Gail Sharps Myers, executive vice president, chief legal officer and chief people officer and secretary, Denny’s

After 20 years practicing law – from her first in-house role at US Foods to her current role at Denny’s – Myers is well qualified to observe that more needs to be done to embed DE&I in the legal profession.

Diversity is great for business: it makes the team richer and drives innovative thought. A team composed of so many different perspectives can view problems from all different angles.

There has been a movement among lawyers for years to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. I have been practicing law for over two decades and the fact that we still need to have this conversation proves that the needle has not moved far enough.

Caught on tape

Right before the pandemic hit, there were a lot of discussions around DE&I in all fields, including the legal profession. Over the last two years, there has also been great social unrest and social justice campaigns that have forced societal inequities to come into the light.

The experience of the African American person – irrespective of economic status – is pretty similar, so what happened with George Floyd was not news to anyone in the community – but it was news to people who live outside of the community. From a social injustice perspective, it highlighted to people outside the community what has been happening on a regular basis. The fact that the incident was caught on tape was what galvanized the movement.

People in corporate America also started to take notice and question: ‘Why is representation of people of color not reflecting the national population?’

This is leading to a lot of productive conversations that we did not have before, for example, conversations around children of color and what opportunities they are being exposed to from kindergarten all the way up to college. There is also a real discussion around why law firms and companies struggle to retain diverse staff.

Casting a wide net

One thing I have always been passionate about is retention. This seems to be a problem that many law firms face. In my experience, when minority associates hit their fourth or fifth year in law, many of them choose to leave their jobs. Some decide to move in-house, whilst others choose to leave the profession completely.

As a profession, we need to make changes and address why this is happening. I would love to see law firms invest more in their diverse associates. It is not enough to hire them; firms have to be intentional in investing in their progress.

I would love to see law firms invest more in their diverse associates. It is not enough to hire them; firms have to be intentional in investing in their progress.

This requires a lot of work, and it is not about ticking boxes. It requires real commitment and investment from every facet of an organization. When employees feel as if they belong to a team, they tend to not only be happier, but are more willing to be an advocate for the law firm or company.

Similarly, hiring also needs to be intentional when attracting diverse talent. Although I do believe that the best person for the job should always be hired, executives and boards need to make sure they are casting a wide enough net to attract people from different backgrounds and experiences.

The truth is, you do not have to have a specific target when you cast a net for a job. I like to bring in the best candidates and, if the net is cast wide enough, that should also include a diverse pool of lawyers. This is what I have done and, in my department, we have a mix of age groups, ethnicities and backgrounds.

The go-getter

In the legal profession, I believe all women face a certain level of gender discrimination when entering the workforce. Women are generally viewed as weaker and not aggressive enough. Their skills and abilities are constantly questioned. Even though this is unfair, it is the reality that women in the legal profession have to face.

However, when it comes to women of color in the legal profession, discrimination becomes twofold. Not only are women of color faced with gender bias, they are also faced with racial bias associated with the diverse backgrounds they represent.

We have all heard of the ‘angry black woman’ trope. The perception that women of color can be ‘too aggressive’ when choosing to be assertive is very unfortunate. When a majority male is in the same situation, their aggressive attitude is considered an asset, and that person is perceived as ‘a go-getter’.

What navigating this stereotype means for women of color is that unless you are working with a team of colleagues who are progressive and forward thinking, you have to be aware of this perception.

For example, when I was in private practice, I was setting my materials down in a conference room filled with white men. This was fine and not a problem, I was ready to do my job. But as I entered, one of the white gentlemen asked me to get some coffee.

I said: ‘Absolutely, I will call my assistant to get us some coffee. Would you like her to bring anything additional, such as creamers or tea? We can have her come in and do that for us, while we get down to business.’

My hope for the future is that people will think twice before making an assumption.

Moving up the ranks

The way I have managed to overcome the barriers faced by women of color in the legal profession has been by having purposeful conversations and building meaningful relationships. Having authentic conversations with colleagues is so important. Once things become personal and you share stories about your kids and family, it is very easy to build purposeful connections.

In fact, I believe building meaningful relationships is more important than having a mentor or networking. The terms ‘mentoring’ and ‘networking’ are a little too casual. What is better than a mentor is being able to build a relationship with someone who is willing to invest in your upward mobility.

It is beneficial to take the time to get to know people on a personal level. Individuals are more willing to invest in your career progression if they feel connected to you.

In law firms, when a partner really wants to invest in an associate, there will be invitations to dinner, invitations to play golf and invitations to parties. Once you break bread with someone and talk about your children, pets and life, people open up and become engaged.

The same thing is true in the corporate environment. It is beneficial to take the time to get to know people on a personal level. Individuals are more willing to invest in your career progression if they feel connected to you. I tell all my young associates to be their authentic selves at work. It is the only way to truly succeed and progress your career.

You can be replaced

Also, it is really imperative for young associates to understand that expectations need to be managed. This might be a bit controversial, but having a job is a privilege and there should be no expectation that ‘this job should be mine’. This job is only mine because I do it well and I am happy to have it. Just like anything else, this job can be lost.

While I think my talents are appreciated, none of what we do in any field is rocket science and I am easily replaceable.

I do believe that people of color, and people in majority firms and corporations, need to learn a bit of flexibility. Change is difficult, but holding the view that we should run operations a certain way because ‘that is how we have always done it’ is unproductive. It is also a very inflexible way of doing business. If attorneys and business professionals open themselves up, they may find a better way of doing business, which may also be more inclusive.