APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Diversifying the Legal Field through Commitment and Real Conversations

Podcast featuring Dr. Aikyna FinchFaculty Training Developer, Center for Teaching & Learning and
Donna Izzard, Director of Training and Development

Legal firms, like many corporations, are working to be more inclusive and diverse. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to Donna Izzard about her 35-year career and her involvement helping to build successful DEI initiatives. Learn about giving everyone a seat at the table including business staff and attorneys, allotting budget to offer specialized training, and fostering an environment that allows for real, relevant and raw conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in the law profession.

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Dr. Aikyna Finch: Greetings, greetings, greetings everyone. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, and I would love to welcome you to the podcast today. Today, we are going to be talking about how to have real and raw DEI conversations in the workplace.

Today, my guest is Donna Izzard. Donna Izzard is a law firm director where she manages three of the firm’s 16 business departments. She manages training, document services, and research and knowledge. She has worked in the legal industry for 35+ years in many of the top Am Law 100 firms.

Donna is a passionate member of the firm’s DEI committee and a former contributing member of the firm’s racial task force. Donna stands on the following quote, “Life’s more persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?'” I would love to introduce everyone to Donna Izzard. How are you doing today?

Donna Izzard: I am awesome. Happy to be here with you.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, Donna, let’s just jump into this. Tell us why you’re passionate about DEI.

Donna Izzard: Why am I passionate about DEI? I’m passionate about DEI because I remember when I first got to the workforce many, many years ago in corporate America, I realized that I wasn’t given the same opportunities as my colleagues was given and I believed it had everything to do with who I was, what I looked like.

And so, I became passionate about making a change in corporate America, especially within the legal industry. And I just began to change to really work on changing the thoughts on how I showed up and how I looked to others when I showed up. And I just remembered that who I was and what my mother had taught me, I could do anything that I put my mind to. So even in corporate America at a time where DEI wasn’t even thought of, I decided to make DEI what I could make it within my own world and I just did it one law firm at a time.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: I love that Donna. One law firm at a time. And speaking on the area of law, what do you think about the DEI trend going right now?

Donna Izzard: Wow. So, DEI, especially in the top Am Law 100 law firms and Am Law stands for American Lawyer, the top 100 law firms in the country. And so sometimes it’s also referred to big law. Big law, that means the top law firms. And DEI really was not really a thing. It really was not.

What started to happen, I believe, the clients really started to say, “You know what? We want to see some diversities,” and law firms really started to open up that they needed to get additional men and women of color as part of their lawyer population.

However, there was still some—I call them challenging opportunities, Is don’t call them problems—but there was still some challenging opportunities and they still exist today. However, there has been a great change, a great change. Of course, some of you may know me, some of you don’t, who’s listening, but I’m really, I’m straight. I believe in being straight, no chaser and at the end of the day, let’s face it, all of this started really coming to pass because of what happened with George Floyd.

Corporations, organizations started to look at DEI and not just let it just be a checkbox. They started to get serious about it because the clients also started to command that we need to see some diversity with the attorneys who are billing. Not just one group of people.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, did you see better results when the clients start seeing lawyers that look like them?

Donna Izzard: Absolutely. Let’s face it, diversity is good for the bottom line because you get to be able to make an impact with people who think differently. Of course, it’s going to affect the bottom line, especially a lot of brands are targeted against a diversified group of people. So how do you have people who are managing the process for people who are diversified and then you’re not diversified? Something’s wrong with that picture. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a no brainer. Something’s wrong with that picture. We are a diversified country, regardless of what your beliefs are. We are diversified country, so we should show up diversified across the board.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: That is good. That one is good. In the bio, I mentioned that you are part of the DEI committee for your law firm. What are some of the areas that the committee has noticed need to be addressed?

Donna Izzard: Well, the first thing that needed to be addressed for many years, it started out with being D and I, diversity and inclusion. Then we came up with diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI. And so, I believe one of the first things that happened that I believe was so powerful, in my view, was that the DEI committee was formed and it consisted of attorneys and attorneys and attorneys. And then we hired a DEI Director of Diversity, so that person was included. And yet, when they promoted that, “Okay, here we are. We’re the committee.” I looked at the committee and I said, “Mm, something’s wrong with this picture.” And what was wrong with the picture was how are you going to be DEI inclusion, you had no business staff? I’m a member of the business staff.

So, if we are going to be DEI as an organization, let’s really be DEI. Let’s really be inclusive. And that didn’t happen before. It was just about the attorneys, but the attorneys is not what makes up a law firm. In order for a law firm to be successful, we have to have the clients, we have to have the attorneys, and we have to have the business staff that support those attorneys. Who are we? We are people and we are a diversified group of people. So, therefore, you’re going to have a DEI, let’s have a real DEI that includes everyone.

That was the first thing that I believe was a major change for the firms. We are one of the few law firms that actually have a committee that comprises the legal staff, as well as the business support staff. And that to me was a game changer.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, now that the business staff has been included, what types of shifts have you seen in the committee now that all voices are included?

Donna Izzard: It has, again, I’m partial because I’ve been talking this talk for a long time, way before the things that happened with George Floyd. And I’ve been in law firms for over 35 years. So, it’s the first time that I’ve ever been in the law firm where the business staff, they are valued and they are participating in areas that we’ve never participated in before.

And so, because of that, what happens is that you get an opportunity to have these real, relevant, and raw conversations. Conversations that, you know what? Maybe there was a time that you didn’t hear me, or you didn’t think it was important to hear how I felt as a business staff member or how another business staff felt about something. And so, I’m just so excited about the changes that have gone forth, because we have a meeting of the minds.

Just because you are an attorney, doesn’t mean that you know it all. As a business support staff, you may have had a perception about how attorneys treat you, yet when you come together and you are able to just have some real dialogue, those perceptions go away because we are having real conversations.

So, that is what the DEI, we had a racial task force for about a year. Some members of that racial task force, which I was a part of, they are now part of the DEI. So, the firm has made a conscious decision to move forward. To move forward for everyone.

Now, let’s face it. We all know that you still have people who feel a certain kind of way, and they’re never going to agree with DEI. However, I believe having some real relevant and raw conversations, there has been change on both parts. Whether business support staff, as well as the legal staff. I mean, the legal community.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: And so Donna, you were speaking before the break about the racial task force. So, what was the decision that made the task force go away and it become a DEI committee?

Donna Izzard: The racial task force was a decision that was made after what happened with George Floyd and how we could come together as a firm because, let’s face it, we have a diversified business staff versus within the lawyer population. However, it was a decision that was made by the managing executive community at the firm that we could put a racial task force in place so that we could not only just show up for our firm, but we could show up for the community. And, in order to show up for the community, we need to come together and we need to have people from both sides. From the attorney’s side, from the staff’s side, and make sure that task force was diverse. And that is where things really started to really change. When I say change, I mean, change.

Someone just recently asked me, what has been the highlight of my career thus far and they thought I was going to talk about an innovative technology project that I had spearheaded and I said, “No, that wasn’t it.” And they was like, “Well, what is it?” Being asked to be a contributor on the racial task force. That has been one of the biggest highlights of my career.

Imagine being someone, a Black woman come from Harlem, New York, go into corporate America and you’ve been fighting this fight for so long. You’ve been standing up for so long. You’ve had a voice to talk about before there was a Black Lives Matter. I had that mindset in corporate America, and it didn’t matter to me whether someone understood it or not. What mattered to me that I stood up for what I believed in. What mattered to me that I could stand up and say, “This is what’s going on. This is what I perceive.”

Now your role to tell me, “Nope, that’s not the right perception, Donna.” So, I’ve been doing this from law firm to law firm. And so that has been the highlight of my career, is being a part of the racial task force because I believe that having real, relevant, and raw conversation has changed the trajectory of a firm that is successful and will continue to be successful because of what they have done.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Now, the changes happened there and you have the DEI committee. Is the change still the same rate that it was in the racial task force?

Donna Izzard: That’s an interesting question, and I would say yes. And the reason I would say yes is because most of the members that was on the racial task force are now part of the DEI. So, that means that we are not going to forget what we stood for, what changes that we were a part of. We continued that vein, it’s just done differently now. Whereas the racial task force, we met on a weekly basis just to have conversations about not only what was going on in the firm, what was going on in the community? What was going on in our lives?

I remember, the racial task force, one of our managers, I knew that she was going through something and what she was going through was here she had a millennial son who was marching in the protest in New York City. Her husband was a member of the NYPD. So here she is stuck in the middle. But yet, she still had to show up and come to work. And unless you bring those conversations out and really focus on those things, you’re not understanding how someone, she still has to come to work. And so, from that, you have to continue to remember and keep driving. Keep driving the mission.

So, now on DEI, we now have an awareness and we have an intentionality of not just having conversations, but making change. Making change by bringing people in to speak. I’m Director of Training Development, making sure that we have programs because training, to me, is a foundation of this. So making sure that we keep paying attention, I believe the DEI continues on and that we will continue to institute change.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, you were just mentioning training. So what types of training would you recommend to someone who is trying to get into the DEI space?

Donna Izzard: Wow. There’s been so many companies that have, “Okay, we do DEI,” but for me, I don’t want to see anything cookie cutter. And when I mean cookie cutter, I don’t want just, “Well, okay. Let’s bring someone in here, some slides, and let’s do this.” No. I believe that what’s going to institute change is real, relevant conversations that an organization could have with everybody at the table.

And so, for me, I’ve done that. I have created a program for corporations that would make people feel comfortable and having conversations with different questions. But making sure that everyone knows that people should not feel intimidated or afraid of speaking up, because I believe that change cannot take place if you do not open your mouth.

Now, there are some people who may feel, “Oh, no, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to be viewed a certain way,” but you can’t talk about things that go on behind the scene and yet you will not open your mouth, especially if you have made a decision to be at that firm, you also got to contribute.

So, I believe it shouldn’t be cookie cutter training. That you need to look for innovative ways of really having real, relevant conversations about what’s going on. How does a person really feel, a person of color? How does that person feel when they know they’re doing a great job, but yet, they don’t see anybody in the managerial ranks who looks like them? That’s a real conversation. Why? Why? Why wasn’t that person looked at or viewed for that next promotion? Let’s have some real relevant conversation. How does that make you feel?

Now I know that, again, since the DEI trend, there are many firms who are looking at things differently, but there’s still a lot that we can do. For me, I believe that you have to have a training budget to make sure you bringing people to speak about these things in a way so that people who work at the firm don’t feel like, “Well, I don’t know if I can say anything.” No, you have to foster an environment and that comes from training.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Very good. Very good. So as we get ready to wrap up, what nuggets would you want to put out into the atmosphere about DEI and having those real, raw conversations?

Donna Izzard: Stop checking the box. Let me start there, because there are many organizations that are checking the box.

Make sure that you not only make a commitment to the organization, because guess what? It’s not going away. It’s not going away, y’all. It’s not going away. So make a commitment. Make sure there’s money in the budget for training and development in these areas. Make a commitment, not just hire one person for DEI, depending upon the size of the organization, make a commitment. It’s for your success. Make a commitment to make sure you have a budget. You make sure you have a team of people who will consistently show up for DEI. Don’t just check the box. Okay, now it’s a couple years past George Floyd. Okay. Now let’s get, no, no, no. Be committed. Stay on it and make sure that you working along with your HR, you can’t exclude HR in it. I believe it’s a combination, but it starts with you making a decision to make a commitment to DEI and not just check the box.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wow, very powerful, Donna. Thank you. Thank you so much for talking to me today. This was an amazing interview and I have learned so much.

Donna Izzard: Thank you for this opportunity. I’m extremely passionate about DEI. I just believe that we all would be so much better in the workplace if we just took the time to make a commitment to learn from one another. And everyone is not going to come to the table, I get it. But I believe that we will all be in a better workplace. Let’s face it. Everyone hasn’t been born with the gold spoon in their mouth. We all got to work. So let’s make that workplace a better place by listening and by having a real relevant and raw conversation.

Dr. Aikyna Finch: Thank you so much, Donna, for being with us today. And to the audience, if you were listening and you are ready to come to the table, if you are ready to have that real, raw conversation, now is the time. Don’t be cookie cutter. Pull out your innovative and creative hat and be committed to the change. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch. Be safe and be well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch is Faculty Training Developer in the Center for Teaching & Learning at American Public University. She received a Doctorate of Management, an MBA in Technology Management and an Executive MBA from Colorado Technical University. She has an M.S. in Management in Marketing, an M.S. in Information Systems in IT Project Management from Strayer University, and a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology in Industrial Electronics from the School of Engineering at Tennessee State University. She is a podcaster, social media coach and speaker. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a contributor to Huffington Post, Goalcast, Forbes and Thrive Global. She can be found at DrADFinch on all social media platforms.

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