What the Bar can learn from: Inclusion projects

Why diversity in itself does not lead to stronger team performance, innovation or ideas – inclusion is the critical differentiator. Jay Connolly has some ideas for how the Bar could start its own Big Inclusion Project


In law firms, there is a growing and overdue focus on creating, fostering and maintaining a truly inclusive culture. This is also important for the Bar. So, what can barristers learn from solicitors to help drive inclusion in meaningful ways?

At Dentons, we found that three core elements are critical to advance a culture and way of working that creates inclusion, and belonging, across every aspect of an organisation: 1) a business focus that has inclusion and diversity at its core, rather than a good practice add-on; 2) development of team leaders that builds the capabilities to successfully manage diverse teams in an inclusive way (diverse views and input can often result in conflict and requires capable team leadership to maximise these perspectives and enhance overall performance); 3) taking meaningful steps, involving everyone across the organisation, to build inclusive approaches together. Inclusion cannot be agreed, planned and decreed from the management table. While all three elements need attention, it is often the third, inclusive action, that is the most challenging.

In 2019, we created our Big Inclusion Project to make inclusive action a reality in an innovative and impactful way. The concept was simple: leveraging talented people across the firm, working together in diverse teams over 10 weeks, focusing on actions to drive inclusion, and building an implementation plan. The Project followed our 2018 Big Inclusion Conversation, a 72-hour collaboration jam for the whole firm. This online, facilitated conversation provided the opportunity for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas on inclusion over three days, non-stop. The output was a powerful set of themes capturing what was important to everyone.

The next step was to take these themes and ideas, and turn them into action. We found that the following elements helped to make it a powerful way to engage people:

  • Leadership involvement: With inclusion a business priority, members of the board were involved with the project all the way through. Commitment is demonstrated through participation and this was a powerful signal.
  • Support for each team: All teams benefited from the support of an external inclusion professional, as well as the HR team internally. Teams had tools to support virtual working and connection, as well as a member of the Global Board to provide guidance as needed.
  • Global Board discussion: One team was invited to join the Global Board meeting in Madrid in person to present and discuss their implementation plan. A high profile, visible display of inclusion and business priority.

The resulting engagement, commitment, output and impact was remarkable, making a tremendous difference across the organisation. Dentons formed 22 teams from across the firm, with at least 10 members in each team including a representative from the Global Board. After appointing a project lead from within each group, the teams worked together for 10 weeks. This was also an opportunity for the individuals to meet virtually and collaborate, in many cases for the first time given the geographical spread of all the teams, as the participants were drawn from 68 offices around the globe.

Video was a powerful tool. Each team was asked to create a two-minute video to bring their action plan to life which was then shared with everyone firmwide. An internal web page housed all the videos and received more than 15,000 page views, with many offices also running viewing parties. Employees subsequently voted on the implementation plan that they determined should be advanced first.

The energy created was palpable. It created a buzz and was credited for ‘making our firm smaller’ by advancing inclusion and action from all locations and engaging everyone.

Ideas for making inclusion a reality...

This particular approach highlights some of the important elements to advance inclusion:

1. Totally inclusive approach: Defining actions that involve everyone, and having people across an organisation design solutions, ignites engagement. Leveraging the creativity, insight and diversity of teams of hugely talented people, and building ownership in the place that matters most, is powerful. Regardless of organisation size, single site or global, involving all roles, at all levels, regardless of seniority, and all locations, makes a difference.

2. Action is critical: Ideas are great, yet it is action that makes the difference. Actions that are defined and owned by the people in your organisation and they are then part of delivering the result.

3. Measurement: To really know if there was impact, not only do you have to deliver action and deliver on the plans, but measurement is essential. Track progress and measure delivery to ensure you are holding yourselves accountable.

... and thoughts on a Big Bar Inclusion Project

The need to enhance diversity at the Bar is now, rightly, a much-discussed topic. Diversity within the judiciary is also fundamental to a truly democratic legal system. Achieving this also requires an equal focus on inclusion and belonging. So, what could a Big Inclusion Project look like at the Bar? Here are some thoughts on potential approaches:

  • Collaborate across chambers: Addressing inclusion together generates greater input, more ideas and actions, and enhances results. We have seen this when law firms have collaborated and when they have done so with clients. Imagine creating an inclusion focus across chambers, leveraging more ideas and thought.
  • Explore the reality: We all have a perspective on inclusion and what the present reality is. The online conversation we ran, noted above, could be approached in a number of ways, but capturing views on inclusion, areas to focus on and ideas was hugely powerful. Giving everyone a voice to share perspectives in a constructive, focused discussion provides invaluable insight on areas to address.
  • Empower teams: Solving the challenges of inclusion and diversity cannot sit solely with the head of chambers. Proactive leadership and support is essential, but it is the power of individuals across chambers, and the Bar, coming together, regardless of role, that will develop the actions to truly enhance inclusion.
  • Implement actions: Ideas need to be developed into actions, with an implementation plan to ensure they become reality. Taking the actions developed by teams and ensuring they are acted upon will make the difference. Make the plans achievable and split into phases as appropriate. Above all, take the agreed steps.

There is such an opportunity to enhance the way we work and to be more inclusive. Some of this involves changing habits, taking new approaches, being more cognisant of our impact, and making inclusion an active part of everything we do.

Research continues to highlight that inclusion drives high performance in teams and organisations. To make it a reality we need to ensure that the three core underlying elements are in place: 1) inclusion as a business priority; 2) development of team leaders; 3) and taking action together. The challenges today are more complex than ever, and it takes teams of people bringing diverse perspectives, working together, and with inclusion embedded, to be able to develop great solutions.

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Jay Connolly

Jay is the Global Chief Talent Officer for Dentons and responsible for the human resources and talent functions across the firm.