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April 1, 2024 Focus | DEI

CT law firms ramp up DEI practices as more companies seek guidance

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER McCarter & English Hartford Office Managing Partner Moy N. Ogilvie leads DEI initiatives across all 12 of the law firm’s U.S. locations.

As diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives continue to be a large topic of discussion in government and the private sector, law firms are ramping up the services they offer clients that need guidance on how to navigate the increasingly complicated environment.

Many Connecticut law firms, like those across the country, have added DEI consultation to their existing labor and employment practices, since the two are intrinsically linked.

Angela Robinson

Connecticut-based Halloran Sage — with offices in Hartford, Danbury, Middletown and New Haven — recently created a diversity and inclusion practice led by former Connecticut Superior Court Judge Angela C. Robinson. The practice helps companies develop DEI plans and communications strategies as well as employee training programs, among other services.

And the need for expertise on DEI-related policies, procedures and hiring practices is on the rise, legal experts said, especially as diversity initiatives have come under greater scrutiny following last year’s Supreme Court case decision that concluded colleges can’t use race as a determining factor in admissions programs.

Some suspected that decision would lead private companies to rethink their DEI efforts over fears of potential lawsuits.

Rachel Kushel

“We’re definitely seeing a trend of increased popularity with clients,” said Rachel V. Kushel, chair of the labor, employment, benefits and immigration group at law firm Robinson + Cole, which has three Connecticut offices in Hartford, Stamford and New London. “Law firms develop and grow practices based on demand, and of course anticipated demand. So, as the DEI initiatives grow, evolve and gain momentum, which is what we’re seeing now, clients are seeking assistance — they’re trying to make their workplaces as positive of a workplace and improve their workplace culture as much as possible.”

DEI law

McCarter & English Hartford Office Managing Partner Moy N. Ogilvie, who heads DEI initiatives across all 12 of the firm’s U.S. locations, said that while internal diversity policies have ramped up at law firms across the country, they have at other businesses, too.

“Our firm and our attorneys regularly get asked by our clients to do trainings or give guidance on certain DEI policies or initiatives,” Ogilvie said. “Most corporate organizations have overall DEI policies and initiatives in some way, shape or form, and as they grow and develop their programs, they seek guidance as needed from counsel.”

McCarter & English Hartford Office Managing Partner Moy Ogilvie says companies of all sizes are focused on DEI efforts.

Robinson, from Halloran Sage, said the increase in law firm DEI practices coincides with what the private sector is experiencing.

“We know, from decades of research, the organizations that implement solid DEIA practices, regardless of type, tend to produce better quality products more efficiently,” Robinson said. “They also tend to generate more revenue per employee. And, equally as important, the workplaces that actively apply DEIA principles tend to have more engaged and committed employees. Because there is a proven correlation between increasing visible diversity within an organization and an increase in employees’ experience of inclusion, our attorneys understand the importance of increasing diversity within the constraints of labor and employment law.”

While Robinson+Cole doesn’t have a formal DEI practice, its services are offered within the firm’s labor, employment, benefits and immigration group.

Kushel said her practice handles myriad workplace issues, including employment litigation and drafting or reviewing policies. She said that while DEI has become more prominent and mainstream, her firm has been working in that space for years in a growing capacity.

“A lot of DEI practices evolved from labor and employment practices because they deal with issues in the workforce and with people,” Kushel said.

Kushel said DEI education and mentoring services have been increasingly popular with clients, so the firm helps organize training sessions for a company’s employees related to diversity in the workplace.

“It is absolutely a best practice — even in terms of litigation, I would call it proactive litigation defense — to make sure that a workplace is up-to-date on their training,” Kushel said. “It helps reduce potential claims, but it also helps with the defense of potential claims.”

Ogilvie said it’s not just large companies that are seeking DEI guidance — organizations of all sizes are realizing the importance of “casting the biggest net” when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, and strong DEI policies could be a good way to do that.

“When you’re thinking about how to attract the best and the brightest with the widest group of candidates to even consider working somewhere, you probably need to look at your diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as well,” Ogilvie said.

Kushel said some small and medium-sized companies are trying to be “proactive” when it comes to addressing potential workplace issues through inclusive policies.

“Smaller and midsize companies have fewer employees, so exclusions and problems can have an even greater impact on the work culture,” Kushel said.

SCOTUS impact

Meantime, employers continue to weigh the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s college admissions ruling.

In the wake of the decision, many law firms around the country sent out briefs weighing in on the potential implications for private-sector employers’ diversity initiatives.

Connecticut lawyers said the Supreme Court’s decision isn’t causing companies to abandon their DEI initiatives.

“There’s certainly an impact of Supreme Court decisions and national politics, but culturally, many companies are keeping initiatives and just making sure they’re consistent with the law,” Kushel said. “Businesses have evolved significantly so that they don’t only do things to comply with the law, they have many stakeholders who demand cultural change.”

Kushel said reviewing and updating DEI policies is important.

“Supreme Court precedent is going to impact business activity in most facets of business, so when you have a decision like students for fair admissions, that can have a ripple effect, even if it’s not directly targeted to the issues companies face,” she said.

Robinson said the Supreme Court decision prompted Halloran Sage to reevaluate and revisit what DEI is, and why it’s important. Ultimately, she thinks the decision reaffirms that “diversity is a valid goal in and of itself.”

“As with everything, there has been an ebb and flow in the appetite for DEIA services,” Robinson said. “We saw a sharp increase after the George Floyd murder, followed by a slight decline during COVID. Now, with the latest affirmative action decision from the Supreme Court and the heightened scrutiny of identity-related issues, there is renewed interest. Savvy companies are recognizing that DEIA actually provides a way to address many of the concerns raised in the affirmative action cases because DEIA does not elevate one identity group over another.”

Ogilvie said she acknowledges some people have the opinion that DEI initiatives are overdone. But, she still emphasized their importance.

“It’s not about taking opportunities away from anyone else or any other group. It’s really about widening the pool of talent that we get to consider for various opportunities,” Ogilvie said.

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