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Building a Better Ballard Through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and AI

JC Steinbrunner

One word that comes up a lot at Ballard Spahr, the Am Law 100 law firm employing more than 625 attorneys at 15 offices nationally, is intentionality. Ballard cares about why things are done at the firm—not just how, not just the results. One area where this mindset has had great success is the development of a diverse workforce through diligent efforts to be equitable and inclusive across all lawyers and staff. In 2021, Ballard attained Mansfield Rule 4.0 Plus certification for practices that result in a workforce composed of more than 30 percent of diverse lawyer representation in recruiting, client teams, and a notable number of leadership roles.

Recently, Relativity sat down with AI Visionary Virginia Essandoh, Ballard's chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer; Dee Spagnuolo, partner in charge of attorney career advancement; and Mark Stewart, chair of the firm, to learn more about how inclusive practices have benefited their colleagues and clients—and how AI is lending a hand.

This interview has been edited for structure, clarity, and length.

You have an equation on your website: equity + inclusion = diversity. This is really interesting phrasing. Can you tell me about it?

Virginia Essandoh: We were intentional about that equation because we have learned over the years that our work in inclusion at Ballard really impacted our ability to attract and retain diverse lawyers and staff. We understood that a commitment to a workplace where lawyers and staff could thrive and be successful was really the key component to attracting talent and particularly diverse talent. Last year we incorporated a deliberate commitment to equity. We recognized that that focus, plus inclusion, would help us achieve a diverse law firm. So that's how we came up with that equation: recognizing the work that had to be put in before you could get to a diverse workplace.

So diversity is an outcome of having strong equity and a strong inclusion approach.

Virginia: We believe that, yes. That has been a difference-maker for us. We started to see our demographics improve once we [focused on inclusion] for everyone in the firm, all lawyers and staff, in our policies and practices. We are focused on people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ colleagues, and individuals with disabilities, because that’s where there is historic and current underrepresentation. But we also make sure we have an inclusive workplace where we reap the benefits of all lawyers and staff bringing all they have to offer to the firm.

Once we started to include everyone—to say, “We're happy that you all are here at Ballard, that we are a collective of all of us and all of our perspectives”—that's what made this a place where every single lawyer and staff member could be successful, and we could attract and retain and advance diverse populations within the firm.

In addition to providing opportunities for different demographics, what does diversity mean to Ballard? Why is it important?

Virginia: We want to have a workplace where people can bring their full selves to Ballard. We believe that we can get the best from folks, that people are more productive if they're more fully engaged in the firm, if they feel they are part of what we're trying to do and build here.

Also, our clients tell us—and we believe—that we can provide the best innovative solutions [by bringing] a variety of perspectives to the work. Diverse teams, teams that have women and men, teams that have white lawyers, lawyers of color, teams that have LGBTQIA+ lawyers, teams that have individuals with disabilities and veterans—all those perspectives are brought to the work that we produce for our clients.

It seems at Ballard there's an openness to inviting different perspectives to make a collaborative environment.

Virginia: I think that is one of the reasons that Ballard has been successful in its journey toward diversity, equity, and inclusion … I've never felt constrained here. What matters at Ballard is that we're a place where we're always trying to get better … we're trying to achieve a more perfect Ballard. And that is what keeps me here. That is what I think drives the culture. I think that's critical in any law firm—working on diversity, equity, and inclusion and the desire to be better and to continue on the journey and not rest on your laurels. And it's something I've learned from [Mark Stewart,] the chair of our firm.

We can acknowledge progress and we can acknowledge successes, but we're still trying to become better, we're still trying to achieve a more perfect Ballard.

You’re currently working with Text IQ on a pilot project. Tell me about it.

Mark Stewart: [AI] is a tool that we can use to promote the culture of the firm and its core values, including diversity, equity, and inclusion. The idea of marrying technology with [our] culture was an easy call for us because we're humans with inherent flaws. We think we have good intentions. We don't always get there with our intentions. AI will help us monitor our progress and advance, because of the ability of this program to move much more quickly than we're able to as people. I'm hopeful that the firm will embrace the results, see the advantages, and then increase its reliance on technology and artificial intelligence.

Virginia: I had an initial conversation [with Text IQ] and talked about what we were looking to do. We talked about our performance evaluation process and the thoughtfulness and intentionality that our partners go through when evaluating our ACLs [attorneys, counsel, and other lawyers]. And how Dee and her team read through thousands of narrative comments. Together, Dee and I look for opportunities to educate our partners on how to write valuable and beneficial narrative comments in performance evaluations.

Dee Spagnuolo: We review those narratives and then members of the evaluation committee representing all 15 of our offices and all five of our legal departments come together. We bring diverse individuals together and we talk about each one of our individual ACLs. [AI is] helping to streamline and create a more efficient process and a more informed process. What I'm describing ... is very manual, very personalized. What's important for us is that we don't lose the personal touch, but add some efficiency to the process as well, and help flag areas that are opportunities for improvement.

And how do they come together? What does Text IQ's artificial intelligence enhance or improve for that manual consideration?

Virginia: We know the language and terms that could indicate bias. AI presents the opportunity to identify terminology and language that could be perceived as bias-triggering. We can then use instances identified to educate those who write evaluations about the impact of the language they use and how it could be perceived—not necessarily the intention, but the impact that would result. Working with Text IQ, we were able to explain how we want to identify language that could be viewed in a negative light. The technology allows us to identify language that might be more personality-driven versus the kind of technical criteria that we want to evaluate people on.

What's the promise of AI for the way that Ballard operates as a culture and as a firm?

Virginia: We are all humans, and we're subject to error and missing things. The opportunity to have AI will help us keep our own biases in check and identify blind spots we might miss. [It can be an] additional tool for us to try and become a more perfect Ballard.

Dee: That's exactly right. I find comfort knowing that Virginia is reading the evaluations and vice versa, and we can put our heads together. But we're only two people. As we grow as a firm, thousands of evaluations ... we're only human, right? Might we miss things?

We have the AI to identify opportunities for improvement—to be able to use those as educational opportunities as we roll this out to our partners who are writing the evaluations. Some partners might have 25 or 30 evaluations to draft. That's a lot. We recognize that. As fatigue sets in, our minds take shortcuts, and we tend to be less intentional. That's where unconscious bias can slip in. We are not checking ourselves with the same rigor.

Virginia: Our first examination [from Text IQ] came back; there was not a lot of bias in the comments. It could show us the percentage of personality traits versus technical skill comments identified in comments for men and for women. Well, we didn’t see an imbalance. That is also the hope of this technology: It shows us where we don't have issues and where we aren’t being biased. And that was unexpected. You always look for it to find those things where you could improve, but it also shows you where you're actually doing well.

Dee: Part of that is not just pure luck. [We have] had educational sessions over the years [to find] opportunity for improvement. The challenge is that it is extremely labor-intensive. [With AI], we don't have to spend that time—I'm not talking just hours, I'm talking days and weeks—looking for those examples. We’d be better served if we can focus our time on having the conversations with individuals and groups to further the education rather than spending 40, 50, 60, or 70 hours manually reviewing evaluations for unconscious bias. I’d rather devote that time to reading evaluations for content, focusing on a lawyer’s performance.

We are all humans, and we're subject to error and missing things. The opportunity to have AI will help us keep our own biases in check and identify blind spots we might miss.

So you think of AI as a tool that you can use to build a better Ballard?

Mark: Absolutely. And we're seeing a better Ballard in just being willing to try it. Law firms are traditionally so risk-averse and resistant to bringing things in unless everyone else adopts it. But if we're going to separate ourselves, as we try to do with our core values, this is one of those ways. And clients take note, too. We've gotten some awards recently for our use of technology. Clients see it. And then they come to us and say: “How are you solving this problem? What are your ideas? How can technology help us?” Anytime a client comes to you for a solution, you're doing your job.

Virginia, you've been working in this field at this company for over 15 years. What stands out to you as an achievement you're most proud of?

Virginia: The fact that we have seen progress. Oftentimes it's difficult to truly, tangibly see the progress. People know it and they can feel it. But our greatest improvements over the last 10 years have been the percentage of LGBTQIA+ lawyers at the firm, particularly partners, and our percentage of associates of color.

I remember [for the first few years at Ballard] I was always spouting off demographics. I would say 11 percent, 12 percent of our associates are associates of color. And I remember getting to the point of thinking, “I've been saying that for years. The fact that that rolls off my tongue means it hasn't changed.” And now we're proud that we are between 26 and 27 percent associates of color. If you look at the national benchmarks, you don't see that kind of jump. It's sad that you don't see that kind of jump.

If I had one more thing to say it would be that the language in the culture around the firm has changed. It has incorporated the concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion. One of my professional goals at Ballard was that all the work would not rest with me or in the department of diversity, equity, and inclusion—that I would be behind the scenes and it would start to permeate every single thing we do. And that has happened.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

Virginia: The ability for people to laugh easily, laugh with others, laugh at themselves, and try to find the humor in things. There's something about laughter that edifies and rejuvenates the soul. If people found more ways to laugh together, it would make the work environment much more appealing and a place people can enjoy.

2021 Data Discovery Legal Year in Review

JC Steinbrunner is the senior director of brand at Relativity and the executive producer of On the Merits, a docuseries that explores how the Relativity community uses technology to find truths in data that promote just outcomes in important current events.