Manar Morales on Assessing Law Firm Culture
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“Where we see innovation happening is where we see organizations willing to take a close look at what’s happening within their culture, where they’re looking beyond the metrics.”
“Your numbers will tell only part of the story. And so being really able to peel back the layers and say, “What is happening within our culture?“
“At the end of the interview the person said to me, “That just felt like therapy.” It was an opportunity to actually share her experience and what she was feeling. “
“I am really passionate about women’s empowerment and making sure that we continue to see women leading within their organizations and within, frankly, personally and professionally, leading a 360 life. “
“My parents are immigrants from Egypt and just seeing their path, and what they did, and how they both inspired [me] …continues to inspire me every day to always reach for what it is that we want and not look at the obstacles.”
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Hi listeners, this is Chris Batz, your host of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Today’s episode, I’m interviewing a former DC employment attorney turned leader and voice for women, diversity, inclusion and work-flexibility. You will learn how professional service firms and companies are taking an honest look at their culture and making changes.
Just a reminder, the transcript of this audio is available in a PDF download. Go to LionGroupRecruiting.com/podcast.
As many of you know, we interview corporate defense law firm leaders, partners, general counsels and legal consultants. You’re listening to episode eighteen of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Chris: Welcome to the Law Firm Leadership podcast, I’m your host, Chris Batz with The Lion Group. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Manar Morales, the president and CEO of The Diversity and Flexibility Alliance. Manar began her career as an employment litigator representing clients in all aspects of labor relations and employment law. She has litigated in federal court before federal administrative agencies and in arbitration. In addition, Manar served as an adjunct faculty member of Georgetown University, where she taught classes in labor and employment law and entrepreneurship. Manar serves on numerous boards and commissions. She is a Washington Advisory council member for Commonsense Media, a member of the President’s Council of Cornell Women and a liaison to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Welcome, Manar, to the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
Manar: Thank you, Chris, so much for having me.
Diversity and Assessing Law Firm Culture
Chris: I believe you’re probably on the frontlines of some of the most important initiatives professional service firms are facing right now – diversity, inclusiveness, flex work. What are you finding for innovative ways where diversity and inclusion is being implemented either at companies, accounting firms, and law firms?
Manar: We’re seeing the most success in organizations occur where they take a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion and flexibility. We see innovation happening when organizations are willing to take a close look at what’s happening within their culture. From there, we see the most change happening when leaders are involved in wanting to push these initiatives forward, but beyond just calling them an initiative, where they see that it is a business imperative and it is part of the success of their organization. Then from there is where they build in some accountability.
Chris: How do you get a read on the culture?
Manar: First, having conversations with individuals. If we’re dealing with a law firm, finding really how do they experience the culture on a day-to-day basis, whether through focus groups, insight interviews, or surveys. The best way is through a combination of all three formats. Also, talking to the leaders, getting a read from them on how they perceive the culture, and how they perceive success within their own groups.
Chris: When leadership engages, do you find associates, staff, partners are either reluctant or very interested and compliant in wanting to share things with you?
Manar: It depends on the tone. When it is clear that it’s confidential, people want to have a conversation. When we go into an organization, I first always ask what are you going to do with the information because if you’re not willing to change, then surveying for the sake of surveying is really pointless. If we’re going into an organization in which it’s been clear the groundwork has been laid, that leaders are listening and they actually will be using that information to create real change, people are very willing and open to have those kinds of conversations.
Chris: Have you sat down with somebody and there’s a sense of relief to be able to share their story with you?
Manar: Absolutely. I was working with an accounting firm doing the insight interviews and at the end of the interview the person said to me, “That just felt like therapy.” Being able to articulate it out loud, was a sense of relief in some ways that first of all, she wasn’t alone and that other people were experiencing similar experiences, but also an opportunity to see that change could happen as a result of that.
Chris: Is that one of the main reasons why you started Diversity and Flexibility Alliance?
Manar: I certainly had my own path around being an attorney and an employment litigator and having my first child and wondering what the path was going to be for me. I now have three boys and can understand the experience of wanting to continue to work and yet be able to see what the real challenges were and that everybody’s experiencing and matching that with the level of success that I wanted to achieve.
The Importance of Engaged Leaders
Chris: Aside from taking a read on the culture, once you get that read and you present it to managing partners or the leadership of the organization you’re working with, what kind of responses are you getting from them?
Manar: I’m very clear when we are presenting our results that everybody needs to be listening to understand and not necessarily respond in that moment because what you don’t want to happen is people feeling defensive. For better or for worse, your culture is defined by the people who are experiencing it.
Chris: Have you sat down with leadership and have there been responses of shock or confirmation?
Manar: It is all of the above. I think the important thing there is for leaders to understand that that may not be the intent of your behavior, but that is the impact of your behavior and so what are the ways in which we can address it. The reason why we do insight interviews and focus groups is because understanding it in the language of their culture is really important. I can talk all about the research and what it shows, but until they actually hear concrete examples within the culture of their own firm, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, well that may be true, but that’s not happening here.”
Chris: You deliver the results, the leaders are listening to understand and then what? Have you had some that are just not willing to follow through?
Manar: We haven’t, but that is because we spend a lot of time laying the groundwork for what this needs to look like in order to be successful. There’s always a sense of what comes next. We’re laying the groundwork for how are we going to be responsive to what you heard and how do you design both organizational solutions and individual strategies that help you be responsive.
Chris: Do you have the liberty to share some of those strategies that you recommend for some organizations?
Manar: Some of it is around a sponsorship initiative, an overhaul of your flexibility initiative, looking at holistic flexibility, unconscious bias training, creating metrics and dashboards in order to better track what’s actually happening and how do you create, for example, a women’s initiative that’s going to be powerful and responsive and strategic. How does it impact the organization? How does it impact individuals? How do you monitor for progress?
Chris: Metrics and dashboards, can you elaborate?
Manar: In terms of the metrics, a leadership path exists at all organizations and it’s getting to better understand what that leadership path looks like and where do people fall within that path. Then looking at who’s leaving, where are they going, who’s coming in, what are the kinds of assignments, so really starting to analyze where you’re at within your organization.
Holistic Workplace Flexibility
Chris: Can you elaborate on flexibility? What models are being looked at? Are any of them being successful as you’re talking to firms, accounting companies?
Manar: We very much look at holistic flexibility as being important. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but is customized to individuals to meet both their personal and professional needs. Reduced hours are important and it should be a key component, but we also look at what are the options for full-time flexibility.
Chris: I’d love to get your professional opinion, when you have the former CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, who basically came in and called everyone back to the office. No one can work from home anymore. When you see that happen, how do you process that?
Manar: You go back to all of the business needs for flexibility and the impact that it has. When I see things fall apart and see firms who say the telecommuting policy is not working, most often that’s a performance issue, not a telecommuting issue. That’s not a policy issue. You should be handling things when they’re not working as a performance issue. The other thing is whether or not there’s accurate training around the policies and so whether or not policies are being implemented.
Chris: Real estate is one of the top costs aside from personnel costs. If someone’s telecommunicating, does that mean that the law firms can now find more flexible office environments where they don’t need as many offices and space? Is there an economic benefit to even the idea of what you’re proposing?
Manar: Absolutely and we see firms doing that. There are some firms that are looking at having a smaller footprint because they’re allowing individuals to be able to work from home. Some have an open office space where people sign up for time, depending on when they’re coming into the office. There certainly are real estate cost savings involved. There are also times where people are forced to work from home, due to weather or other issues. If they’re not already set up in that way and are not able to be effective, that’s lost time.
Chris: When you’re discussing and they’re initiating you on flexibility, is there a percentage of the office or of their workforce that are actually successfully doing this on telecommuting?
Manar: I don’t know that there’s a percentage per se, but we hear of a number of firms where they are successfully having telecommuting policies put in place. Where these policies fall down is often on the implementation. We’ve talked about how do you successfully implement a policy because you’re not going to get the business benefit from these policies unless people are actually effectively using them.
Chris: Why do you think the usage rate is so low?
Manar: There’s a lot of stigma around it, so oftentimes we see these policies in place and they’re written policies, but they’re handed out with a wink and a nod that it’s career suicide if you take advantage of them.
Law Firm Women in Leadership
Chris: What are some top takeaways for law firms to consider when wanting to put more women in leadership?
Manar: I think in terms of understanding the impact of diversity and that that as an organization makes you better. You will be a better firm if you have a more diverse group of individuals at the leadership.
Chris: Do you have any examples, without divulging confidentiality, of firms experiencing aha of getting more women in their ranks?
Manar: I do think that clients play a role in the success of law firms’ understanding that diversity and creating an inclusive environment is incredibly important. It starts from leadership at the top. In terms of seeing a lot of the results, I would like to see more things happening and to start to see real change in terms of in the ranks of firms.
Advice for Starting a Firm Initiative
Chris: What advice would you give someone who’s listening who wants to start initiatives in diversity, inclusion, and flexibility at the workplace?
Manar: I would say take the temperature and get a sense of where leadership falls on these issues and find the people who have power within the organization to help spearhead the initiative, so you’ll be able to have more success at creating that initiative. Build the business case as to why this is incredibly important and what difference it makes within the organization.
Chris: Right now in your life, personally, what are you finding yourself passionate about?
Manar: I continue to be passionate about women’s empowerment and making sure that we continue to see women leading within their organizations and personally and professionally, leading a 360 life.
Chris: How does that come out of your life day-to-day outside of the alliance?
Manar: I have three boys. I spend a lot of time looking at how do I define success personally and how do I define success professionally. Then I spend a lot of time thinking as I lead an organization, what does that mean for me, what does that mean for others, what’s the impact that we can have.
Family and Sports
Chris: With the spare time that you do have in life right now in the DC area, what do you find yourself doing?
Manar: Given that I have three boys, I spend a lot of time watching soccer, lots of soccer games and basketball and diving. Those are the three sports that my kids play.
Chris: Knowing that you’re a lawyer and I have a bias of lawyers that most of them like to read or kind of have been ingrained to learn how to read, do you have any recommended books right now you’re reading or authors you recommend for our listenership?
Manar: I just finished reading Essentialism. I think that’s a great book and one that I think very much applies to leading a 360 life, and what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis, how to make sure we do what is essential, and how we define what is essential for us. It’s great as both a business book and lots of ways to apply it to your personal life as well.
Personal Influence and Inspiration
Chris: Your leader organization, it stems from the area of law that you practice, dealing with workplace environments as it relates to diversity and inclusion. What’s influenced you or who has influenced you to come to this place to trumpet and bring a voice to something that there are just many people who don’t have one in their work environments?
Manar: I was very much inspired both from the life that my parents had and have and then also from my own personal experience of when I had my first child and I wanted to continue to litigate, but I didn’t want to do it on a full-time basis. I started to really look at how can we create change in which people don’t feel like they have to leave if that’s not what they want to do.
Chris: So you sort of pioneered a little bit of flexibility as related to leave with your son?
Manar: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of setting my own path.
Chris: Do you care to share or elaborate a little bit about your parents’ story?
Manar: My parents are immigrants from Egypt and just seeing their path, and what they did, and how they both inspired us, as I’m one of three as well. I look at the life that my mom had and what she paid in terms of coming to this country and my father as well, who is living and continues to inspire me every day to always reach for what it is that we want and not look at the obstacles. We grew up with an understanding of you can achieve anything that it is you want; you just have to decide and then chart your path. That has always been something that has influenced me.
Chris: What advice would you give yourself as going back and starting over again as an employment litigator in your career?
Manar: Really looking at being open to as many experiences as you can have and that I would have continued to build a network.
Chris: Yeah. Good advice. Manar, it’s been an honor, a pleasure. Thank you for your time today.
Manar: Great. Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you, everyone, who listened to this episode of the Law Firm Leadership podcast.
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