N.O. Attorney Works to Promote Inclusive, Anti-Racist Workplaces

Stone Pigman Attorney Heather Lonian
Stone Pigman attorney Heather Lonian

NEW ORLEANS – As the national discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement continues, businesses and organizations nationwide are examining their policies to determine how to provide a more inclusive, anti-racist environment for employees, clients and customers. Stone Pigman attorney Heather Lonian, chair of the firm’s diversity committee, talked to BizNewOrleans.com about her work and what other organizations could be doing.

Can you explain what it means to create an anti-racist working environment?

I’ve been doing this for several years and we’re at the point in the process where we realize we need to not only be diverse in terms of representation but we also need to create an environment where people of all backgrounds – all races, religions, genders, gender identities, sexuality – can exist and be their whole selves within the workplace. 

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In the legal profession, specifically, we saw that when we were recruiting women and people of color for attorney positions, the retention levels weren’t what we wanted to see. Part of that is that the work environments weren’t as inclusive as they should be. Now, part of the dialog is to make sure there’s mentorship, there’s representation, that people feel heard, that they can express views and have a dialog with management. That requires buy-in from the leadership from not just the law firms but all organizations – they need to get on board and need to be committed to this. 

It’s not going to be a quick fix. You’re not going to have a two-hour class on diversity and then all of these issues are going to go away. There may be unconscious bias issues or other reasons why the environment is not reflecting the values of the organization. So in order to make sure the process leads to the desired result, you have to review not only your issues of explicit bias – expletives and things of that nature – but also your policies. Do you have policies in place that are allowing females and people of color to be promoted within your organization. Does your leadership reflect the diversity of your organization. Does everyone at your table look like you? If so, that’s not necessarily a bad thing but you may have a blind spot. 

Leadership has to understand there’s a business imperative now with these issues being at the forefront of society. Your customers and your clients feel now that racial bias is a much bigger problem than they might have a few years ago, which is why you see companies starting to address this publicly in a way they would not a few years ago. There’s not any one step a company can take. You have to look at your own values and it has to be organic. There needs to be a dialogue between all employees and sometimes it can be uncomfortable. 

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How do you put these ideas into action at Stone Pigman?

A few years we formed this diversity committee and our first step was to bring in an outside consultant to give us an introduction to these topics because obviously within organizations sometimes all the diverse employees are on the diversity committee so they are familiar with issues – like unconscious bias or lack of promotion – but the majority of the employees may not have any introduction to these topics at all.

And we began to look at our hiring policies. Are we casting as wide of a net as we can? Sometimes we instinctively have an idea of what a quote unquote qualified candidate is and that may simply be a reflection of ourselves: the schools we went to, the groups we participated in. It’s not necessarily reflecting the broader community of New Orleans or Louisiana so we have to expand our recruiting base and look at our employment policies.

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For example, we have to make sure we are friendly to families of all kinds now. Many businesses have employment policies that haven’t been updated for several years and so they don’t necessarily reflect the reality of 2020. And as we’ve seen with COVID-19, working from home, people have a lot more options that can be family friendly. And the family itself looks different than it did several years ago.

Leadership has to be involved and it’s not a one-step solution. We are reviewing our promotion policies – how can we change that to make it a more honest and more reflective process that makes sure we’re not operating with any blind spots of our own. Are people getting opportunities to work with different attorneys and staff? Organizations have to take a hard look at not only the hiring but the retention, the mentorship, the promotions. And that’s true not only of law firms but of any business.

You mentioned the problem of retention. Can you explain that further?

Overall, the diversity of New Orleans is not necessarily reflected within the larger, downtown, defense-oriented firms … of our size or larger. There are various reasons for that and trying to address that is a problem that all firms face. Stone Pigman has four African-American attorneys right now as well as people who are LGBTQ or members of other affinity groups but we realize that we have to do better. That’s why we focused on expanding our recruiting and working with minority-based bar associations. We’re participating more in minority job fairs and expanding our recruiting to campuses where we might not have been a few years ago. And we’re making sure that people know that Stone Pigman is an anti-racist firm and we do want a diverse workplace.

The second half of this conversation will appear next week on BizNewOrleans.com.


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