Kelly Batts, Robert Andrews, Leslie Richards-Yellen


There has been a continued rise in prominence of the role of chief diversity officers in law firms globally as the legal industry has gradually taken stock of the need to pursue DEI goals. Apart from creating a forward-looking workplace, cultural awareness also adds value to the firm’s calibre in the eyes of clients. ALB hears from diversity leaders on how empowering inclusion can make a law firm stronger.


ALB: Can you please tell us more about your responsibilities as Chief Diversity Officer at your law firm, and what is the significance of the role?

KELLY BATTS, chief diversity officer, Cooley: My responsibility as chief diversity officer (CDO) is to help shape Cooley’s culture, promote diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) as our company’s core values and ensure these are reflected in every aspect of Cooley’s operations.

We believe that nurturing a diverse and inclusive environment empowers us and our employees to innovate within the dynamic landscapes of the industries we serve.

I was incredibly excited to be hired as Cooley’s first CDO in October 2023 – it was a significant move for the firm as we strengthen our long-standing DEI leadership position in the global legal community and beyond.


ROBERT ANDREWS, chief inclusion & diversity officer, Mewburn Ellis: My overarching responsibility as CDO is the design and implementation of Mewburn’s Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) strategy. That has multiple focus areas: linking I&D strategy to business, legal, and HR objectives; being the conduit for I&D communication between internal stakeholders; identifying opportunities to embed I&D into business operations; spearheading external I&D partnerships; and serving as the main external I&D ambassador.

In Mewburn, we see the CDO role as a key part of being a forward-looking firm. Recent years have seen shifts in societal expectations of equality and workplace culture, shifts reflected by our current colleagues and clients, as well as our potential future recruits and business partners. Moreover, the developing body of data on how I&D relates to business performance consistently shows that diverse organisations outperform their more homogenous peers. We, therefore, believe that leading on I&D is critical for sustaining Mewburn’s strong growth and performance.


LESLIE RICHARDS-YELLEN, chief diversity officer, Sidley Austin: I’ll start with my thoughts on the significance of the Chief Diversity Officer role in law firms. By utilising the “chief” designation, the firm is sending a strong internal and external signal about its support for DEI. The “chief” title implies that the diversity leader is fully accepted and integrated into the firm.

Titles aside, some law firms intentionally or unintentionally structurally subordinate the DEI function. For example, one indicator of structural subordination may be when the CDO doesn’t report to a key decision-maker or have direct access to resources, important relationships, and information. Structural subordination may reflect weaker support for DEI or indicate that the firm isn’t fully open to different perspectives. For example, when the head of DEI reports to the leader of a sister function, such as Human Resources, Talent, Learning and Development, or Marketing, it may be less likely that the firm’s processes will reflect true collaboration.

In many client- and third- party DEI surveys of law firms, a factor in the assessment is whether the DEI leader is a “chief” who reports to firm leaders. Implicit in this inquiry by clients and others is whether the DEI leader has the structural authority to be an agent of change.

As for responsibilities, the Chief Diversity Officer role has been evolving at most law firms. Broadly speaking, CDOs are tasked with creating value and impact for the firm’s lawyers and staff, alumni, and clients. Specifically, CDOs, with firm leadership, must set the vision for DEI and then the path forward for execution at their firm. To do this effectively, CDOs must understand the narrative of the firm’s past, the profession’s past, and the firm’s culture and imperatives, and deliver impactful initiatives in the moment while laying the foundations for future initiatives and innovation in existing programming.

Then there is the day-to-day that builds the relationships and credibility necessary for success: CDOs should mentor and support women, diverse, and LGBTQ+ lawyers and nurture the firm’s culture. They also need to be broadly available to the sponsors and advocates for DEI in all the different firm functions and departments to address the needs of women, minority, and LGBTQ+ lawyers and staff, and to reinforce the firm’s culture and goals. CDOs need to be ambassadors for firm culture - strong culture provides the foundation for the development of trusting relationships, and trust is the major ingredient for supporting an inclusive environment in which lawyers provide unique perspectives that enrich their work product. Last, CDOs should, of course, keep up with their professional network on market innovations and practices, and, when practicable, seek to adapt and implement best practices in their firms.



ALB: How has the role of CDO given firms an advantage over those which don’t have such a role?

BATTS: I am a firm believer that a CDO can help elevate DEI within an organisation and institutionalise DEI practices across the entire business. Ultimately, a strategic alignment with business goals ensures that diversity efforts contribute to a company’s success. An effective CDO can help ensure alignment and be a differentiator for a company that wants to truly move the needle.

A CDO can also help attract top talent from a variety of backgrounds and, at the same time, send a message to employees that the company values their differences and is invested in creating an inclusive culture.

In Asia, where Cooley has four offices and serves clients regionwide, our commitment to DEI has helped inform our programming. As an example, I am proud to say we are leading the way in the employee benefits space in support of women and LGBTQ+ employees through our market-leading parental leave policies, as well as the inclusion of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) coverage in our benefits packages.


ANDREWS: The creation of the Mew-burn CDO role came early in our journey. It was borne out of a realisation that delivery of I&D as a strategic objective required effective leadership to drive and focus our efforts. That has proven to be the case. We wouldn’t have been able to make our progress without a CDO. One of the main advantages of having a CDO is more effective delivery of I&D strategy. This, in turn, leads to business benefits such as improved talent attraction/retention, and a greater ability to connect with high-value clients.


RICHARDS-YELLEN: Many clients see DEI as an imperative both internally and as an important factor in evaluating their vendors and partners. Importantly, cur-rent and prospective talent also take an interest.

In terms of value-add at the most basic level, CDOs often have a unique vantage point and orientation, as they are executives with a broad range of talents who have navigated unique challenges and managed risk. Some law firm CDOs are lawyers and have played significant roles in thought leadership. Simply put, firms that utilise the skills and perspectives of CDOs are more likely to have a stronger “C-suite” than firms without CDOs.

Beyond the leadership bench, one of the primary missions for CDOs is to use their talents and market insight to position their firm to be a strong competitor and to differentiate the firm’s brand. Firms with CDOs are more willing to challenge external market perception. These firms acknowledge that change often provides new opportunities. The leaders of these firms, in my experience, understand that involving a broader group in building and reinforcing culture and goals makes a firm stronger. In sum, clients should prefer firms with CDOs because it’s likely that those firms will have stronger leadership, effective training processes, and a higher talent retention rate.


ALB: What do you think is the most effective strategy to build or improve law firms’ DEI awareness? At the same time, what are some of the biggest stumbling blocks during the process, and how are you planning to address those?

BATTS: DEI awareness is an evolutionary journey that requires commitment and a willingness to learn and adapt over time. Strategies include:

  1. Leadership buy-in and employee engagement: This can encompass internal affinity groups, reliable feedback processes, and transparency and communication at all levels. In Asia, our employees are highly engaged with our DEI initiatives, particularly through our affinity groups, annual DEI training programs and the robust feedback systems we have in place.
  2. Development efforts (including training programs): For example, as part of Cooley’s efforts to create a more inclusive workplace, our Hong Kong office in 2023 launched a series of training workshops on period positivity and menstrual health education in collaboration with LUÜNA, a company that aims to destigmatise conversations around menstruation.
  3. Evaluating and implementing inclusive policies and practices: A regional example is when we launched Pink Friday across our Asia offices in 2022. Employees wore pink T-shirts to the office to show their support and raise awareness of LGBTQ+ and inclusivity-related issues. This event has now taken off in our other global locations, too.
  4. Data and metrics analysis: At Cooley, we set specific metrics to articulate and deliver on our DEI commitments. As part of our firmwide DEI action plan, we aim to achieve a range of metrics by 2026. These include increasing the percentage of women in the partnership to at least 35 percent, growing the proportion of ethnic, racial and LGBTQ+ diversity among all lawyers to at least 32 percent, and increasing the percentage of ethnic, racial and LGBTQ+ diversity among all managers and directors to at least 37 percent.

I think companies face stumbling blocks when they don’t have a clear strategy and are drawn into the broader distractions around DEI that sometimes occur. This can lead to work that’s reactive, rather than proactive. Firms should address this by developing clearly defined DEI goals, while also being flexible and having the ability to adapt when necessary.


ANDREWS: The most effective strategy for improving DEI depends on a firm’s current position: existing business culture, markets it operates in, etc. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. That said, there is a set of shared actions that can help individual law firms develop a strategy that works for them.

Firstly, a firm needs to make a real commitment to I&D. That means the firm’s management undertaking to make I&D part of how the firm operates, as opposed to approaching I&D piecemeal. This is key because I&D involves cultural change, which is difficult, daunting, and outside the comfort zone of most law firm managers. Without real commitment at the very top, it’s unlikely to happen.

Secondly, a firm needs to ask open questions and – crucially – listen to the answers to your colleagues, to your clients, to expert advisors. That’s likely to be a challenging process, eliciting feedback that may be uncomfortable reading. Taken constructively, though, that feedback is the raw material from which a firm can shape an I&D strategy that is right for them.

As to stumbling blocks, one of the biggest is – ironically – diversity. That is, the diversity of opinions that exists in almost every group of people, including the stakeholders of law firms. The challenge of managing that diversity can be pronounced with I&D because it touches on personal issues that often have indirect connections to business functions. The way we are addressing those is through ongoing discussion and using variety of approaches; our experience is that different causes, or evidence points, move different people.


RICHARDS-YELLEN: In my opinion, the best strategy for deepening a firm’s commitment to DEI is to show how addressing the challenges faced by women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ lawyers makes the firm stronger and creates value for the firm.

I also believe it is self-evident that lawyers and professional staff are more likely to invest, more fully and for a longer timeframe, in a firm that they believe shares their values. Relationships are stronger and more authentic when people feel connected to the firm and their colleagues.

Client attraction and loyalty are enhanced when a firm is proficient in the implementation of DEI strategies. Clients feel the dynamic culture and want to engage with the firm and its lawyers - this engagement may include assigning more matters to the firm.

One stumbling block can be when there is distance between the values a firm articulates and what people feel. Firms must continue to chip away to close that gap. Sidley’s strategy to address this challenge is to translate our DEI priorities into action.


ALB: How can a role as CDO enhance the firms’ standing and help firms achieve their commercial goals?

BATTS: Given shifting demographics across regions, having a CDO helps an organisation adapt to changing client and employee needs, ensuring sustained relevance and success while providing the firm with a competitive advantage. A CDO also ensures that a firm’s DEI strategy is representative of its client base and values. For example, Cooley partners with industry organisations, such as the Women Entrepreneurs Network (WEN) and Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK), to explore programs in professional development and community leadership.

Firms that invest in their DEI functions, as demonstrated by the presence of a CDO, are working toward the future of the business, where DEI will be a non-negotiable imperative and standard practice for a healthy, thriving organisation that attracts clients as well as talent.


ANDREWS: The combination of elements that make up the CDO role – leading on internal initiatives, engaging with client I&D requirements, and being an external ambassador – means they are uniquely positioned to leverage a firm’s I&D effort. Each of those elements informs and interacts with the others, leading to synergistic benefits that would be difficult to obtain if those functions were performed by different people. We had a relatively recent example of this synergy on the topic of gender equality. Related aspects surfaced separately during a client-initiated certification process, an internal review of progression opportunities, and a media interview. Having our CDO involved in all of those instances meant our actions in each case were both coordinated and more effective.


ALB: If law firms want to consider creating a CDO role, what kind of considerations should they keep in mind?

BATTS: Firms should consider creating a role that closely aligns with their company culture and business perspectives, as the position will bring fundamental changes to their business strategies and daily operations. Key questions to ask are: is there buy-in within the C-suite to set up a CDO for success, and is the firm ready to reflect on its practices systemically? As for practical elements, what is the CDO’s reporting structure, and how is the role resourced, both financially and with the support of human resources? I am incredibly lucky that at Cooley, furthering our DEI objectives is a top business priority for our most senior leadership. While there is still work to do, the support of the firm and close alignment with our core values means I’m optimistic about the road ahead.


ANDREWS: The key considerations are: what does the firm want the CDO to achieve, and what support does the CDO need to achieve that? Creating a CDO title without the required support will result in little progress, and, in time, create the impression of a superficial, or even cynical, approach.

To give the example of our own experience: we decided that for the CDO role to be effective it needed to be a top-level management board position and, ideally, filled by one of our senior partners. We made that choice because it would provide I&D leadership that had the access, authority, and freedom to create the strategy that was the best fit for our business.

That approach has so far been successful, in that we have avoided the challenges reported by some of our peers. Examples include an I&D leader not having sufficient support from the firm management to deliver the required cultural evolution, or an external I&D hire not having a sufficiently deep understanding of a firm’s business culture to develop a strategy that is the right fit.


RICHARDS-YELLEN: There are basic steps to take to set up a CDO for success. The CDO should be integrated into the firm and have access to leaders, resources, and information. The firm should provide the CDO with tangible structural authority.

Speaking more personally, Sidley leaders have reflected on how to build successful leaders, leading to the creation of a thoughtful talent integration process at all levels. And, after I joined Sidley, I benefitted. The process established by the Director of Business Process Improvement and the Chief Learning & Development Officer provided me with a thorough overview and understanding of the CDO role and, importantly, the firm’s culture.

Sidley recognises that leadership starts with an associate’s first day on a job and that inclusiveness is a key element in building leadership at every level. For example, I became acquainted with our Built to Lead professional development offering that was strategically developed to ensure that managing and senior managing associates have the skills to take on new responsibilities.

Moreover, our leadership continues to check in with me regularly to provide guidance. Their efforts have played a huge role in integrating me into the firm.



Related Articles

ROUNDTABLE: Onwards, Upwards, Forwards

by Sarah Wong |

There has been a continued rise in prominence of the role of chief diversity officers in law firms globally as the legal industry has gradually taken stock of the need to pursue DEI goals. Apart from creating a forward-looking workplace, cultural awareness also adds value to the firm’s calibre in the eyes of clients. ALB hears from diversity leaders on how empowering inclusion can make a law firm stronger.