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“That’s what inclusion is all about”

Vantage Point: Big Law in Transition Kimberly Leach Johnson and Sharon Barner

Cummins GC Sharon Barner on the legal profession’s diversity challenges – and opportunities

The first in a series of interviews by Kim Johnson, Quarles & Brady's Chair, discussing the business of law with prominent attorneys, thought leaders and innovators.

Kim recently hosted Sharon Barner, vice president and general counsel at Cummins Inc., at the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity’s Fellows Leadership Lunch in Indianapolis. Cummins is a multi-billion dollar engine manufacturer. The women had a candid talk about their experiences and the challenge and value of promoting diversity and inclusion at law firms and corporate legal departments. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

KIM JOHNSON: According to a recent study, only about 20% of law-firm partners are women. It’s only in the single digits if you are a woman or a racial or ethnic minority. Obviously, those numbers are appalling. How do we change that and is it realistic to think that we’ll be able to?

SHARON BARNER: I do think we can change those numbers. I've been practicing law for 36 years. We have to acknowledge there has been some progress over the years, but it's too slow and we have to do better.

How do we change it? Good, bad or ugly, first, we have to acknowledge the structural components of what makes a person successful in a law firm. How, within that dynamic, are we going to help people be successful? There are a number of things that we know are important:

It is important to be an incredibly great lawyer. You have to ensure people are trained and are great lawyers so that's not a barrier to having them do the most complex work.

Then, you actually have to give them complex work and let them be visible in that work. When I was coming through, men would get the complex work with the client, so they would be seen and they would be the natural successors to the client relationship. If you want to change that dynamic you have to have women in that room, having that visibility and doing great work with the clients so it becomes natural for a woman to be selected as the successor.

Third, emotional intelligence. While these skills aren't talked about that much at law firms, the need to understand and master “soft” skills exists at every organization, so acknowledge it and work on it. Ensure that people understand and are good at it, particularly women and people of color.

KJ: What diversity metrics do you look at in your role at Cummins?

SB: We actually make diversity an equal metric to quality and service because we wanted to send a message to law firms that diversity isn’t five percent. When we say it’s important, it’s important. You can get a good result and still deliver in a way we are not happy with and that includes when you don't have diversity on your matters.

KJ: How can you tell when a firm is not only hiring diverse attorneys but giving them meaningful work on complex matters? Can you see that from where you sit?

SB: Some of it you can see. Sometimes you have to request that the firm share visibility into what people are working on. If you read the invoices you can tell who is working on your work. And, there is seldom work that you give a law firm that you’re not interacting with them on, so who are you interacting with? This requires active commitment from in-house counsel to see, but you can tell who’s getting the good work from your firm. You can also request people.

KJ: Do you think most of your counterparts put in that extra energy and attention? It’s an effort on your part.

SB: No, I don't think most of my counterparts do that. If you want law firms to change, you have to be actively engaged. You can’t just look at the numbers. I understand that it’s not easy to add another task on top of a million things you do. But you make time for what you're passionate about. When you are focused on it, you can make a difference. But it does take time and it does take effort: you have to move and incentivize the law firms to do something different and you have to move and incentivize your people in-house to do something different. It's not just one lever.

KJ: What advice do you have for people who feel like they can’t be themselves at work, the women and people of color who feel inauthentic because they have to conform? What do we do about that?

SB: If you are the only, it is isolating. It's not just that you are the only person of color, it's understanding what is the dominant culture and how do you fit in. Being the only one visible is just the start of it. The dominant culture is usually run by the majority and so everything is compared to that. If you're in a meeting and all that's talked about are the dominant culture’s issues or interests, you might feel isolated, especially if the dominant culture is not actively working at inclusion.

However, I would contend, that the person who has a different culture is also responsible to educate her colleagues on that culture. There are ways to raise your culture in a manner that makes you feel less excluded.

My parents grew up in the 1930s. They grew up in a time when just mentioning the things in your house, what you were doing, could cause you significant harm. That’s not that distant a memory. So in my household, you were raised not to talk about what you had in your house or what you were achieving. It wasn't just that I didn't want people to know, it was also the feeling that letting people know could cause problems for your family. 

Then I got to corporate America and everybody wants to know everything about you and your family. I had conversations about why it was a struggle for me to be open and transparent about my whole life the minute I walked into a room with people I didn’t even know. However, I have learned to share more about who I am. Being willing to examine my own cultural upbringing and being able to have courageous conversations with others is important. So, be willing to examine your own cultural biases.

Just knowing those things means you can interact in a different way. But we have to be willing to say it's important for diversity and inclusion, and to actually get the best work product, that we take the time to understand the different cultural and diverse aspects that people bring to the table. That's what inclusion is all about, it's not just about having diversity, it's how you actively make the most of that diversity at the table, which you can't do unless you're willing to put majority culture aside a little bit and be receptive to others.