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Focusing on Talent to Foster a Diverse & Inclusive Environment and Drive Engagement & Results

Updated: Sep 13

By Sheila M. Murphy


Lawyers spend years in school and many years after that honing their technical legal skills. Not much time is spent on developing talent—and more importantly, how to grow diverse talent that can propel a legal organization forward. The cost of this neglect is staggering both to organizations and the profession. Legal groups invest money into hiring and retaining this talent, yet when organizations fail to retain individuals, those investments are lost. The flight of diverse individuals from the profession--- results in a lack of diversity that impacts creativity and results. Here are five ways that legal leaders and teams can grow a diverse group that will create impactful and innovative results.

Invest in Management & Leadership Training.   Being an excellent technician does not make you a good manager or leader. The skill sets are very different. Simply because you can issue spot and negotiate an extremely favorable clause does not mean you can (or even want) to develop talent. Legal organizations need to invest time and money into growing managerial expertise as they do the organization's legal skills. Engaged and diverse teams are more productive than creative than those that are not, and you have less turn-over costs. There is a strong business case for this investment. Remember, the training is only one step—you need to have the policies, processes, and incentives to drive people toward talent management behaviors. If you want people to grow talent, you need to provide the tools and rewards to support that.

Customized Approach to Talent.  A talent-focused manager and leader appreciates that his team members are all unique with different backgrounds, strengths, and opportunities. To coach someone to grow professionally, you need to understand their aspirations, motivators, and saboteurs. You must focus on their uniqueness and individualize their career development to capitalize on that oneness.

A manager must spend time with their employees focused on their development. For me, cultivating individuals goes beyond setting up annual goals and performance reviews. It means having periodic talent discussions—that are calendared and honored. These discussions with

underrepresented populations should include how they are viewing the firm and its experience. To guide people, you need to show that you are interested in this feedback. As some view raising these issues—as a potential career-ender, managers need to create an environment that demonstrates that you are genuinely interested and will take this feedback seriously. You may fumble in some of these discussions—as you may in many talent development discussions—the point is to have them and show that you care about the individual. Growing talent also

means having regular team meetings and events where the focus is on development. These can include training and discussions on career growth, mentors' value, or cultivating a deeper understanding of the industry you support.

Finally, talent cultivation also means explaining the organization's unwritten rules—so your team can better navigate the firm's culture and succeed in it. Employees whose managers are committed to their growth are more engaged and more committed to development. These employees also believe that the environment is inclusive and welcoming. 

Neutral Assignment Systems. Junior lawyers' assignments can have a broad impact on their careers. By getting the "right" assignments- a lawyer can be on the "sexy" deal that introduces him to the powerbrokers who can foster their careers. Traditionally, senior individuals requested the individuals that worked on their matters. Unconscious bias can play a part in that selection. Legal organizations and leaders need to monitor assignments to make sure that every attorney can work on issues that are necessary to their growth and introduce them to the individuals who can further their careers. Managers and leaders need to speak up if a lawyer is not obtaining the appropriate training and mentorship.

Actionable Feedback & Performance Reviews.  To develop, people need to understand what they do well and where they can improve. Feedback should begiven close in time and focus not only on what was done well or not but also on the impact. For example, rather than say you do an excellent job on that brief, you want to say how you integrated the facts and the law—made the

arguments much stronger. You do not want to say—you need to be more strategic. Instead, you want to state—you need to take a broader view of the contract's impact on the business, and by doing that, you would have caught the liability provisions that could cost the company $10 million as drafted. 

Studies show that people are not comfortable providing feedback to people who do not look like them and may avoid doing it—or weakening it. The result of this is that managers may not be giving underrepresented populations the information that they need to know to

grow.  Avoidance or softer feedback is not the only way unconscious bias creeps into feedback and performance reviews. Reviewers use different (and often less favorable) language to describe the same behavior. For example, reviewers will describe women as aggressive or ambitious, and men as steadfast and career-focused. 

Additionally, the underrepresented lawyers' reviews may contain less actionable feedback. Training managers on how to effectively provide feedback and identify and appreciate unconscious bias can mitigate its impact. Legal organizations should also audit performance reviews' language to determine if unconscious bias impacts the messaging that the lawyers receive on their performance and development. Audits should be performed on performance reviews to ensure that individuals receiving the same ratings—have similar language discussing their performance. Finally, organizations should train management on understanding how unconscious bias can arise in performance review discussions and encourage managers and raising unconscious bias during these discussions. 

Mentors and Sponsors.  Diverse individuals with a sponsor – are much more likely to achieve promotions and other opportunities. A sponsor's impact on a career is enormous. Sponsorship, for the most part, needs to be organic and earned. The best way for individuals to cultivate a sponsor is to work with them on projects or convert a mentor into a sponsor. Thus, as stated above, organizations must ensure that individuals have the opportunity to work with many people.

Additionally, managers should encourage their teams to seek out mentors both internally and externally. Mentors can give valuable advice and help individuals navigate politics. Mentors also provide a safe place for individuals to ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking their managers. And most importantly, mentors can turn into sponsors and give opportunities to their mentees.

A keen eye on talent development can transform organizations into engaged, inclusive, and innovative workplaces. Organizations with a talent focus:

  • Invest in its people.

  • Capitalize on and leverage individuals' unique talents.

  • Create neutral assignment systems.

  • Provide actionable and fair feedback and performance reviews and encourage the team to have mentors and sponsors.

People in these organizations feel valued, engaged, and are less likely to leave, and the organizations reap the benefits of higher productivity and creativity.  

After 20 years of successfully litigating and developing and coaching talent in corporate America and law firms, Sheila is pursuing her passion for helping others reach their full potential. Leading with passion and purpose, Sheila is CEO and President of Focus Forward Consulting LLC and Chief Learning & Talent Officer of WOMN LLC, which are focused on having lawyers, leaders and legal organizations achieve their career and business goals. Sheila also continues to support the financial industry in her role as an expert and consultant at Bates Group. 

In 2018, Sheila retired as Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel at MetLife where she provided litigation, regulatory and risk mitigation advice. As a well-respected thought leader, Sheila served as an executive sponsor to MetLife’s U.S. Women’s Business Network, co-chaired the Legal Affair’s Academy providing developmental opportunities to legal and compliance professionals worldwide and served as a member of its U.S. Task Force on diversity.  Prior to joining MetLife, Sheila was at the law firm of Thacher Proffitt & Wood. 

Sheila is a member of the Boards of Directors of National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). Sheila serves on the advisory board of Transforming Women's Leadership in Law and co-chairs the CARE’s Women’s Network of New York, which works on eradicating poverty through empowering women and girls. Previously, she was a member of the Board for Read Alliance and PowerPlay, NYC. Sheila received from Corporate Counsel and Inhouse Counsel the Women, Influence, Power in Law, Lifetime Achievement Award for her commitment to advancing and empowering women in the legal profession. Women’s Venture Fund awarded Sheila the highest Leaf Award in recognition of her commitment to helping others advance in their careers. She was named a Most Influential Irish Woman by the Irish Voice, a Leading Women Lawyer in NYC by Crain's New York, a Business 100 honoree by Irish America and one of 250 Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs by Databird Journal. Sheila also has received the Benchmark Litigation In-house Award at the Americas Women in Business Awards, the Virginia S. Mueller Outstanding Member Award from NAWL and a First Chair award for hard work, innovation and significant contributions to the legal community. 

Sheila is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she served on the Comparative Labor Law Journal and the School of Management at the State University of New York at Binghamton where she graduated magna cum laude. Sheila earned her Associate Certified Coach and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach from the International Coaching Federation and the Co-Active Leadership Institute, respectively. Sheila is a frequent speaker on litigation and regulatory issues, talent, and business development, leadership and diversity. 


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