Higher Education, Human Resources, and Law

Law firm enlists U-M for diversity research

MBA students conduct Multidisciplinary Action Project to help Dickinson Wright reach inclusion goals.

August 25, 2017
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As any proponent of evidence-based decision-making knows, one of the first steps to setting smart goals is gathering data about existing conditions. Attorneys call this “discovery.”

Members of Detroit-based law firm Dickinson Wright — which has a Grand Rapids office — long ago made a commitment to diversity and inclusion, not only in recruitment, hiring and retention, but through culture, compensation and the communities it serves.

But the firm has had trouble retaining attorneys of color and female attorneys.

When Dickinson Wright’s diversity committees learned about the chance to participate in a University of Michigan Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) with graduate students from U-M’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, they jumped at the chance to find out how to improve results.

Kathy Zelenock, an attorney and member involved with the firm’s diversity efforts, said Dickinson Wright was the first law firm to engage in a MAP study with U-M.

“We’re proud of trying to think outside the box on that,” she said.

Late last year, Dickinson Wright wrote a proposal on the project idea and submitted it to the Ross School of Business. Based on preferences, résumés and work experience, graduate students Lauren Garvey, Michael McFarland, Kyra Mahoney and Ian Bridges were assigned to Dickinson Wright.

“The MAP is the University of Michigan Business School’s signature capstone program for first-year MBA students,” Garvey said. “Students tackle complex business problems for a nonprofit or company. We work with them to develop actual solutions.

“These projects take place all over the world. To date, students have worked on 2,000 projects in over 97 countries for big companies like Google, Amazon, PepsiCo., World Bank — and now Dickinson Wright.”

Zelenock said Dickinson Wright asked the MAP team to focus on diversity and inclusion in “recruiting, work assignments, internal culture and compensation,” offering some of the firm’s most sensitive data as raw material.

“We gave suggestions, but they determined how to go about it and how to measure results,” she said.

Starting in March, the students launched secondary research on industry practices, using journals like the Harvard Business Review, as well as expert interviews, data analysis of Dickinson Wright’s 2016 compensation practices and interviews with 10 percent of the firm, or about 50 attorneys.

Garvey, a lawyer who hopes to practice in diversity and inclusion after earning her MBA, said her team’s first move was to look at possible bias in compensation.

“Ultimately, the data analysis showed there were no significant differences in compensation between male and female attorneys or between attorneys of color and Caucasian attorneys,” she said.

“We ruled out compensation as a way of determining why the firm was losing its female attorneys and attorneys of color.”

The team then shifted to qualitative methods.

“We focused on looking at mentorship, business development, work allocation, culture and how each of those areas impacted the retention and advancement of women and people of color at the firm,” she said.

“One insight we learned was that people really valued informal mentoring. The firm has a formal mentorship program, which many people value, but our research found the informal organic relationships within the firm were the ones that impacted their growth and advancement the most.

“We developed recommendations around creating opportunities for people to interact and work in a way that those organic relationships could develop.”

On the work allocation front, Garvey’s team found that in some practice groups, the firm was not tapping into the full potential of women and attorneys of color compared to their male and white counterparts.

“Based on those insights, we recommended the firm implement a training program for its practice department managers,” Garvey said.

Zelenock pointed to another finding the firm could address immediately.

“From a culture perspective, we found the collegiality among people at our firm was high,” she said. “More than 90 percent said that was their favorite thing about working here. But there were also culture things where we identified, in terms of our harassment policy, that we needed to nuance a bit, (creating) a broader bench of approachable people they could report to.

“Now, our formal reporting policy is much broader.”

Garvey referred to the policy and training changes as “low-hanging fruit” that Dickinson Wright could use to build support for longer-term changes.

Zelenock said she and other diversity committee members at the firm appreciated the MAP team’s numeric- and business-driven approach toward building a case for diversity and inclusion.

“One of the things it helped us to see is business students think a little differently than lawyers do,” she said. “The data-driven approach makes it more matter-of-fact, and takes it out of a discussion of what should happen and ‘Why aren’t you using the firm’s talent?’ So, it made it less a moral discussion and more a business discussion.”

Garvey said the recent resurgence of white nationalism, racial violence and inequity in America shows this type of research is timely and urgent.

“It’s an exciting time to be working on these issues given the recent headlines,” she said. “It’s important to use design-thinking principles to make the workplace a more inclusive place for everyone.”

Zelenock said the firm will reap the benefits of the MAP research for years to come.

“They did a good job blending it into a final report that was really helpful to us,” she said. “It was effective not only as a snapshot of where we were but how to move forward.”

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