In this episode I am excited to have Robyn Pollack on to talk about the implementation and practice of diversity and inclusion, and treating it not as something we have to correct or fix, but rather who we are and our daily mission.
Robyn Pollack is CEO and Founder of Trellis Consulting LLC. A business strategist with an expertise in diversity and inclusion, Robyn increases financial return by teaching organizations to leverage their D&I initiatives more effectively. She was a restructuring lawyer for 20 years and addresses D&I issues through a distinct, business-oriented, strategic lens. She is also an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, where she earned her J.D.
- Her background in law, why she left, and what her company does in terms of diversity and inclusion for law firms and other business. We also talk about women and risk-taking in law.
- Turning a passion into a profession – how she had been involved in D&I issues throughout her career, and it only made sense when she decided to focus on it full-time.
- D&I in the law – what has to change and how to get there. She talks about how her law school classes are very diverse, but how does that translate into practice.
- The importance of building cultures of trust, value, and respect – having authentic, transparent cultures.
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Robyn Pollack: [00:00:05] Risk-taking is about taking courageous, brave chances that are calculated and not reckless, and figuring out how to make it happen.
Intro: [00:00:18] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:41] Hello my friends, thanks for being with me today. In this episode, I’m happy to have Robyn Pollack. She is the CEO and Founder of Trellis Consulting. She is a business strategist with an expertise in diversity and inclusion. Robyn increases financial return by teaching organizations to leverage their D&I initiatives more effectively. She was a restructuring lawyer for 20 years and addresses diversity and inclusion issues through a distinct, business-oriented, strategic lens. She is also an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, where she earned her J.D.
[00:01:15] Before we get into the interview, I want to tell you about my new course, Mindful Pause. So often I hear from lawyers that they know they should be practicing mindfulness and meditation, but they just don’t have the time. And I always tell lawyers, just start with six minutes or .1 hour. Of all the hours you dedicate to your clients, work, and others, don’t you deserve to have a little bit of time carved out for yourself? Mindful Pause is designed for lawyers like you, to fit into your hectic schedule. Try practicing mindfulness six minutes a day for 31 days and see for yourself the difference it can make in your life. Think of it like taking your daily vitamin to boost your well-being. Head on over to JeenaCho.com to learn more, or check it out in the show notes. And with that here’s Robyn. Robyn, welcome to the show.
Robyn Pollack: [00:02:02] Hi Jeena, I am so excited to be here! Really honored to be taking part in this podcast with you, so thank you again for having me.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:10] Give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Robyn Pollack: [00:02:14] So as you alluded to in the introduction, I am a business strategist with a focus in diversity and inclusion. So really what we do is we go into organizations, we do assessments and audits, we look under the hood to see what kinds of issues they’re having or they may have, and then we take that data and we create customized, strategic business plans to solve their diversity and inclusion issues, and then we help them implement them. So really a big issue right now, I was a restructuring lawyer for 20 years as you said. So looking at diversity through a business lens, taking all of my experience and advising companies on financial and operational and legal and strategic issues, and utilizing that in the diversity space. So it’s been a nice marriage of two areas of expertise for me.
Jeena Cho: [00:03:13] So how did you go from being a practicing lawyer to saying, I’m going to open up my own consulting company?
Robyn Pollack: [00:03:20] It’s not as crazy.. well the jumping might be a little bit more risk-taking, but the journey itself isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I was really involved in issues of gender diversity throughout my whole career, and I was very involved in a professional organization for restructuring professionals called the Turnaround Management Association. And as a young lawyer, I was asked to join the TMA; many people in my department were involved and said you’ve got to join, so I did. And my very first event was at the Union League in Philadelphia. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it’s very masculine, very male-dominated. In fact, for the bulk of it’s history women weren’t allowed in, so you can imagine what that looks like. They have huge portraits of men along the walls; huge, huge portraits, and their eyes sort of follow you as you walk down the hall. And I walked into this breakfast event and it was like the men in the portraits had jumped off the walls and were standing there in their dark suits, eating breakfast. So I felt very uncomfortable, very out of place, there was no one that looked like me.
And after a couple of these experiences, I went to the president of our chapter and I said, “Do we have a women’s networking group?” And he said no, I asked if I could start one, and he said yes. So I did. Fast forward all of these years later, this international professional organization now has a women’s group in almost every chapter that it has. I also ran the Women’s Leadership and Development Initiative at the global level for several years while I was still practicing, and it was through that that I really learned that women need the substantive tools to succeed in the workforce and that we really need to change the workplace so that they can succeed and that everybody can succeed. So I really had a passion and an interest in all things diversity and inclusion throughout my career, and was at a crossroads at the law firm: did I want to sit here for another 20 years, or did I want to do something else? And I decided to take that leap and start my own company.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:41] What was the most challenging part of leaving law and starting your own consulting company?
Robyn Pollack: [00:05:48] I think the collaboration aspect of it is something that I certainly miss. I worked in a very collaborative department, we were always running in and out of each other’s offices and bouncing ideas off of each other. So when you leave a situation like that and you go out on your own (and I am you know a solopreneur) you miss that camaraderie and collaboration. And there are certainly times where I miss practicing, but I do integrate. I write my own contracts and I negotiate my own deals within my business, so I do get to utilize my legal skills.
Jeena Cho: [00:06:34] I know you mentioned this already, that idea of risk-taking. What does that mean to you, and why is that so important for women in particular?
Robyn Pollack: [00:06:44] You know it’s interesting, being a woman and a lawyer I think it’s a double-whammy. I think women are traditionally less risk-taking than men. And maybe it’s more that we’re more cautious; not that we don’t take risks, but that we think them through and we don’t act rashly. So I think it maybe gives the perception that we are not risk takers because we take our time when taking a risk. And then, of course, being a lawyer we are quintessentially not risk takers at all. So you sort of put those two elements together, and it’s amazing anybody ever leaves.
But I think that taking small steps and building on your successes.. and of course, I didn’t just up and leave; I actually started my company while I was still at the law firm. I was trying to sort of ride that line and see if it was able to get any traction before taking that big leap, so I think that’s one way to bridge the gap. But it takes a lot of bravery to take a risk, and I think that that’s something that we all need to think about in our careers. Not that you have to do something as drastic as leaving, but what are the little risks that you can take every day in the law? How do you ask for stretch assignments, how do you position yourself for the next level, how do you make the ask? Those are things that women in law (particularly) need to think about as they move through their careers; if you don’t ever take a risk, you’re standing still.
Jeena Cho: [00:08:26] Yeah, so true. And also, as lawyers, we’re so risk-avoidant. So how do you get better at risk-taking, and do it in a way that isn’t just reckless?
Robyn Pollack: [00:08:41] That’s a good question, and I think taking those small steps and testing the waters is one way to do it; you see that you can have success. It’s really about building confidence, and also about having a plan. We talk about strategic plans with diversity, you really need a plan if you’re going to take a risk. I mean, I didn’t just wake up one day and say, hey I’m leaving my 20-year career to start this company. It was very well thought out, it was very methodical. I positioned myself in a way that I thought was the best way to position myself to make that transition. I also think starting it while I was still at the firm was part of that. Again, I wanted to see that there was some potential there before I made that leap. So I think having a plan, being agile, being able to shift the plan if things come along, all of that goes into good risk-taking.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:50] So what did that planning process involve? So you’re working at a firm, how did you even go about testing the water for your business idea?
Robyn Pollack: [00:10:01] Well I started approaching people that I knew; I’d been doing a lot of speaking and programming through my work with the TMA. So that was a way to test the response I was getting, were people interested in this, was I providing value, was this going to be helpful? So that was one way that I was able to test the waters and see that there was a need for what I was doing. And then the planning process of thinking through how I was going to make that change; how was I actually going to implement that exit, how was that going to work? That was staying at the firm for a period of time, negotiating a period of transition where I was still there but I wasn’t there as much.
It was sort of a slow slide to make that change. Again, I didn’t just wake up with no planning and say, I’m doing this. And of course, it involves talking to your family and other people that a change like this is going to impact. My son was about to start college, so it’s like what kind of crazy person leaves their secure, big law job to start a company when their child’s going to college? It sounded crazy to me as a person, as a lawyer, as all of the things that make me risk-averse. But I did it, I did it. I think risk-taking is about taking courageous, brave chances that are calculated and not reckless, and figuring out how to make it happen. Again if you never take that risk, if I never did that, I would have lost something; I would have been standing still. So it’s worth it, I think sometimes no risk, no reward. Sometimes you’ve got to do that to move forward in your life.
Jeena Cho: [00:11:58] Yeah. When you think about leaving law and doing something completely different, it can be really overwhelming to go from something that you know how to do really well into potentially an area that you’re not as familiar with. Were there resources, whether people you worked with, coaches, or other people that you found to be helpful in helping you transition from being a lawyer to being a consultant?
Robyn Pollack: [00:12:27] Yeah, I certainly have had people along the way. And I think what’s interesting about the question you just asked is that you need people at different points for different things, and I think I’ve had those people. I have somebody that has advised me on marketing and social media. Again, not something that lawyers really focus on as much as they probably should, especially in a big law firm where they have their own marketing department. So I was always good at networking, but I had somebody actually help me with sales. How do you actually take somebody through a sales process, how do you close a sale? Very, very different than getting a client in a law firm. So I think those people have been helpful to me. I do have a business mentor; somebody who’s very successful, has a great leadership development company, a New York Times bestseller, she’s a rock star and has been a great champion and a real resource to me. So yes, I definitely need those people along the way. And again like any mentor, you have several of them and you have different mentors for different purposes along that trajectory, as you learn and as you move forward.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:56] So switching gears just a little bit and moving into talking about diversity and inclusion, I remember when I graduated from law school in 2003 (it was a little while ago) we actually had slightly more women than men in our graduating class, we had a fair amount of people of color in our class too. And it just seems like this promise of having a more equal and inclusive legal profession has been talked about, yet when we look at the numbers they just aren’t translating. And I don’t know how you feel about it, but sometimes it feels tiring to even talk about D&I. And it always feels like it gets talked about in a vacuum. Like there’s the firm and what the firm does, and then there’s this little piece that’s D&I, and we make sure that the D&I people do what they do so it looks good on some article or on some journal somewhere.
Robyn Pollack: [00:15:08] I totally hear you, and it’s interesting because I teach at a law school and my classes are very diverse. And it’s surprising to me how that doesn’t get reflected in law firms, I don’t know where people are necessarily going. Particularly people of color. I remember at my firm, we didn’t have many people of color. Certainly, at the younger associate levels, there are more women than as you move up through the pipeline. But yeah, it surprises me when I walk into my class every year how diverse it is, and I’m wondering what is going on when it gets to the law firm level.
Jeena Cho: [00:15:55] So what is going on?
Robyn Pollack: [00:15:57] I think there’s a couple of things. One thing is that activities do not equal strategy, and I think that is a point that is lost in law firms, and quite frankly in other companies and organizations. People think that they can run around and do a lot of stuff and that they’re going to see results, and that’s simply not true. That is not the way to do it. The only way diversity and inclusion works is to take that strategic approach like you would when you’re rolling out a technology initiative or a marketing initiative or a safety initiative. You’ve really got to look at, what are the issues you’re trying to solve, and how do we put together an actual, implementable, measurable, data-driven plan to solve those issues?
[00:17:05] A lot of times firms are just throwing stuff against the wall and they don’t know why they’re doing it; there is no measurable results, it’s not tied to the overarching goals or objectives of the firm. All of the things that firms are doing for diversity should be tied to attraction, retention, evaluation, promotion, compensation, and leveling that playing field for everybody. I also think part of that is a circular issue, in that women, attorneys of color and other diverse attorneys don’t see enough role models in leadership. Because they’re not strategically helping people get up the pipeline, there’s nobody there for people to look at. And I think particularly for younger lawyers, especially women looking at the women that have “made it,” they look at those women and think, I don’t want to do it this way.
If this is what I have to do to get there, then this isn’t for me. I see that a lot, when firms put their top women equity partners on a panel and they talk about how they got there, I’ve seen younger associates sitting in the audience saying, “Oh my god is this my future?! This is not how I want to do it.” And that creates issues too. So I think the law firm model has to change, I think law firms need to really embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion, and really appreciate what diversity does for them. It’s not just a “check the box,” it creates innovation, better problem-solving, better teams. I mean this is what lawyers do, right? We solve problems. If you have diversity of thought and experience and perspective on those legal teams, you are going to be creating much better results for your clients.
Jeena Cho: [00:19:07] And also, I think it’s particularly hard in the legal industry because we don’t like change and we like to go by precedent. So even things like the number of hours you’re expected to be physically in the office versus being able to work remotely, I think the old guard is like no, I made partner doing it this way, and everybody else should do it this way too. Which just doesn’t work for the non-white male lawyer, who lives in a traditional household where the wife either stays at home or works at a part-time job and she takes care of all the child-rearing responsibility, so on and so forth. And also as you mentioned, some people are like no, I don’t want that model, that’s not for me. And if you have enough younger attorneys rejecting the old model, then, of course, you’re going to have the diversity issues. So how should the law firms be thinking about these issues? In terms of not only attracting new talent but also changing the structure of the firm so that it’s more friendly towards women and people of color?
Robyn Pollack: [00:20:22] Yeah. And just before I answer your question, I think that generational issue that you’re talking about is really important, because I think there are a lot of younger, millennial, white male lawyers who don’t want that life or those hours either. Irrespective of what their family situation or other situation is. When you’re talking about work-life integration, there’s so many components; people want to have lives, people want to go to yoga, people want to volunteer on political committees. People want to do all kinds of things to round out their lives, so I think the normalization of this work-life integration concept needs to cross gender lines and needs to be throughout firms. And also, that starts to take the stigma away from it looking like a “mommy track”, or a traditional woman’s role that she wants to work part-time or needs to be home by 5:00, or whatever it is.
[00:21:25] To answer your question, the business world itself is changing. When people are retiring, it’s Baby Boomers that are retiring. It’s not millennials or Gen Z that are coming up, it’s the older people. And so the newer, younger people that are coming into law firms are looking for something very different than what exists. And as you said, change is hard; change is hard for organizations, and really hard for firms because we are so risk-averse. We are trained to avoid risk and prevent risk, so that’s where our mentality is. But I think the sooner that firms recognize that in order to be sustainable and to remain competitive, they’ve got to adopt a new mindset and shift the culture to be more amenable to what people coming into the workplace are looking for.
I also think there needs to be an investment in lawyers throughout the lifecycle process. So mentor and sponsor programs, sponsorships particularly for women are incredibly important. But they need to be more formalized; there’s a lot of mentor programs where the mentor and the mentee meet, they go to lunch, the mentor says how’s it going, the mentee says okay great, and then they talk about something else. We need to have something a little bit more formalized; what are the obligations, what are the responsibilities? We need to be tracking people and looking at people at different stages through the employee lifecycle. Another thing that’s really pertinent for firms is to look at their interview processes, to look at their evaluation processes, to look at their promotion and compensation processes.
How do you strip bias from those processes? Because that’s something that is especially important, even for law firms, because traditionally (with the law firm model) you are evaluated on your billable hours and your business development. Well, there is bias-inherent in that. So how do you look at other measures of value? How do you look at what somebody else is doing? How are you rewarding somebody for supporting a diverse lawyer? How do you integrate that into your employee lifecycle processes? I think that that’s something that law firms need to look at and examine as part of the shift.
Jeena Cho: [00:24:05] I think that kind of brings me to my last topic, which is building a different culture; building a culture where everyone can feel like they could be their true, authentic selves. Where they can bring their whole selves into the office. And I think that’s just harder when you’re working in a place where you’re the only one (or perhaps a handful of people) that looks like you or share similar backgrounds and life experiences. So thoughts about building a more inclusive, or shifting the firm culture?
Robyn Pollack: [00:24:37] Yeah, I think all of these things move in that direction. And I tell people that we work with that change takes time. It’s like turning the Titanic around, again, law firms are at the top of that list for having trouble with change. I think shifting culture is primarily a top-down initiative, and then a bottom-up secondarily to that. So I think that if there is a visible commitment from firm leadership.
And again it’s not that check the box let’s just throw it up against the wall. It is a rollout of a strategic plan and a strategic initiative. Look we’ve done this assessment, we’ve talked to you, we’ve interviewed you, we brought in a third party to figure out what’s going on. And here’s what we’ve identified, here are the priorities that we set, and here’s what we’re going to do about it over the next one year, three years, five years. And here’s how we are going to accomplish a shift in making everybody here feel valued and trusted and respected and part of it. And everybody’s part of the process, but I think that top-down, real willful commitment is where it needs to start. Because that’s where culture is really set, from the top.
[00:26:02] And then there are ways to really roll out organizational management and organizational change; how do you implement a change in an organization, and some of those methodologies need to be used in law firms. With the reminders about what we’re doing and the constant weaving of diversity and inclusion and the kind of workplace we want throughout everything that we’re doing so that it’s not a second thought or it’s not something we’re trying to correct for or fix, it becomes who we are.
Jeena Cho: [00:26:36] Right, it has to be more than the thing.. it often just feels like with a lot of law firms, you have a diversity and inclusion specialist or person in charge of managing it, and it almost feels like they say, “Well, we hired that person over there. She is supposed to fix all of our diversity and inclusion issues.” It’s like no, that’s not exactly how it works. I’ve also been on planning committees and different things where they wanted me to be on the planning committee because I’m going to go and find some stickers that are non-white. And it’s like no, sorry.
Robyn Pollack: [00:27:22] Well it’s true, and you can’t just do one-off training. A lot of firms and companies think, well we brought this speaker in and she talked about unconscious bias, and okay we’re good now; we’ve got unconscious bias covered. And that’s simply not true; that’s not how people learn. People learn over time, people learn experientially, people learn by doing. And you can’t just have a one-off thing and expect everything to be fixed, and I think that’s another shortfall in the diversity space. People think, oh yeah we had a program on that. Well, one program isn’t enough.
[00:28:06] I think that with some of the backlash you heard with Starbucks; they had this one program, but what does that do? Where do you go from there? So, you need something that’s integrative, you need something that’s consistent, you need something that is thoughtful and over time, in order to be effective. And we’re not going to see those numbers change, going back to when you graduated law school so many years ago and it seemed like it should be fixed by now, and it isn’t. It’s because people aren’t looking at it like a business imperative that needs a plan and a strategy, they’re looking at it as, “Oh yeah, that person over there, she takes care of our diversity.” But what does that mean? And nobody really knows.
Jeena Cho: [00:28:50] Right. And also I think oftentimes for the white male managing partner, this is not a conversation that’s easy for him to get involved in. I think there is some level of discomfort, or if he’s sitting around the room and saying, “Well we have a diversity and inclusion issue,” I think there may be raised eyebrows like, well what do you care? You’re not part of that group. So thoughts about how people, let’s say the white male lawyer that actually does have the power to change some of these issues, how they can be better allies? How can they get more involved in making these shifts?
Robyn Pollack: [00:29:36] Yeah, I think they have to use that power; I think that’s the first thing. I think one of the hurdles that we need to overcome is that stereotypical white, male, middle-aged managing partner who knows he needs to have a diversity initiative so that he can go on to on-campus recruiting and answer that question. But you’ve got to actually understand that while the status quo might be great for you, it’s really not good for the long-term sustainability and health of that law firm. I think people in those positions of power need to think about what do you want your legacy to be? In terms of how do you want to impact the firm going forward because you’ve got the ability to do that. I also think that access to those leaders, we talked about sponsorship a little while ago, but having diverse attorneys to have access to more powerful male leaders in a firm, is huge.
Those are the people that should be serving as mentors and sponsors to people because they are the ones that still have the power. So I think that’s a great way for them to be allies; to actually take a couple of people under their wing and mentor and sponsor them. It makes a difference. When I look at many of the women that are successful lawyers, all of them will tell you that they had a man who helped them; a man who touted them in meetings when they weren’t there, who made sure that they had exposure to clients, who made sure they had stretch assignments. So I think that’s a really important way that quintessential white male partner to be an ally and to be able to help.
And to understand. When we talk about unconscious bias and the things that hold diverse attorneys back, we really need to implement a “stop, drop, and roll” mechanism; we need to think about what it is that you are about to do or say. How is that going to be perceived by the person you’re interacting with, and do you need to revise that? And revise what you are thinking, and say it or do it in a different way? You really have to think until it becomes more natural. So another to be a good ally.
Jeena Cho: [00:32:17] I think that’s a great place to wrap things up. Robyn, for the folks that are interested in learning more about your work, where is the best place for them to do that?
Robyn Pollack: [00:32:28] You can certainly go to our website, which is www.trellisconsultingllc.com. So check us out, there’s a place if you want further information to e-mail, and we’re happy to talk. We’re really looking to help firms and companies in this endeavor, that is our goal. We talk about being uncomfortable and having these difficult conversations, that’s 100% true but that’s how you make progress. And we’re here to help facilitate those conversations and make the process of turning the Titanic around easier for people. We’re very much about that culture shift, and truly believe that this is the future of firms and organizations, and really want to help push that forward.
Jeena Cho: [00:33:23] Robyn, thank you so much for being with me today, I really appreciate it.
Robyn Pollack: [00:33:27] Thank you so much for having me Jeena, it was a lot of fun.
Closing: [00:33:34] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It’s really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at [email protected] Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.