The legal industry continues to underperform other professional services when it comes to diversity and inclusion and lost ground on several metrics over the last two years, according to a new survey.
The new inclusion index survey from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and executive search consultancy Russell Reynolds Associates asked nearly 300 in-house and law firm attorneys, most of whom were non-white or female, to rate their employers on diversity and inclusion.
One key area where law firms and legal departments scored well below professional services counterparts, which include accounting and consulting firms, was “belonging.” The legal industry received a rating of 3.35 out of 5 on “belonging” within their organization, compared to the professional services benchmark score of 3.75.
This indicates that lawyers, especially lawyers of color, don’t feel that they can be themselves at work, and their voice isn’t heard in their organization.
“Essentially, if you’re diverse, you can show up at a law firm or a legal department, but you don’t necessarily feel like you can be your true and authentic self. It’s almost like attorneys have to cover a bit to fit in and be part of the organization,” said Tina Shah Paikeday, the head of global diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory services for Russell Reynolds.
Professional services also significantly outperformed legal in areas like “working across differences,” where these firms scored 4.10 compared to legal’s 3.56, and “organizational fairness” where legal scored 3.4 compared to 4.04 for professional services.
In some cases, the legal industry scored lower on the D&I index than it did in 2018, the first and most recent time the survey was conducted.
“Many attorneys do not see their leaders personally spending more time on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. I heard that so much anecdotally—I could probably list 50 lawyers off the top of my head, and the stories are just horrifying,” said Jean Lee, the president and CEO of the MCCA.
The survey ran from July 2019 to June 2020, and Lee noted that the full effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests of the summer may not be reflected in the ratings.
Lower Scores, Higher Expectations
One of the legal industry scores that the survey said dropped meaningfully over the last two years is “voice and influence,” which decreased from 3.4 to 3.0.
“This suggests that the work environment has trended toward being less inclusive, as respondents felt less comfortable sharing novel opinions,” the survey said.
Legal’s scores were lower than they were in 2018 on multiple other criteria, including “firm reputation,” which dropped from 3.8 to 3.6, and “leadership commitment” which ticked down from 3.5 to 3.3.
“This research will be yet another benchmark that you can leverage to think about how you can implement better practices or policies within your organization,” Lee said. “As lawyers, knowledge is power, and you should be able to provide a better workplace for your employees if you’re leading an organization or a law firm.”
But these low scores may also be a sign that lawyers are ahead of the social justice curve and expect better and more equitable treatment from their organizations than counterparts in other fields.
“I think heightened expectation causes lower scores, and I think expectations got higher because there’s now a sense of understanding around the term ‘equity,’” said Paikeday. “We used to just call it diversity and inclusion, and now, even in the practice that I lead at Russell Reynolds, we’ve renamed it to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
This change, plus the national dialogue and protests around race and justice that occurred this summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, has emboldened diverse lawyers to speak up about their negative workplace experiences, she added.
Other key findings of the survey include:
- On “working across differences,” legal scored only .04 points lower than the professional benchmark, indicating that firms may be getting better at having discussions about novel ideas.
- Women and other diverse lawyers are underrepresented in leadership positions.
- Women are less likely than men to view their organization as welcoming and gave their organizations lower ratings on all inclusion criteria.
- Inclusion Index ratings tend to go up with seniority level. Senior managers tended to give their organization ratings above 3.5, while those in non-managerial positions mostly gave ratings below 3.5.