was a no-brainer. Caren is a true visionary and I really enjoyed the opportunity to just, you know, pick her brain. We're talking about picking mine, but just to see how Caren thinks and how she attacks the work. She's really someone who's not afraid of making change and that's a little bit antithetical to the legal profession where we rest on precedent. So it was just a hit and a fit right off the bat. And that was how I met Caren and learned about Diversity Lab and learned about the position.
Yasmin: That's amazing. So I was just thinking about Caren and it sounds like you picked her brain a lot. Did you have any other mentors that really played a role in the evolution of your career?
Courtney: Oh, gosh. Yes, absolutely. So, my first boss at Jenner and Block, a woman named Jami de Lou who has worked for a number of different companies since Jami was my mentor, you know, is still my mentor when I was at now diversity lab and then when I started working for her at Jenner and it was fantastic. I think, know, with mentors, it's important to have a lot of different people kind of speaking into you and modeling things for you. And so sometimes you see things and you're like, this is how I want to go about it. Sometimes you see things and you're like, wow, that really worked for their style. But I need to take that and flip that for me and Jami and I are very different, but again, we really worked well together and I loved being able to observe how she went about the work and how she went about navigating a large law firm. And we're still very close to this day. You know, I spent probably the first 6.5 years of my career at Jenner. My DEI committee chair is a woman named Susan Coleman who's now the chair and she's the president of the New York City Bar Association. And Susan is just fantastic. She is such a collaborative leader and a consensus builder and really wants to bring everyone to the table and hear what everyone thinks and ensure that people have an opportunity to be heard. And I learned so much from working with Susan and watching how she leads if she never, you know, agreed or signed up formally to be my mentor. But Susan is a complete and total mentor. I also, you know, I have had the great fortune of just working with a number of fantastic leaders who provide a lot of opportunity for me to pull things from. You know, my managing partners at the firm are fantastic and one of them, particularly Katya Jestin, is amazing. Also, our New York office always says, to assume positive intent. And I really take that to heart, especially with the work that I do, assuming positive intent really allows me to have conversations that in theory could be difficult or challenging or conversations around topics where people perhaps are not as comfortable speaking, but just going into a situation and assuming intent can really shift the focus and then shift the lens in which you're viewing that particular conversation. So I found that to be really helpful. I'm really fortunate that I feel like I could talk 30 minutes just about the wonderful mentors that I've had and do still have.
Yasmin: I love that assuming positive intent. I think that's such a great way to think about the way that anybody approaches a conversation. Of course, nobody is ever coming to something or, you know, coming to speak to you with any malice or like, I don't know anything to kind of be negative and assuming positive, positive intent allows you to be so open to conversations and that's such a great takeaway. Thank you for sharing that in that same vein of assuming positive intent and while everybody does like to assume, you know, positive intent, right? I'm sure that there are some pitfalls that law firms tend to fall into when it comes to their DE&I efforts. Do you happen to have a couple that you wanna share or maybe things that people can kind of maneuver around or common things that you've seen?
Courtney: Yes. So, you know, I will, you know, preface this by saying this work is challenging and emotional and personal for a lot of people. And so, I have so much respect for everyone who engages in it, both those who do it as their formal job, people like me who have it in their title, but also, and sometimes, especially those who are just doing this work and being a part of this commitment, because it's something that matters to them. And so, this is, I am assuming positive intent and this is not to suggest that if anyone's listening to this and they're like, “Oh my gosh, I did those things”, like we all do these things. So, you know, this is just sort of looking at things with a critical eye, not to be negative. But I think that sometimes, particularly for people who are newer in the space, they can get caught up in things like event planning. Events are fun and feel good and can be very impactful, but you can't spend all of your time planning events. And the thing is that events take a lot of time to plan. And so, you know, you can sort of get into this situation where you're spending all the time planning a party here planning a conference or planning of this and planning of that and planning events is probably not gonna move the needle forward on what you really are looking to change. So that would be number one and number two would be ignoring or not even gathering data. I think the data is really important to be able to understand what's happening in your organization. You have to have some data that you can look at and see to figure out what's actually going on. You have to understand how to read that data, how to interpret it, what the data can show you what the data can't show you. And I think sometimes people are a little bit nervous about data because it's, you know, it can be wildly massive and it can be a challenge. And so sometimes I think people just ignore it because they don't necessarily want to deal with it or also ignore it maybe because they're afraid of what the data might show, but that's not gonna move you forward. And then the third thing I think is not thinking and acting in a systems-minded way. And what I mean by that is just understanding that, you know, one of our core goals should be to create a level playing field for everyone. And that involves looking critically at the systems that are in place within our organizations, understanding how those systems work, who those systems are benefiting, and from who those systems are not benefiting. And then that allows you to combine the data and make some decisions. Can you, for example, de-bias those systems? And the answer is yes, you can, but what does that look like? And so, you have to think about the entire sort of ecosystem that exists within your organization. So I would say that's the third.
Yasmin: So for those of us who are really curious about acting in a systems-minded way, could you give an example of how people are thinking that way and how to kind of break that specifically just to add some context?
Courtney: Sure. Absolutely. So there are all kinds of systems and processes that govern day-to-day life in a large law firm. Let's just say the assignment system, right? The mechanism by which lawyers, particularly more junior lawyers, access work assignments within your organization, is a system that is a process. And if there is no system, if it's a free market, for example, where you just get the work that you get from speaking with a partner or you run into someone in the hallway, even though you might be like, well, we don't have a system. It's just a free market that is a system and there's lots of research on whose systems, like a free market, who does that benefit and who doesn't it. And you know, just to give a quick example, free market systems really benefit extroverts. And the vast majority of research shows that most lawyers are actually introverts. So you not having a system, actually, could be disadvantaging a large amount of your lawyer population who are actually introverted and are thriving in this system, right? So it's not just necessarily about the types of underrepresented folks that we think about. The great thing about systems change is it's just gonna benefit everyone. So I'm thinking about going back to the assignment example. Say you have a free market, you can think about - OK, so we have this free market, but are there things that we can do to help strengthen that free market system to create connectivity from our lawyers to where the work is coming from. So, whether that is a professional staff member who's helping to manage the workflow and ensure that all of your junior associates are well utilized and being staffed on skill-building work that they need to grow as a lawyer, whether you have an assignment partner, multiple assignment partners, whether you have senior associates who are looking at that, but there are different tweaks and things that you can do within a system to ensure that you're creating more equity across that system. Does that make sense?
Yasmin: Yeah, definitely. That was a really great explanation. I think that's gonna be really helpful to all of our listeners and to me, so thank you for sharing that. The context is incredibly valuable. And then I'm curious how you're gathering data and what effectively gathering data looks like for you or to you.
Courtney: Oh, data. It's so important but it can be the bane of DEI professionals' existence because it is massive and it's sometimes challenging. So, you know, when we say data, it's a lot of things. So sometimes it's as simple as EEO data that is, you know, self-reported within every organization. And that's important that is how you can get some basic numbers about the diversity across your organization, and what the makeup of your organization looks like. But there are other pieces of data that are important too. And that's, you know, things like, are people getting feedback, are people putting things in reviews that shouldn't be there? What are people putting down in your hiring processes? Right. There's a lot of data that is acquired within an organization within a law firm. And you start, I think, with the sort of simple factual EEO data, but once you have that and that's not gonna be a challenge for pretty much anyone who's listening to this, you know, you're at an organization, you probably have to report this in some form to the EEO. If you're in the US, then, you know, your organization has this information, you're tracking it. Now some people might have a challenge getting it depending on their role. But, you know, you want to have sort of a baseline. So we collect all of this data and it really is thinking about just like you said, like, what you do with it and I think what you do with it depends on what you're trying to solve for. And so if you're looking at your organization and seeing, like, wow, we have such an incredibly diverse group of, let's just say, junior associates, our first through third years, you know, that they're incredibly diverse. But that flips when we get to our fourth years and above, we are losing a significant portion of our diverse associate population at the fourth year mark or the fifth year mark. And that's causing us to have some challenges because we're short on mid-year mid-level associates or whatever the case may be, right? So your problem is you don't have a lot of midlevels, you see where you're losing them. Then that allows you to say, “OK, now we can dig into this data in a focused way and try to really get to the issue of what's going on here. Why are we losing these people, what's happening?” And then what are some of the system adjustments that we can make or some of the initiatives that we need to put into place to address what we're seeing in this data? So I think you have to, you know, have the data, understand the data, and then once you have the data, then you can use the data to help you answer and solve a variety of issues that might be coming up within your organization.
Yasmin: So, Courtney, what are some, and not specifically to Jenner, but what are some initiatives that you implemented that have kind of, I don't want to say debunked those systems but tried to remove the bias from the systems that are in place?
Courtney: Yeah. So this is again, like you said, not unique to Jenner, but we have a sponsorship program and we're actually taking a look at our sponsorship program right now and who are retooling it and looking and seeing like, hey, are there changes we need to make? We've been doing this for a few years now. And a lot of organizations have sponsorship programs. Our sponsorship program is for underrepresented lawyers within the firm and we pair them with a sponsor. And we do all of those pairings individually. So we specifically ask the sponsor if they will sponsor the particular protege. We set up training and we then ask all of our sponsors, you know, we sort of give them an overview of what we're looking to do here. And then we ask each of our sponsors to report to either our management committee or a policy committee. Those are our two top governance committees at the firm. We ask the sponsors to report to their peers and that's just a little accountability mechanism. We have seen great success with that program. I mean, it's just like everything, it's not perfect, but we've seen a significant level of movement in terms of promotions and leadership opportunities and it's not that it's coming just because someone is participating in the program. But we know that these connections are key and we know that because the research shows us that often underrepresented lawyers are folks that have less access to those types of connections. And so that's sort of impetus to why we put that program in place. We've been really excited about it. We have a new initiative that we started this year where my team and the professional development team, we really work together on this and we have been sharing information with our practice group leads every month. They get a deck of information about their practice group or we break down the diversity of their practice group. We tell them about the utilization of their associates within the practice group. We flag any issues that we might know that the professional development team might know, and we highlight who within the practice group is going to be eligible for partnership over the next couple of years just to ensure that the practice group has that in there and that they're thinking about, hey, is there something that this person needs in order to be a better candidate? Let's make sure that we get that experience or they hit that benchmark, whatever the case may be, we share information about who has gone on pitches within the group who hasn't, you know, we really, it's only like seven slides. It sounds like a lot but it's really compact and easy for them to read through to sort of keep these issues top of mind. And then we schedule periodic meetings with the practice group leaders on a, you know, practice-by-practice basis where we talk through all of that and we really just collaborate to see how we can be helpful in the work that they're doing.
Yasmin: And where have you seen the biggest successes from those programs? I mean, I'm sure they have, but what specifically, what kind of impact have they had if any on business development or some of your client engagement?
Courtney: So I think the practice group initiative that I was just speaking about, you know, has a direct link to business development, client engagement when we're highlighting who has or has not been on a pitch, you know, we also highlight who has and who hasn't received awards. This has been information that they're like, oh wow, let's make sure that let's get this lawyer involved. Let's think about an opportunity. I'm gonna ask this associate to partner with me on this next pitch. I mean, I think it's an opportunity to really flag any gaps and to give our leaders what they need and when they're moving forward in their day, thinking about engaging with clients, thinking about, oh, hey, this is an opportunity, you know,
are we're always thinking about how we partner with our clients and for so many of our clients, they wanna meet more junior lawyers, they wanna get to know them, they want to be a part of this process. And so when we can flag for them, like, hey, such and such lawyer hasn't had an opportunity to go on a pitch yet this year that gives them the information and the data that they need to wrap that person into their client development work and to really make an impact.
Yasmin: So interesting. I know, we see a lot of our clients and, you know, other people in the industry as well, really trying to elevate junior associates. So it's really cool to hear that it's having a direct impact on the business as a whole and your client. So that's, that's incredible. Well done. You also spoke previously about a misconception that clients are demanding more of their firms when it comes to DE&I, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Courtney: Yes, absolutely. I mean, our clients are great and they often do help drive the narrative. But I think that sometimes there's a misconception that clients are at the forefront of DEI and there are a handful of clients that are, but I think that really clients can be doing a lot more. And last year, there was a fantastic research study released by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. That study showed what most of us already know: that most corporate clients, and I think there were about 170 corporate clients that were surveyed in this research, they do track the diversity of their outside counsel, and that tracking and their responses to this survey show that diversity is severely lacking across the board when you look at who is getting the business, it is not underrepresented lawyers. It is not women, it is not LGBTQ lawyers, it is not women of color, it is not lawyers with a disability. And that is honestly a fairly easy fix. Clients can be very thoughtful about who they work with. They can be intentional about telling their outside counsel. Hey, I want you to bring an associate I haven't met yet to this next pitch. Hey, I wanna make sure that that woman who was in the pitch and didn't speak. I wanna make sure she's on the matter and I want her to have something substantive to do. Tell me about your origination credit, who's getting the credit for this matter? You know, clients can do a few simple things like that, that end up being incredibly impactful within a law firm, and when clients ask about it and make it clear that they actually do care firms take that note and they take it seriously.
Yasmin: That was awesome. You kind of answered my next question which is how you can ask your clients to be more purposeful. So, I think we're getting closer to the end of our podcast. I know everybody's probably really hanging on by everything you're saying, Courtney. So I hate to leave it at this last question, but it's in two. So what would be your one piece of advice for law firm leaders looking to drive DE&I and then alongside that question, what would be your one golden nugget of advice for marketing and BD professionals looking to shape client relationships and drive the DE&I agenda?
Courtney: Sure. So my one piece of advice for firm leaders looking to move forward within DE&I, I would say, you know, step outside the comfort zone, lawyers, and I'm speaking about myself here, we are trained to follow precedent. The first thing we wanna ask is who else is doing it? Let go of that for a little bit and be willing to do something new because doing the same things and the same things that everyone else is doing isn't gonna get us far. And it's part of the reason why the legal industry has lagged behind so many other professional services industries in terms of DE&I. And for your second question about advice for marketing and BD professionals. I would say that be confident in your ability to raise these conversations with your clients. This is an easy way to partner with clients around a shared value, whether it's sharing speaker ideas with your client because your firm just had an amazing Heritage Month speaker. Whether it's hey, you have this sponsorship program. And is there anyone at your client's company that they want to invite to an event if it's, you know, doing a partnership with an organization like the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity, LCLD, where you can host a summer intern together, you know, there are lots of opportunities to partner with clients around DE&I. And so I think that not raising that is really missing some easy low-hanging fruit with your clients. So I would just be confident in that and, you know, work with your DEI professional and strategize and then, and go up there and raise it to your clients.
Yasmin: Courtney. Thank you so much for your time today. I feel like just having this conversation, you are leaving us with so many pieces of great feedback to take back to our firms or organizations and just be able to add a little bit of change. And then, of course, I mean, people are probably be knocking down on your door for more help and more advice. So, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
Courtney: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Yasmin: Of course. And so for everybody tuning in. Courtney is incredible. Definitely, you know, keep listening and keep following up with what Courtney is saying, she's kind of leading the charge on all this. So again, thank you for joining and you know, hopefully, you all will be staying tuned. I'm your host, Yasmin Zand and I hope that you all have a great rest of your days.