By Heidi Turner,
Jennifer Smuts is a professional services marketing and business development executive who has worked inside law firms for 20 years. With a passion for purpose, Jenn has helped hundreds of lawyers grow their client relationships authentically and profitably. Jenn is actively involved as a campaign leader in 50/50 Women on Boards, a global education and advocacy organization driving the movement toward gender balance and diversity on corporate boards.
Diversity, equity and inclusion have been a growing area of interest for Jenn since becoming actively involved at various committee levels within the law firms she worked. Jenn is keen to help law firms understand the business and ethical imperative of diversity, equity and inclusion, and guide them towards both qualitative and quantitative efforts that will weave the necessary fabric into their respective cultures.
Within her community, Jenn started a non-profit called AFewSteps.org to raise awareness of energy use and to provide residents, schools, businesses, and governments with the know-how to save money and reduce greenhouse gases.
As Client Relationship & Project Manager at Conscious Inclusion Company, Jenn helps clients understand the value and importance of meaningful DEI. She also works with them to build effective DEI initiatives.
What is your experience in DEI?
As long as I’ve worked in legal I have either volunteered or been invited to work on respective law firm DEI committees. There were more women-oriented initiatives in the early 2000s and it evolved to DEI around 10-12 years ago.
The legal profession has had a terrible time of attracting and retaining diverse talent. As a DEI committee member it is important to keep law firm leadership’s “feet to the fire,” holding them accountable for implementing meaningful change. We would often hear leadership say, “There are always competing interests!” as an excuse for a lack of progress or commitment. DEI is not an interest that should be treated as a competing trend.
It has been interesting to be a part of the legal industry’s DEI efforts. At times it has felt like throwing Jell-O to the wall and hoping something would stick. DEI initiatives often suffer from inconsistent efforts, lack of investment and resources, and the inability to measure effectiveness, so they get sidetracked or worse, sidelined. By expanding the focus to inclusion and creating advancement and retention pathways for diverse people we are starting to see progress.
Why are you passionate about DEI?
My “why” is based on several personal experiences that led me to question whether a loved one or I would have been treated, disrespected and/or physically hurt had our race, gender or sexual orientation been different. Undoubtedly conscious (and unconscious) bias affects each of us daily and it’s only through awareness, education and commitment that we will move the needle.
What are some passive approaches to DEI you’ve witnessed? What would be more meaningful approaches to DEI?
A passive approach to DEI is “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.” It’s easy to invite speakers into a company to raise awareness about diversity, or sponsor a public event recognizing the importance of diversity and having your logo aligned as a supporter. It’s more difficult to commit to the harder work of implementing the required systemic change needed to sew diversity and inclusion into the fabric or culture of a business.
This behavior is disingenuous. It sends the wrong message to clients, employees and the community. Outwardly the organization looks good but on the inside the same dysfunction cycles and progress towards DEI becomes impossible to achieve.
More meaningful approaches to DEI are workplaces eliminating status differences; providing an opportunity to develop strong social connections that promote psychological safety; and rewarding, training and promoting inclusively.
What are transformative DEI changes and why are some organizations struggling with transformational change?
Transformative change implicates processes, policies, culture, budget and even the organization’s compensation structure. With that picture you can see why it would feel daunting. However, no one is asking an organization to undertake every aspect of DEI all at once. That’s not the way to make meaningful change. Instead, identify a leader or champion, engage human resource professionals, partner with an outsourced DEI consultant, and create a peer community to work through the DEI transformation – all of these resources will afford the required support to get started!
Once you’ve started, additional transformations will come more easily and effectively. But organizations have to commit to meaningful change, not just change for the sake of appearances.