Answering the Call for Diversity in the Legal Profession (Perspective)

Dec. 9, 2016, 9:08 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is a legal recruiter based in Baltimore.

The adage that law is an old boys club hasn’t gone away. White males have dominated the legal industry for decades, and they still are today. A 2015 survey of industry demographics from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault found that in 2014, 84 percent of attorneys were white. Among law firm leadership, the dearth of diversity is even worse with 92 percent of equity partners identifying as white.

In more recent years, the industry has begun to acknowledge this pervasive gap with discussions about ways to bring more diversity into firms and in-house teams. But to turn talk into action, leadership must start prioritizing diversity and inclusion. Reinforcing these priorities will help them trickle down to the rest of the team.

Below are five steps that partners and general counsel can take to build more diversity and create a firm or in-house team more inclusive to all attorneys.

Communicating the importance of diversity

To properly address this lack of diversity, law firms and legal teams need to take the fundamental first step of holding intentional conversations about the importance of diversity. The topic can be sensitive, but it must be addressed internally for all other initiatives to be effective. Conversations among leadership should focus on the current climate of diversity in the firm, define what diversity means to them, and set concrete goals for the future. With this foundation, leadership can create a plan of action for bringing more diverse lawyers into the firm or team.

Similar conversations must be had with the entire team. Unconscious bias training, or exercises to help attorneys understand the stereotypes and biases they hold about groups of people, can be effective in sparking these initial conversations. Often, people are not aware of how their own thinking hinders them. Such trainings raise consciousness around the issue, helping attorneys become more aware of how problematic a lack of diversity truly is. This will, in turn, increase buy-in on the initiatives the leadership has set forth.

Tying diversity to dollars

After a baseline of communication has been established, it is up to the leadership to dedicate a portion of the department or firm’s spending to diversity initiatives. Employee trainings, conferences, networking events, and affinity groups all come at a price. Without a line item in the budget, it is unlikely that diversity initiatives will receive the spending that they deserve.

Similarly, tying a portion of compensation to fulfilling diversity goals will put the initiatives in the forefront of attorneys’ minds. Some firms add criteria to partners’ reviews questioning what he or she has done to promote diversity within the firm. Those who have completed substantive actions toward meeting the firm’s diversity goals will see this reflected in their bonuses or raises. A similar self-reflection process could be added to evaluations of all attorneys in the firm or team. Knowing that they will be asked this question during yearly reviews, attorneys at all levels will be more likely to commit their time to the efforts throughout the year, rather than letting them fall by the wayside when other work takes over.

Shifting the culture

While money can motivate partners and general counsel to act, all lawyers need to be on board with promoting diversity efforts as well. In addition to unconscious bias training, law firms and legal departments can create more awareness about the importance of diversity by holding sensitivity and inclusion trainings, hosting speakers on the topic, or distributing self-assessments asking what each lawyer is doing to promote a better culture within the firm. After all, shifting a culture requires adjustments from everyone.

Building a network for diversity

Lawyers have a tendency to hire based on cultural similarity, even if it means passing on a more qualified candidate. However, to create a diverse firm, leadership needs to proactively disrupt this cycle and develop their own network for recruiting diverse lawyers. It is not possible to expand the horizons of the recruitment pool without being in front of minority attorneys. Attending networking events specifically geared to minority attorneys is one way to shake up the pool of candidates. It can also be beneficial to partner with an outside recruitment specialist like Major, Lindsey & Africa to find diverse candidates. A third-party opinion will bring an outside perspective to recruitment, helping to ensure that the pool of applicants reflects the firm’s diversity goals.

After diverse lawyers are recruited, they must be retained, a different matter entirely. MCCA and Vault’s report also showed that the attrition rate of white lawyers is nine percent, notably lower than the 16 percent for black lawyers and 13 percent for both Asian and Latino lawyers. Lowering the attrition rates hinges on fostering internal networks. Affinity groups support minority attorneys once they have joined the firm. Such groups create a dedicated space within the firm for minority attorneys to find mentorship as they navigate their legal careers and can make them feel more welcome.

It’s also critical that minority attorneys be given the opportunity to develop in their legal careers. All too often, Major, Lindsey & Africa’s recruiters hear that minority attorneys feel that they are not given the quality and caliber of work they deserve and need to grow as lawyers. Senior attorneys must be sure to give all attorneys ample responsibility on their projects and cannot lose sight of minority attorneys when it comes time for promotions and raises.

Answering the call from clients

Now more than ever before, law firms and legal teams realize that improving their diversity is critical, but there is also surmounting pressure from clients to have diverse legal teams. It is no longer sufficient to place a team of homogenous lawyers in front of clients during presentations – they want to see a legal team that reflects the same values that they do.

The legal industry knows that diversity is the right thing to do, but when clients begin looking to obtain their legal services elsewhere because of a lack of diversity, law firms and in-house teams start to take the problem much more seriously. Now that the problem is a potential threat to business, partnership and general counsel also have more reason to become directly involved.

Shifting the culture of the legal industry toward more inclusivity is not easy. The onus is on partners and general counsel to start setting the tone within their firms and in-house teams. Changes will not come immediately, but they will surely spread throughout the industry in time with a concerted effort from those at the top.

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