To Reach the Underserved, Embrace a New Approach to Client Service

By Parna Mehrbani

Tonkon Torp helps many companies assess how diversity, equity, and inclusion is addressed in their workplace. As the cultural and racial reckoning of 2020 unfolded, we examined our own approach to DEI and had vulnerable and challenging conversations about what we were doing personally, internally, in the community at large, and in the business community.

To activate a common desire to provide measurable and tangible services to business owners from marginalized communities, we created the Helping Underserved Businesses (Tonkon HUB) program.

Tonkon HUB isn’t a pro bono program. It aims to be a personalized collaboration with small and emerging businesses. Clients in the program receive a free consultation, discounted services from attorneys throughout our business department and education on legal issues. If requested, we can provide network introductions.

With the cost saving, clients in the program can establish necessary legal foundations or complete important legal tasks that often get pushed aside as resources get stretched and the daily urgencies of running a business take precedence.

A critical step in building a diverse and vibrant business community is to help business owners with historically limited access to resources launch a business from the same starting line as majority-owned businesses who generally enjoy access to the same resources. These include significant personal resources, third party funding, banking/credit support, and other privileges.

We have welcomed 20 companies into Tonkon HUB. In many ways, what we’re doing isn’t new to our firm. Our attorneys have always been open to a conversation about discounted services: We work with minority-owned businesses, and we offer free educational sessions. But these resources are offered with an assumption that people already know of us, or how to find us, or that they will reach out if they need us. This is where we seek to change the game.

Different cultures connect with professional services in different ways, and cold-calling is a nonstarter for many. I am part of an immigrant family with confident professionals of all kinds, but they would never randomly call a law firm for legal advice. They just call me even when I don’t practice the kind of law they need. It is essential to expand the way we offer and deliver services beyond the dominant cultural norms. In this way we can expand the business community to better serve the community at large.

Our driving goal is to increase access to communities with whom we might not already have a relationship, so it’s not enough to say, “we’re here, just reach out.” It’s on us to be proactive, welcoming and fiscally feasible. We’re working on this aspect of the program: how to introduce ourselves and the program, listen to what would be most helpful and offer education and services about Tonkon HUB and legal topics of interest. We’ve made the criteria for the program simple and published it on our website for easy access for those who find us through a search or want to research more after they hear from us.

The program’s service model isn’t just about what to provide, it’s about how we offer it. There are many ways to arrange a business relationship, and they should all start with listening and a willingness to do something different than the way it’s always been done. Because if we’re honest, the way it’s always been done was designed to serve only a few, not all of us.

An example of this is that many people consider a conversation as more productive and informative than having everything presented in writing, which is our dominant cultural norm. As a lawyer, I do need to make sure everything is documented properly, but I can choose to use written communication as the follow-up rather than the leading format.

This practice is no different than servicing a banking client differently than a manufacturer. By adding an equity lens to client service, we acknowledge age and stage, industry, and cultural understanding as equally important factors.

The initial interest in our program shows we are on the right track and is a great indicator of what we can do out in the community. However, we know that the program may evolve in ways we don’t anticipate. We are keen to be adaptable, to listen, and to offer what these business owners want, rather than lead with our own opinions as to what they need. Flexibility is one of the best tools for fostering impactful community-focused DEI efforts. We’re excited to build long-lasting relationships with a rising generation of leaders who will help make our city and region a vibrant and diverse business community.