The Technology Fueling Legal DEI Initiatives

Published on: 9/15/22

 

 

 

We begin season three of the Contract Lens with Taeler Gannuscia, Product Marketing Manager at Malbek, and Omar Sweiss, Founder and CEO of JusticeBid, as they explore the state of DEI in the legal sphere, what JusticeBid does, and what it takes to build a strong DEI initiative. Omar begins the conversation with how JusticeBid is a little like the Justice League of Legal. Noting that it only takes a little courage to spur change, he dives into how and why he began JusticeBid. Omar then explains what intersectionality is and why JusticeBid has taken it into account to strengthen DEI. And since transparency builds trust, Omar wraps up with how to best build value through relationships when choosing who to work with. So grab a glass of wine, and let's talk contracts!

 

Welcome to the Contract Lens Podcast, brought to you by Malbek. In this podcast, we have conversations with contract management thought leaders and practitioners about everything contracts and its ecosystem. We open season three with a deep dive into DEI across the legal sphere. Leading the conversation, we have Omar Sweiss, founder and CEO of Justice Bid, a Chicago-based company whose mission is today’s topic. Omar is a lifelong entrepreneur who went to law school so he could be a better entrepreneur. In the 20-plus years he spent building businesses he's learned that trust is paramount. Servant leadership is the only way to lead, and teaching and learning are his highest callings. So now it's time to relax, grab a glass of wine, and let's talk contracts.

Taeler:
Hi, Omar. Welcome to The Contract Lens Podcast.

Omar:
Hi, Taeler. Thank you. It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Taeler:
Yeah. How are you today?

Omar:
Doing well, doing well on a 100+ degree day in Chicago. It's as good as it can get.

Taeler:
100+, that's a little too much for me, but... Yeah, wonderful. I think I speak for everyone here at Malbek when I say that we're so grateful that you're here chatting with us today. Before we even start, for those listening, I have to make a funny connection that I made the other day. It's a little corny, but I feel like Justice Bid is actually Justice League because you're like the superheroes of legal tech. Would you say that?

Omar:
You know what? I think on behalf of the team by saying this, they're also humble. They probably don't want to see themselves that way, but the work they're doing, I am super proud of. To me, they're heroes in my eyes because it takes courage. It takes boldness and it takes, I believe, it's a lot of confidence in what they're doing to really effectuate the change that we're working on. So, in my eyes they are. But if you ask them, they're going to say no.

Taeler:
Okay, well, humble brag. They are great. The ones that I've met. I'm really excited to dive into talking more about your company today. So we have a lot to talk about and as always, I feel like I have a lot to learn from you. So we'll jump right in and I'd love to start at the very top. So tell me a little bit about your background specifically and what really drove you or inspired you to start Justice Bid.

Omar:
Great question. For those that know me, they know that I was actually born in a small Christian community overseas in Jordan. I came to the south side of Chicago when I was three years old. I've been here my entire life on the south side of Chicago. Now, if anyone knows anything about Chicago, you'll know that the south and west sides of Chicago have been historically underrepresented and haven't really gotten their fair share of equity when it comes to everything, other parts of the neighborhoods and the city of Chicago. So for me, growing up in the south side of Chicago, I've always taken that to heart. I've always had a vested interest in saying, what can I do to make an impact in the community that I grew up in? A community that's given me so much.

Omar:
So growing up in the south side of Chicago, I went, I got my business degree, my MBA, and I said to myself, "Look, what can I do to come back to the neighborhood and create jobs, create economic prosperity, and really become an active voice in the community?" After I got my MBA, I had started a business. It was a bricks and mortar business. Had some money saved up between myself and my family, and I bought a small vacant commercial property. I went to a bank as a 23-year old kid and sold them on giving me a construction loan. Now, as much as I'd like to say they did it because of me, it was really more so because of the collateral. But ultimately, built a shopping center, and then doing the homework that I did, I started to reach out to a lot of franchise that I thought need to be in our area.

Omar:
I mean, I looked at your criteria. I think we fit your criteria. You need to be here. Then a lot of the franchises said to me, "Look, while it does meet our criteria, we are just not comfortable coming to the south side of Chicago." That's when I said, "All right, we're going to take a little pivot here. What if I become your franchisee?" I started to get into the business of franchises. Made a lot of mistakes my first year of running operations, as you can imagine. But eventually became really good at it. Created jobs, really found a way to take the leverage of business doing well to give back to the community, and did a lot of great work for the community and still do it to this day in terms of where I'm from.

Omar:
But over the course of time, all of that work led me to believe every time I buy a property, sell a property, I started to expand. Every time I buy a property, sell a property, I'm spending so much in legal fees. There's got to be a better way. That's what led me to go to law school full-time. Basically at night, I was doing it a couple days a week for the most part. Going full-time at night while working full-time in the daytime, got my law degree in three years, and went back for one more year of law schooling just to polish my business law skills.

Omar:
But it was during that time that the idea of Justice Bid was born. I said to myself, "Look, diversity is bad in legal, and what really becomes the solution to change that?" For me, I thought, listen, I saw the emergence of RFPs and legal, requests for proposals, and I'm like, "At the end of the day, you're making decisions on who you're going to give your work to." I want diversity to be top of mind as one of the criteria that you're looking at when you're assigning the work.

Omar:
So years later, I set out to build the technology company and that's what we have now today. We have our sourcing technology, RFPs and auctions, but we also have our diversity analytics. I'm sure we're going to dig deeper into that in a moment, but that's really what it's all about for me is to be able to say, "How do you drive more diversity? Sourcing is the way to do it." Also, sourcing has so many other additional values. I mean, you're going to get better knowledge in terms of the strategies proposed by the firms you're looking at, better pricing, and probably more diversity. So I think the two go hand in hand.

Taeler:
Wow. What an amazing origin story. I actually didn't know a lot of that, so thanks for sharing that.

Omar:
Thank you.

Taeler:
I'll just kind of want to dive in a little bit more to what you were saying about just the statement you made that diversity is bad in legal. Because my eyes have been open to this a lot being in legal tech. I remember since last fall, even I've just been reading more and more articles about how these major global companies are warning their law firms, "Hey, we are going to take our work elsewhere or cut your fees unless we see more racial and gender diversity in these law firms that they're hiring." And so, I am really excited by that because at Malbek when we talk about contracts, we talk a lot about who our contracts are giving power to, who are they taking away from, and I love to see people and companies putting their money where their mouth is for the first time. So, what are you seeing? Are you seeing a shift and what do you think about it?

Omar:
It's a great question there. I'll tell you what. At the end of the day, I think the underpinning of all of this work is courage. No matter who you are in the space, whether you're a law firm, a corporate law department, a legal technology company consultant, it takes courage. At the end of the day, I know this. I've been beating the drum of diversity for years in legal, and it really wasn't until the past few years with the whole social justice awakening, if you will, the movement, since the George Floyd murder and more, where people have really saying, "Look, we got to stop just paying lip service to this and start doing more and really trying to use our influence to effectuate change." And that means internally, if you're an organization; externally in the marketplace with everybody that you work with in terms of firms and vendors.

Omar:
I've been seeing more and more now corporate law department saying, "Why don't we begin to use the power of our purse and our leverage to see if we can effectuate more change or even accelerate the change that some of the firms are either undertaking already on their own or not yet, and using that to their advantage?" There's been both a stick and a carrot approach. I've talked to many people. Some believe the stick approach is the appropriate way.

Omar:
I'm more of a collaborative type person, so I think the carrot approach is better suited for this kind of work. I think that when you're looking at law departments and looking at their greatest area of spend outside council, I really think collaborating together to accelerate that change we all want to see is the way to go, rather than saying, "Do better, and if you don't, I'm not working with you." I think that has a time and a place for a statement like that. I'm not saying that you never get there, but I do believe that it's saying, "Look, you're not where I think we all should be. What can we do to work together and to collaborate as a partnership so we can see this space get better for all?" I think that's really kind the approach I take with at least a lot of our clients and how they work with their outside council, is to really focus more on the firms that are saying, "Look, here's where we're transparent. We're going to put everything on the table. We know it's bad for everybody."

Omar:
The theme that I always beat the drum with is, is it's progress over punishment. Because if we're going to punish everyone that's bad, well then, there's going to be a lot of punishment for a lot of people right now. But for me, it's more about progress and saying, "Look, here's where you're at now. Let's see how we're getting better over time."

Taeler:
I do love that concept though of inviting people in this movement rather than calling them out. I think that definitely makes more progress and that's an interesting way of looking at it. So you said it yourself, the legal profession is historically just not a diverse one. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that although many firms are now for progress, there's probably many that are a little reluctant to see their own data and analytics in front of them. So, from speaking with you previously, I know this is a big reason why you launched your free benchmarking product which is Diversity Mirror. What advice would you give to a firm that is just beginning to embark on this journey of understanding and seeing their own data?

Omar:
It's a great question there. Again, it goes back to that theme of courage, number one. But let me take a step back and give you an idea of what we're doing with diversity analytics, which gives you the context. Then I could talk more about maybe what advice I would give to firms.

Omar:
Number one, we're helping every corporate law department get the diversity data on their law firms at large. That's the free version of what we offer to every corporate law department. Then what we're also doing is for our corporate law department clients, they care about their matters. So we're also giving them the diversity analytics specifically to their matters quarter over quarter. Then even beyond that, one of the things that we recently launched and we're really excited about is saying we're really focused only on your law firms, but what about your other vendors? That really is supplier diversity at the end of the day.

Omar:
So with all of this, we are the first in the marketplace to solve for intersectionality. Now, what do I mean by that? I'll give you an example. If you're looking at three specific groups working at a law firm, let's say you have white women, you have black women, and you have Asian women, all three groups face their own share of inequities at law firms, but all three groups experience it differently. Up until now, the data has never looked through the intersectional lens at all this information. We've been lacking the intersectional lens, which means oftentimes if you had one attorney with multiple attributes and you were reporting out on it, you were oftentimes double or triple counting the same person, making oftentimes the diversity look a little bit better than it really is.

Omar:
So for me, one of the things that we did solve for was intersectionality. No longer allowing one person to be double, triple counted. That really, to me, screams transparency. I've been so excited to see so many firms, in fact, we have over 200 firms in our platform now, that have been very forward thinking and transparent in saying, "Look, we know it's bad across the industry, but here's where we're at now, and our goal is to get better over time." So for me, my advice to firms that might be a little bit reluctant is to say, "Listen, if you're not there, now you're going to get there eventually. The market's moving this way. More and more law firms are moving this way. Clients are now beginning to understand intersectionality more and really looking for deeper level data on their diversity of their suppliers and their law firms."

Omar:
For me, it's number one, seeing the courage to say, "Look, yes, it's bad. We're all in the same boat. Let's put all our cards on the table. Here's where we're at, but here's what we're going to do to get better, and here's what we want to do to work with our clients to get better." If they take that mentality, it's a positive mentality. Number one, it acknowledges reality, but it's also very optimistic in saying that we have to work together to change these numbers. Now with our technology, we're showing both law departments and law firms with a free benchmarking tool for them called Diversity Mirror. How they're doing against their peers, not in a one-to-one comparison, but by peer groups. How they're doing against their peer groups, and showing them how they're progressing over time.

Omar:
Because for me it's all about progress. You have your baselines and now you got to say few months down the line, six months down the line, a year down the line, "Am I getting better? Am I getting stagnant? Am I actually moving backwards?" For me, that's really the approach of what we're doing with data and helping both corporate law departments and law firms out in this endeavor.

Taeler:
That's amazing. Thank you for the extra context there, especially for listeners. So we've said the word transparency a couple of times, and I was thinking about this a little bit this morning. So it's great to see this transparency and diversity data guiding business decisions and partnerships. But on the other hand, knowing that firms become more willing to share this data, be more transparent about it, how is that helping legal professionals decide where they want to work, what firms they want to work with? Is this helping people make career decisions?

Omar:
I would definitely think so. I think at the end of the day, when you're looking at two things that law firms are always very conscious about is obviously progress and diversity and then revenue and talent. I put those two together. So when you think about talent, one of the things, and I'll give you an example on the data points that we have in our system in terms of analytics, is that we're looking at, if attorneys are leaving firms and that's the attrition rates, are they leaving in droves by specific group and leaving to other firms? Are they going in house? Because typically if they're going in house, the law firms will tout that as a success, a celebration. We've groomed them, we've trained them, and now they've graduated to the point of going in house, and that was their desire in terms of what they wanted to do.

Omar:
But if you're seeing specific groups leaving in droves to other firms, that suggests there's an inclusion issue right. Now, if there are specific folks from that very same group looking to go work at those same organizations or law firms and you see that in the data, that suggests that they might not be there long themselves as well, too. So one, it can continue to be that way; or two, action. Part of what I'm very excited about with our data is that it's actionable and it really allows the law firms and the law departments really laser-like focus in where they have to see the progress being made.

Omar:
One of the things that I've seen prior to even launching our diversity module dubbed Operation Empowering Change was oftentimes if there was an exercise to collect data from law firms and oftentimes it would be a useless exercise for law firms because they're like, "Look, I gave them all the information. I never heard back from the law departments." But the reality was it wasn't so much useless as much as it was difficult for the corporate law departments. They would get this information back and they would struggle to say to themselves, "All right, so I had to build this survey, I had to distribute the survey. I had to collect the responses, figure out how to analyze the responses, figure out how to apply comparative scoring, visualize this data." They never got to the point of saying, "Well, what do I talk to the law firms about because I really don't even know?"

Omar:
So by making this actionable in terms of how easy we make it, we're getting the law departments and law firms to a point of collaboration quicker, more consistently, and more frequently. That, to me, I think is going to be accelerant to the change that we want to see.

Taeler:
I love that. And that's a perfect segue into of the next thing I wanted to ask about which is, one of the taglines I often see associated with your products is accelerating impact. I love that because I think so many companies may only be looking at their data just because the perception of it looking like they care about diversity data. I think that plays into this. And so, what I'd love to ask you is just, but what are some of the actionable ways you're helping these companies not just track how they're doing, but actually make a larger impact moving forward and set goals that really does drive change?

Omar:
I think goal setting is really an important exercise. If not immediately further down the line after getting some baseline data back, you really got to have an idea of what are you looking for in terms of your goals of the change that you want to effectuate? If you don't have that in mind as a corporate law department, it's going to be truly difficult to effectuate that change without knowing what you're speaking to the firms about and what you'd like to see. Naturally, what you're going to hear invariably is we want to see more diversity in our matters. But I challenge corporate law departments not only look at the diversity on their matters, but the type of work being done by the attorneys on their matters.

Omar:
I've seen this happen oftentimes when it comes to sourcing an RFPs and auctions in our system. You might have a client have an RFP go out and the pitch happens, and you see a person of color or a woman in the matter. Then when the work actually starts, one of three things happens. One the diverse attorneys actually are on the matter and doing some really good work on the matter, which is usually the minority of the times in many cases. Or two, you don't even see that person anymore. They're gone. You're looking all around, Taeler, and you're like, "Where did they go?" Or three, they're there but they're not given that meaningful type work that at the end of the day is going to be career advancing.

Omar:
Because at the end of the day, what we're looking for is taking diverse attorneys and seeing them move on up in the ranks and becoming equity partners, becoming leaders in the firms, so when others are joining as associates or summer associates, they look up and they see people that look like them and they say, "Whoa, I feel like I can actually belong here. It's possible for me." And so, for me, being able to give them information that's that tangible, that actionable, and making that easy for them, I think that to me is the exciting part of the change that we're accelerating.

Taeler:
I love that. That's really wonderful. I did stalk your LinkedIn a little bit today. Is that okay to say?

Omar:
[crosstalk 00:17:41]

Taeler:
I mean, let's be honest here. If we're being transparent, right?

Omar:
We are.

Taeler:
But I did come across a quote in your bio and I just have to call it out because I think it's wonderful.

Omar:
Sure.

Taeler:
I'd love it if you talked a little bit more about it. It's "Contracts only go so far and relationships built on trust are worth more than the best written agreement."

Omar:
Absolutely.

Taeler:
I just loved this quote. I really connected with it. I wanted to ask, how does transparency in DEI analytics build trust, not just between law firms, but also between the people they serve and the organizations they partner with?

Omar:
I mean, I'll use an analogy of getting to know someone in the dating stage and then ultimately you get married. In the beginning, you're getting to know each other, your interests, your hobbies, your values. I want to underscore that one more time. Your values. That ultimately allow you to see if you align, and that if you are ready to make it to the altar and tie that knot. For me, contracts are great. You're starting out with contracts, but that doesn't build the relationship. That doesn't build the values with each other.

Omar:
For me, the opportunity to make sure that, as for example, a corporate law department, really being able to stake out their values and articulate them clearly to all of their vendors, not just law firms, these are our values, and one of them by the way is transparency, and we want to make sure that all of the firms and all of the vendors that we work with share the same values. Now, if your values don't align with mine, then look, I don't care how many agreements we have between each other. It's just not going to be a good relationship. We're going to end up in a divorce.

Omar:
So for me, it's all about values and the integrity and aligning ourselves, really wanting to do good in the world. I'm a big believer in that, social impact and social justice, and what we can do with that. I mean, it's part of what I do every day, like I said, on the south side of Chicago to this day is to be able to make an impact and using the power of what we've built or who we are to leverage that success for better. I have built this technology that's amazing when it comes to sourcing and diversity analytics, but it's being leveraged to effectuate change.

Omar:
I've been successful in business. I'm going back to my neighborhoods where I grew up to effectuate change. To me that's really where your values, who you are, not only as people, but as an organization, are crucial. That's why courage is really important. If you tell me these are your values and you're not holding that your suppliers to the same values, that to me lacks courage. If you as a law firm, all about these values as well, and some of your clients are not about that. I don't ever see a law firm firing a high paying client because they don't share the same values. But will we ever get to that point where we're looking at each other and saying, "Look, it's more than just business. It's about values. That's what it's all about right now. It's not about you just doing legal work for me. It's about what can we do together to make an impact." That's exciting for me as long as people have the courage to back it up.

Taeler:
Man, I need to listen to this recording in a week when I need a boost of energy. This is great. Thank you for all the great context that you're giving here too, about how it applies to your background and really what draws you to the work. I think it's really inspiring. You often say we're just getting started when I talked to you before, and you make that very clear that there's so much more work to be done. I just would love it if you told us what's next on the horizon for the Justice Bid team and your product suite.

Omar:
Yeah, for sure. Taeler, before I even get to that, remember at Clark, we were at the conference, you saw my team and all of us wearing football jerseys, right?

Taeler:
Yes. I saw everyone but you somehow. I don't know how that happened.

Omar:
You and I missed each other. I don't how that happened, especially when I came by the mall back booth. I met everybody there but you. But we all had our football jerseys on and we all wore the number 63. It meant something. It really meant something. What it meant was based off of the data we had at the time in our technology and because we've solved for intersectionality, we've seen that women of color have lost 63% representation at law firms over the past 10 years. Because no one is solved for intersectionality, it's been very difficult to see that in the data up until now.

Omar:
So when you say what's motivated me to say we're just getting started, that fact alone right there says we have so much more work ahead of us in terms of the impact that we want to make. So our roadmap, one of the things that I've been saying over the past few months is that look, we're just getting started and here's an example of why I keep saying it. We just launched our supplier diversity module. Up until now, a lot of my clients have been focused only on their law firms. I keep pushing them and saying, "Listen, if you're looking to make a societal impact, why are we only focused on your law firms? Why aren't you focused on all your other vendors, third party vendors that you're working with, if we all care about diversity and societal impact? Yes, I get it. Law firms are 80% plus of your external spend. I get it. There's plenty of merit to that argument. But at the end of the day, why is it that we can't make a greater impact if we have the ability to do so?"

Omar:
So we've launched this module now, Supplier Diversity, and Taeler, I think part of this is education. For me to educate others on how this works. But we're giving the diversity data in terms of ownership for all of their law firms, all of their vendors, their consultants, their legal technology companies, the typical ownership of the companies. Are they women owned? Are they minority owned? LGBTQ plus owned? Veteran owned? Et cetera. We have all this information and that's what we call tier one. All the suppliers that you pay directly, servicing you and rendering services.

Omar:
But we go beyond that. Let's take an example of a law firm, AmLaw 100 firm. I won't mention any of them by name, but let's say there's an AmLaw 100 firm, we know it's not minority-owned, we know it's not woman owned. It has an equity-based partnership model. It doesn't have a minority certificate or a woman-owned certificate. But what we do know is, for example, if I have a litigation matter, this firm, let's just call it Firm ABC, Firm ABC is now using other suppliers like court reporters, e-discovery providers, consultants, experts, witnesses, those all are benefiting me as a client at the end of the day. So we are giving our clients visibility, not only to their tier one spend, but also into that tier two spend, and seeing how their dollars have more of an impact downstream. That's really exciting for me because Supplier Diversity and Legal for the most part has been nonexistent. We're finally bringing it to the market and having people think about that very actively and intentional.

Taeler:
That's really amazing because it's allowing people to make more educated and informed partnerships and really put their money where their mouth is kind of like we talked about earlier. It's great to see that's going to continue to grow. Very excited for you, very excited to see the future.

Taeler:
So we are technically at a 30 minute mark. But is there anything else you'd like me to ask or allow you to promote before we wrap?

Omar:
In terms of questions, I know people see if I post on LinkedIn some of the successes we've had. But know this, I've seen firsthand, the good and the bad and the ugly when it comes to diversity in the space. There's a lot of rhetoric in this space of things that are excellent, getting better, and we're just seeing so much progress. I think we have a long road ahead of us. That's the stark reality.

Omar:
But I think what's encouraging, and I always like to end on a positive, is just that I've been seeing in working with so many forward thinking, transparent, progress wanting law firms that say, "Listen, at the end of the day, the rubber is set on the road now." We got to get better. Everybody has to get better. There's no sense in saying, "Look, we're not going to be transparent or trying to justify why things are not happening."

Omar:
Let's just find ways to work with as many people as we can to make the impact that we can. I think it's going to take the entire ecosystem. So we're not only looking at law firms. We're not only looking at corporate law departments. We're looking at Malbek and Justice Bid and others and saying, "What can we do and play our role in making this entire space get better?"

Omar:
So if anyone's listening to this podcast, no matter where you're at, know that you have a very important role. At the end of the day, before I even launched our Diversity Analytics module, I stood on the sidelines, I said to myself, "Let me wait until someone finally does something." And I said eventually, "Enough waiting. I'm going to stand up and do this on my own."

Omar:
I know there are people that question me, "Why you? Who are you to be doing this?" That's fine. Question me all day long, but I don't have to seek permission to make progress and change in a space sorely needing of it. I encourage all of you to take on that same mentality. No need to wait on the sidelines. Step up, do your part. And it doesn't have to be launching a technology analytic solution like me. It could be something as simple as doing something within your own organization. Opening yourselves up to different groups, learning more about others, and understanding certain biases you may have that you might not even understand or know that you have. By doing our parts to even if it's incremental changes at the end of the day, they add up, and they'll hopefully accelerate that impact we're all looking to make

Taeler:
Well, someone is a fool if they dare to question you, but I am really glad that I got to have the opportunity to ask you questions today.

Omar:
This was fun.

Taeler:
Thank you for being here and I can't wait for the next time I run into you.

Omar:
Taeler, awesome. I appreciate it. Great being with you. I'm really excited to continue working with you all on all of this change that we're collaborating on with together. So, thank you.

Taeler:
Thank you.