Podcast on Feedback’s Role in DEI

Welcome to Legal News Reach Season 3! We begin the new year with a conversation between the National Law Review’s Social Media Manager, Crissonna Tennison, and Bracewell’s D&I and Community Outreach Director, Monica Parker.

By now, most firms understand that diversity and inclusion are nonnegotiable foundations for a successful organization, but feedback conversations remain a commonly overlooked—or avoided—tool for fostering deeper professional connections amongst colleagues with different backgrounds and experiences. What role does feedback play in successful D&I practice, and how can attorneys approach it?

We’ve included a transcript of the conversation below, transcribed by artificial intelligence. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Crissonna Tennison

Thank you for tuning in to the Legal News Reach podcast. My name is Crissonna Tennison, Web Publication Specialist and Social Media Manager for the National Law Review. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Monica Parker, Director of D&I and Community Outreach at Bracewell LLP.

Monica, can you tell me a little bit about your background, what led you to practice law in the first place and eventually to Bracewell?

Monica Parker

Well first of all, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here to have this chat with you today Crissonna.

As you mentioned, I’m a former practicing attorney. I have spent about two decades in law firms and professional development and, recently, diversity and inclusion. And what made me practice law, I’m not the typical law student. I didn’t go straight from college to law school, I worked for four years. And you know what, I missed school. So I appreciated the intellectual rigor, I would say, of law school, and then I ended up falling in love with Harvard Law’s negotiation program. That’s where I went to school. So I ended up becoming a teaching assistant for the negotiation program while I was there, and then came back as a lecturer in law to teach the course after I graduated.

What led me to Bracewell–I would say here is the plug for the importance of your network. I heard about this position through someone that I knew when I was a summer associate many years ago at a law firm. This person was then working in professional development for that firm. She’s now the Chief Talent Officer at Bracewell. So that’s how I heard about the opportunity. I will say that when I interviewed I had conversations with the firm’s Managing Partner, as well as the chair of the D&I Committee, the firm’s General Counsel, the hiring partners, and others, and really just appreciated the genuine, authentic nature of the leadership. They were candid with me about what’s working, what the challenges are, and it was an opportunity to have an impact and work with some good folks to that timeline at Bracewell.

Crissonna Tennison

It’s always great when your workplace is transparent with what’s going on and shows that they’re willing to have ongoing conversations. What brought you more specifically into the diversity and inclusion world and practice?

Monica Parker

I would say, like many folks who work in this arena, I was motivated by my own experiences of being a woman of color in this profession. At this stage of the game, I have a wealth of experience. And I’ve been fortunate in my career, and I saw this as an opportunity to help lift others up. Plus, I really wanted to have the opportunity to have an impact. And there’s lots of space to have impact in the world of diversity and inclusion these days.

Crissonna Tennison

Definitely. Broadly speaking, what would you say some of the hurdles are to ensuring diversity specifically in the legal business and legal field?

Monica Parker

There are three major challenges among others, right? There are several, but I would say pipeline is one, recruiting is another, and then retention is a third.

So when I think about the pipeline piece, not everyone has the same opportunities, right? They can’t all necessarily go to the best schools, they may not have family members or family friends who sit around the dinner table talking about the practice of law, they may not have opportunities with college applications or law school applications. So that’s one hurdle, right? And if you do make it over that hurdle, and you graduate from law school, then not everyone is going to come to a large law firm. So this is actually a very competitive market that we’re operating in to begin with. And then once you get there, for underrepresented groups, you have to make sure that they’re getting the same kinds of opportunities as everyone else. So for example, you need there to be a lot of candid feedback conversations, people need mentors and sponsors. But often people tend to connect with those who are like them. So those are some of the challenges specifically for the legal industry, it can be kind of difficult to feel comfortable enough with people to have the kind of conversations you’re talking about. So if you have people that look like you that makes all the difference in the world.

Crissonna Tennison

So when it comes to diversity and inclusion, what are some general patterns that you’ve noticed that have been productive, and some patterns that are not quite so productive at this time that you’re hoping might change?

Monica Parker

So let me talk about the not so productive patterns, right? So in the world of D&I, you sometimes can see what I call “check-the-box” exercises. So, for example, if everyone jumps onto the training bandwagon, training in and of itself doesn’t have the greatest return on investment. Here’s what you can do to be more productive: you can pair that with coaching, you can choose a particular area. So let’s say you want to do unconscious bias training when it comes to hiring practices, then you can do the training with folks who are involved. And you can provide coaching for those folks as they’re going through the hiring process. And then you can notice what’s working, what’s not working, continue to develop it and iterate it. And I think that’s how you shift from a not so productive practice or pattern to something that is more productive.

I think just telling people that you need them to do something, but then not giving them any tools to do it, is probably not the best approach. So for example, I mentioned feedback. We know it’s good. We know it’s important, but if people aren’t doing it, especially if you notice they’re not providing feedback to folks of color, you want to dig into that and you want to understand why and then offer some specific support around that.

Crissonna Tennison

I can see how that’s definitely something that comes up a lot. Leaning more into the feedback piece, that’s something that you speak a lot about. When it comes to feedback, these conversations obviously are not fun for most parties involved. Can you talk more about how you can navigate those conversations in a positive way, and what some of the benefits are of doing so?

Monica Parker

Sure. As you said, having feedback conversations can be difficult. And I can say this because I’m a lawyer, lawyers are often conflict averse. And so what happens is, you need to give this feedback, you know you do, you don’t want to give feedback because you’re worried about how the other person’s going to respond to it. So then you don’t do it, the behavior continues or gets worse. And you need to have this conversation. It ends up being this vicious cycle. Also, as we’ve talked about, if people tend to work with those that they like, or who look like them, then they tend to be more comfortable giving feedback to those folks as well. And let me just point out also, everyone’s very busy. And it can feel like giving feedback is one of those things that can take so much time. And “you know what, maybe it’s just better if I do it myself.”

Well, the challenge there is that if you’re not giving that feedback, then you’re not giving the person the opportunity to grow and to develop. And that’s the benefit of giving feedback. And then also as a way of showing your commitment to your employees too, if you’ve spent the time and the money to invest in them joining your firm, then you want to make sure you’re giving them the feedback that they need in order to be able to succeed there.

And I think that sometimes we think it’s going to take a lot of time to give that feedback. But it actually can take less time than you think. If you think about what you want to share, provide specific examples. Give the person the opportunity to ask questions, and then see how they do.

Crissonna Tennison

Unfortunately, I relate to the putting off things part. And what’s interesting about that is when you notice something that requires feedback early on, that conversation, it would seem, would tend to go a bit better than if you let it go on for a while and now you’ve built up resentment and the problem’s bigger. I can see how maybe creating a framework for doing it in a positive way might decrease the dread that might make you put it off. I can see how that can be really important.

Can you talk about some actionable tips that managers can take to provide feedback, maybe more routinely and in a more comfortable way?

Monica Parker

The first thing to do is to think about how you want to frame the conversation, especially if it’s making you nervous that you have to give this feedback and you’re worried about how the other person’s going to respond. So even a simple line, something you can remember and say easily, “I care about you and want you to do well here,” and then provide the feedback, it demonstrates to the other person, “This is about helping you grow and develop, and that’s important to me.” And I think that’s often what people want to hear when they’re on the receiving end of that feedback.

The second thing you want to do is share specific examples rather than talking in general terms. I can remember when I was a junior associate at a law firm and I received back work covered in red lines, you know, it looked like it was written in blood, just a marked up memo of my work. And the partner had put a handwritten note at the top of the memo that said, “Do better.” Who? What? What does “do better” mean? Some specificity would help. Now in my case, what I did is I went and talked with a more senior associate, to get a sense of what needed to be done to improve the memo. But being specific with your feedback is very helpful.

And then…it’s time to let the feedback sandwich go. Okay! The feedback sandwich is where you say something good, then you give them some other critical feedback, and then you say something good. The reason why it’s time to let it go is because everybody knows it’s coming. People are very savvy now. So they can tell when there’s a feedback sandwich in the works. And they can never actually hear the good stuff you’re saying because they’re waiting for that other shoe to drop where you tell them what’s not working. So why not just offer the critical feedback upfront? That’s one option. Another option is to ask the recipient, “What do you want to hear? Do you want to hear the feedback about what I want us to improve on first and then tell you what’s going well? Or the opposite?” You can ask!

Crissonna Tennison

Right as you said “it’s time to let go the feedback sandwich go” I was going to ask whether we should do the feedback sandwich, because I feel like if I received that paper that said “do better” with just a bunch of red marks I would shut down, at least at first. So yeah, there’s definitely room for being kind in the way that you do it.

Out of curiosity, when it comes to offering feedback, is it helpful if you’ve already developed some kind of a positive relationship with the person you’re giving feedback to? Can you speak to that a little bit?

Monica Parker

I think that’s a really good question. I think that to the extent there’s rapport and trust has been developed in relationship, it does make it easier to give that feedback because the recipient already knows that you care about them and knows that you want them to do well, and also hopefully feels comfortable asking more questions or sharing their perspective about whatever the situation is. With that being said, that can’t always be the case, right? If you’re just starting at an organization, if you’re a new person, building that rapport is going to take some time. Interestingly enough, I think if you were to give candid feedback, if you were to provide examples, if you were to do that in a timely fashion that would actually help you to build that trust and rapport, that will suit you further in the relationship as you go forward.

Crissonna Tennison

If you’re an employee, what should you be looking out for in terms of indicating that you’re not getting the level of feedback that you should be getting or that you deserve to get?

Monica Parker

If all you’re hearing is you’re doing fine, you want to dig deeper. It could be true that you’re doing fine. But it also may not be true that you’re doing fine. It could be that you’re working with someone who has difficulty sharing critical feedback or who’s very busy. And in that case, you’re going to want to dig a bit. Also, if you find yourself in your annual review, and you’re surprised by some critical feedback that you get, that’s an example that you haven’t been getting the feedback that you need, because what you hear in your annual review should never be a surprise, in terms of offering feedback. And it’s something that you want to offer regularly.

Crissonna Tennison

Would it be helpful for people to establish more frequent check-ins instead of the once a year, big one?

Monica Parker

It’s definitely helpful to establish regular check-ins. In some of my previous roles, I’ve had the opportunity to have a weekly or every other week check-in with the folks that I was supervising. And those are fantastic opportunities, not only for me to give feedback, but also for me to receive feedback. And again, that’s another way to build that relationship of trust and rapport. But if you’re doing this on a regular basis, even if it’s just a quick check, and a quick coaching session, you can catch a lot of things early and repair those things early as opposed to waiting until the annual review. By the time you get to the annual review, it’s actually too late. At that point, it really should just be a review of the year and then looking forward. So it’s very important to establish those regular check-ins again, even if they’re very short, for sure.

Crissonna Tennison

So I’m an employee, and I’m finding that I’m not getting the feedback that I think I deserve. What are some tips you have for an associate to proactively ask for that feedback if their supervisor hasn’t reached out recently, or may be dropping the ball in that area?

Monica Parker

I think a common mistake that people make is they just say “I’d appreciate any feedback.” And you may not get it when you ask that question. I think you want to be more specific than that. You could say something like, “Well, how would you have handled this?” Or “What would your approach with the client have been?” in case of an associate talking to the partner, or “I noticed you changed this point here? Will you tell me more about that?” Because when you’re asking very specific questions, you’re much more likely to engage the person in the conversation. And I think also sometimes being on the receiving end of critical feedback is hard for a lot of us, myself included. And so then you want to be prepared to take in what you hear. I often suggest that people take notes, because sometimes it can be hard to hear and taking notes can help you digest a bit better. And then also go find someone to process it with, someone who can help you understand the feedback that you received, you know, help you stay on an even keel. So those are some of the things that I would recommend.

Crissonna Tennison

That is really helpful advice. I can see how asking, “Oh, how would you have done that?” or “What was your thought process behind that?” makes it less about you, which makes it easier for everyone involved.

What can leaders do to ensure that people of color and other minoritized people feel comfortable being open about their experiences and evolving needs? I think you already spoke to this a little bit when it comes to building rapport, but is there anything else that you think would help?

Monica Parker

For sure, I think providing opportunities for underrepresented groups to share their perspective is really important. But then you have to take it a step beyond that. You have to be sure to look for ways to act upon what it is that you hear. And then there’s a step beyond that, where you then have to communicate that you’ve done so. So as an example, when I joined Bracewell, I did a listening tour. So I talked with over 100 attorneys about their experiences with diversity and inclusion at the firm. And then I had the opportunity to go to the partner retreat to present my findings as well as to make recommendations. And then from there, the D&I committee has spent its energy and time implementing those recommendations. So it’s really important, if you’re going to if you’re going to ask people to share about their experiences, you want to make sure that you’re demonstrating that you heard it, you’re trying to make an effort to do something with that feedback, and you’re making sure that they know that that’s what you’ve done.

Crissonna Tennison

Yeah, I can see that being helpful because it is a bit of emotional labor, sharing your feedback as a person of color or someone with a different experience, especially in a professional context. That can be a bit challenging, and it’s helpful to know that the other parties involved are also doing their part.

You talked a little bit about it, but what does a day in the life of a D&I consultant or leader look like? I’ve always been curious about that.

Monica Parker

I can tell you first, it’s always a mix, always. So for example, I could be talking with firm leadership about a strategic diversity initiative, I could be immersed in programming, I mentioned the feedback workshops. That’s something that I’ve designed and then delivered to the partners of the firm. There can be times where I’m meeting one-on-one with a partner or an associate to talk about an issue. Also Bracewell likes to collaborate with clients on diversity initiatives. So for example, we partnered with a client through our mutual summer programs where our summer associates of color got to meet with the clients of color, and then the General Counsel and members of the legal team for that client had lunch with all those folks and they got to talk about diversity and inclusion in that legal industry. So it’s always a fun mix of activities, it means that there’s never a dull day.

Crissonna Tennison

No, I can imagine there would not be a dull day in that area. So shifting a little bit, you mentioned that you used to work as an Associate Executive Director for a Seattle-based education nonprofit. Would you be interested in talking a little bit more about that and how it informs your current practice?

Monica Parker

Sure. At the education nonprofit we worked with students of color who are often the first in their families to go to college. So I got to see pipeline issues firsthand. Our students were rising fifth graders, and we worked with them all the way through college. And what I learned more than anything else is the importance of starting early, and then also looking for opportunities to continue to support the pipeline. But I think one of the major lessons was thinking about what it’s like to be the first. So not everyone has a parent or a family friend, or connections, right? Folks who went to law school or practice at large law firms or work for large corporations. Not everyone has that. They have a very different experience coming into a law firm, and that can be all new for an associate. And so it’s both recognizing the challenges for folks as you think about the pipeline issues, then it’s also about thinking about the challenges once that person enters a law firm. So that very much informs the work that I currently do.

Crissonna Tennison

It’s so easy to fall through the cracks. Do you have any D&I initiatives at Bracewell that you’re particularly proud of, or that have been particularly effective?

Monica Parker

I mentioned one of them, so let me dive a little bit deeper into it. I have a background in training folks on how to navigate difficult conversations, this came out of my work at Harvard Law School. And so I developed an interactive workshop on how to give feedback for the partners of the firm. And so what I’m doing in the workshops is I’m sharing a framework for how to have these conversations that allows you to prepare for them and hopefully navigate them with a little less anxiety and with more ease. And then we also talk about differences in feedback, that concept of how it can be easier to give feedback to someone who is like you or looks like you. And when there’s differences in feedback that can create some challenges.

So let’s say, for example, that a white male partner is wanting to give feedback to a woman of color associate. He might be worried that what he says can be perceived as sexist or racist, in which case he’s not going to share that feedback, he’s gonna say you’re doing just fine. So we talked about how differences in feedback can impact the relationship and the associate’s ability to grow and develop at the firm. And I think of the workshops too as a luxury for partners to have a dedicated span of time where they can just talk about delivering feedback and what’s challenging about it, and how to improve upon it. And also to hear about the experiences of their colleagues and know that they’re not the only ones navigating this and that it can be very difficult.

One of the things that’s funny to me about doing workshops, I’ve done training for lawyers, and of course, being a lawyer, I know what lawyers are like, and I know what we think about training. So one of my favorite comments was after a workshop when a partner came up to me and said, “I was skeptical. But this was good.” It’s a tough crowd! It’s a tough crowd.

I would also say that one of the things I’ve loved is that after the workshops, partners will request individual coaching. I remember one partner coming up to me right after the workshop and saying, “I’ve got a feedback conversation coming up with an associate and I’m worried about how the associate’s going to respond.” So we did some coaching on how to frame the conversation with specific examples on what to do with your own strong emotions that you might be experiencing as you’re giving the feedback. So the partner had that conversation with an associate and came back and told me that it went well and that the training was time well spent. That is high praise.

Crissonna Tennison

Honestly, I feel like if you can master the feedback conversation, especially in this kind of a high stakes environment, that has to be transferable to life. I feel like your communication skills would be through the roof. I would love to attend a workshop.

Monica Parker

You’re right. What I tell participants is, it will absolutely help you at work in terms of feedback with associates, it will help you in your work with clients, in your relationships with your colleagues; in general, it can help you at home as well with your significant other. The only folks that this material does not work on would be toddlers. They are quite skilled at difficult conversations and negotiation. I have lost every single negotiation that I’ve had with my nephew starting when he was a toddler and now his toddler sister. So forget it. It won’t work on toddlers but everyone else yeah, okay,

Crissonna Tennison

Well, we’ll just have the toddlers tell us how to communicate. They’re very clear with their needs.

So you wrote a book that was published by the American Bar Association, it’s called “What It Takes: How Women of Color Can Thrive Within the Practice of Law.” Can you talk a little bit more about what motivated you specifically to write that book and what you think readers might get from it?

Monica Parker

At the time, there was a study that the ABA had published called “Visible Invisibility,” and it was about how women of color tend to slip through the cracks at large law firms. There have been studies done on women, done on people of color, but women of color just weren’t in the mix. And so this particular report focused on women of color at large law firms, and I will say what I read was sobering, but absolutely necessary. And what I started thinking was, this was needed. I wonder if it’s possible to do a follow-up where we talk with women of color partners at large law firms who are doing well and see what we can learn from them. So I had a chance to conduct interviews with women of color partners across the country, which was wonderful. So we got a wide range of perspectives on what was working for them, what was challenging, and then lots of tips and tricks on how to be successful at large law firms. So it’s a fantastic read for associates, of course, but it’s also a great read for law firms as well.

Crissonna Tennison

Do you think it would be helpful to read even if you’re not a woman of color?

Monica Parker

Absolutely, it is. It’s useful for anyone to get perspective on what it’s like to be a woman of color. And interestingly enough, and probably not a surprise, but a lot of the advice offered there is valuable for anyone in any role, essentially. So yes, it’s a great read. If I do say so myself.

Crissonna Tennison

Oh, no, I love it. I believe you. And it’s good to advocate for yourself. So I will probably read it.

Can you talk a little bit more about what you feel the stakes are when it comes to developing diversity and inclusion practices in law? Like what do you feel like the larger stakes are?

Monica Parker

Well this one may be obvious, but it bears repeating: clients are wanting to see diversity in their legal teams. It’s going to vary from client to client. But we have seen this trend where it’s becoming increasingly important, and there are clients who absolutely demand diversity in their legal teams. And that’s something that’s not going to go away. So that’s a major stake. I would say also, firms, again no surprise, have invested a lot in their people. And so if you invested that much in your people, you want to retain your people, and you want them to succeed, and you want them to be fulfilled. Turnover is expensive.

I’d also say that you want to have a reputation for attracting diverse talent. And candidates for firms are asking about that. That’s something that I’ve noticed that’s also becoming increasingly the case, and not just candidates of color, but white candidates as well, because they want to work at a place that values diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So if you want to attract the best talent, you want DEI to be top of mind.

Crissonna Tennison

I feel like I’ve been hearing that lately, that diversity issues are, in addition to all the other reasons why they’re so important, they’re also important when it comes to just the business elements of running a firm. Do you see any possible trickle down effects of diversity and inclusion in law affecting people in the broader world, like clients or just people who need legal services? Is that something that you think is relevant?

Monica Parker

It’s relevant, because as humans, we all want to see people who look like us. So if I’m a client of a law firm, I would like to see people who look like me working at that law firm, doing well at that law firm, whether it’s a client at a large law firm, you know, a medium sized firm, a small firm. That’s important too just because lawyers often are very involved in their communities as well. It’s important to see the representation match up with the community. So I do think it’s important for that to be there.

There are some of the standard arguments you may have already heard around how diverse teams perform better, have better results overall. So I think that just by nature of having that diversity, you bring a diversity of experiences to the table, and that’s at the end of the day going to be all to the good.

Crissonna Tennison

Do you have any final thoughts or messages to share for listeners or anything that you feel we should have asked or touched on that we didn’t?

Monica Parker

One final point: diversity, equity and inclusion is a team effort. So it’s not up to your DEI person or leadership to make things happen, although those are necessary, folks. I look at it as, D&I requires every person in the organization to be focused on making the workplace an inclusive space where everyone can achieve.

Crissonna Tennison

Yeah, I can see how in an office environment you have to work together to create an effective workplace. And that includes working together to build a more accessible, inclusive workplace where everyone feels comfortable to do their best work.

Thank you so much for coming on through and talking to us today. That was a lot of really interesting and good information. So yeah, thank you for coming and joining our show today and sharing your insights with us.

Monica Parker

Well, thanks again for having me. I enjoyed our conversation.

OUTRO 

Thank you for listening to the National Law Review’s Legal News Reach podcast. Be sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for more episodes. For the latest legal news, or if you’re interested in publishing and advertising with us, visit www.natlaw review.com. We’ll be back soon with our next episode.


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National Law Review, Volume XIII, Number 94

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