5 Things Attorneys Won’t Tell You When Attending Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programming
Wednesday, September 14, 2022
by: Melinda Wieder, J.D. (she/her)

Section: Summer 2022

Melinda Wieder (she/her) has been practicing insurance defense litigation for over a decade in Washington State. In addition to her practice, she has proactively stretched in diversity, equity, and inclusion training, including facilitating ally ship conversations across gender and race, leading a Women’s Employee Resource Group towards intersectionality and increasing male allyship, and building an executive leadership mentorship program with Greatheart Consulting. She enjoys talking to attorneys about how engaging in diversity trainings gives her a competitive advantage in her work. Find her writing on LinkedIn.
The focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will continue to be a hot topic in the legal profession in the years to come. More and more law firms nationally are committing to real action towards DEI. Here in Washington, an example of this can be seen in the 2021 Gender Justice Study by the Washington State Supreme Court’s Gender and Justice Commission.
As more and more law firms invest time, focus, and resources into diversity, equity and inclusion trainings, a central question is:
Is the return on investment there? In other words: Are the attorneys actually getting it?
With hope that the following helps make legal DEI programming more successful, here are 5 things attorneys wont’ tell you when attending DEI trainings.
1. They Didn’t Do The Prework
No matter how far ahead you send the pre-work materials, no matter how short you tell them the video is or how quickly they can read the handout, you can presume they will not look at it.
Attorneys habitually prepare for motion hearings, oral argument, arbitrations, and other “events” in the practice of law. The same discipline is not yet applied to DEI trainings in the legal profession.
Admitted or not, DEI is often viewed as non-essential and often a nuisance. This means that no matter how good the pre-work may be, many attorneys just are not going to review it. At least not consistently, yet.
Tip: Whenever possible, build pre-work into mandatory meeting time. Make it practical. Leave people with a sense of what they can expect from the DEI training itself and hopefully how helpful it will be for their work.
And before going over the pre-work, ask a quiz-like question for the attorneys to answer at the end. Something as simple as “how many times does the word ‘inclusion’ get said” can bring an increased attention to the content. Attorneys love competing and they love winning. Bonus points for having a prize for the winner.
2. They’re Afraid To Talk
For a profession of people who are paid to speak up for others, the simple truth is that attorneys are just people. Regardless of the fact that they took an oath of office to uphold justice and equity for all, it does not mean that attorneys feel any safer in spaces aimed at discussing culture-sensitive topics such as race and bias. The heightened training around risk in the legal profession also contributes to attorneys being more fearful when engaging in DEI.
In actuality, attorney’s mastery of words often results in very powerful defensive counter arguments to DEI programming. This can sound like: 
“I have too much work to attend any more trainings”
“I have a motion I have to finalize”
“I attended a DEI training like this already”
Attorneys are trained on how to use words for their client’s best interests. They use these same skills to deflect in engaging with DEI programming.
Important to know, there are also arguments not spoken out loud:
“There’s no way I’m speaking up, they’re just going to attack me and make me look like the bad guy”
“I’m tired of talking about race”
“I bet this is just so the firm isn’t sued”
The fact that attorneys are trained to be risk adverse means that psychological safety in the planning and execution of DEI programming becomes even more important.
Tip: When hiring external consultants, ask them specifically how they plan for and build safety in their programming. And if you are developing the training internally, know that safety often comes from authentic vulnerability of leaders and carefully crafted breakout rooms (i.e. peer-level participants).
3. They Are Not Inspired By Your Inspirational Title 
When DEI programming includes words like equity, inclusion and belonging, many attorneys immediately dismiss the significance of the training. In short, no matter how inspiring you hope the title of the DEI programming is, attorneys are typically not interested.
The point is to not overpromise on your DEI titles. Keep it short and simple and put your effort into building engaging and powerful content that attorneys will pay attention to and will empower their skill development.
Tip: If you’re brave enough, build DEI titles that are wildly specific and clearly mark out what the attendees will learn and how it will benefit their practice of law. For example, “How to Engage a Muslim Deponent” is likely to get attorneys attention more than “DEI and Faith in Practice.”
4. If It’s Virtual, They Will Be Working First And Listening Second (or third)
In the ever-busy world of practicing attorneys, at any given time, there are 10 things to think about at once. What question should I begin with in cross? Have all the records come in on that case? What should I do about my difficult client?
Add in the fact that they cannot bill for attending DEI trainings, and you can see how you start at a serious disadvantage before the training even begins.
If the training is fully virtual, or God-forbid recorded to be replayed, there is a 99% chance they literally are barely listening to you. From emails to motion drafting to simply cleaning up their house or picking up their kids from school, a fully virtual DEI training will deliver significantly less impact than intended. 
Tip: Deliver DEI programming in person. Pay people for mileage and parking. And if you really want attorneys to take it seriously, lower the annual billable requirements and replace them with formal DEI billables. And if you have to do it virtually, check out the work of Cassandra Worthy and see what dynamic and engaging virtual content actually looks and feels like.
5. In Their Heart and Mind, They Do Actually Care, And They Want To Build DEI Knowledge And Skills
The legal profession is changing. Younger and future generations of attorneys come with a much greater aptitude and interest in talking about how to bring diversity, equity and inclusion to life in the practice of law. To attract and retain the best talent, DEI must be centered now.
Attorneys are ready to dive into the work when DEI programming directly benefits their actual practice of law. And when they do, they are serious about getting it right.
This means that all the hard work of preparing people for and then engaging attorneys in DEI programming is worth it. Even if attorneys will not admit it.  
Tip: Keep presuming positive intent. Do not let the few attorneys who don’t get it or fight DEI programming ruin or get in the way of building the DEI programming the office can use as a whole.
The central lesson here: Attorneys attending DEI trainings are not paying attention unless you make it worth their time. Keep fighting the good fight. And maybe entice people with cookies.