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Diversity is a Business Imperative for Law Firms (Perspective)

Aug. 4, 2016, 5:49 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is the executive partner overseeing his firm’s Boston office.

The marketplace for legal services is rapidly changing. At a time when demand for legal services is flat and competition is fierce, BigLaw firms are looking for competitive advantages wherever they can find them. To stay relevant, firms must develop new strategies to compete and approach the market in different and innovative ways. For firms whose commitment to diversity mirrors that of the major corporations they serve and seek to serve, that commitment to diversity can offer a competitive advantage — if it is clearly communicated and demonstrated.

As a fundamental business principle, it is smart to align your values with those of your clients. Typically, law firms do this with respect to pricing, fee arrangements, staffing and other service-delivery considerations. They also do this with respect to clients’ community service, pro bono and outreach activities. However, there are fewer firms that similarly align with their clients’ priorities when it comes to diversity, and this is a lost opportunity.

In our global, multicultural, business market, diversity is an increasing priority among clients’ business strategies and a consideration in most Fortune 500 companies for how they do business and with whom they do business. Equally important, it is apparent that the demographics of the potential client base is changing. For example, while 28 percent of baby boomers are made up of ethnically diverse individuals, 48 percent of snake people are ethnically diverse. Additionally, the number of minority and women general counsel in Fortune 500 corporations is growing at a much faster rate than partners in large law firms. As a result, the likelihood that a current or future client will be diverse is growing and will continue to do so.

Hence, as a strategic business imperative, law firms should determine how they can align themselves with their clients’ strategies with respect to diversity with a goal of building a meaningful partnership. At a minimum, firms can proactively learn about their clients’ diversity initiatives and seek ways to partner with clients as they would with other community initiatives. Partnering opportunities include diversity pipeline efforts, affinity bar association participation and secondments. These activities help to build stronger relationships between the firm and its clients.

What clients want most are firms that can demonstrate a serious commitment to diversity. Before being asked by clients, firms should proactively demonstrate they have a commitment to training diverse associates and are including them in meaningful ways on important legal work. Firms can focus on the recruitment and professional development of diverse attorneys across their most profitable and strategic practice groups and industry teams. If there is no diverse partner on a particular team, find a partner committed to mentoring and training diverse associates as the firm prepares for the changing market. Diversity should be a fundamental component of recruiting, professional development and leadership development. Individual partners’ contributions to these efforts can be measured and should be rewarded, as with any other business metric.

It is also important for firms to demonstrate diversity at all levels of leadership. Holland & Knight has had diverse attorneys as the executive partner (office managing partner) in some of its largest offices such as Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Miami, as well as having diverse attorneys on several strategic, policy and operational committees. This helps the firm align itself with clients who have similar diverse leadership structures.

Increasingly, clients will be looking to firms that demonstrate that diversity and inclusion are strong core values, and make them a part of their business strategy, just as they do. Firms that successfully pursue and advance this strategy will be more competitive in this increasingly challenging market.

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