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Law Firm Diversity: Five Reasons for the Slow Progress

Feb. 9, 2022, 9:00 AM

There’s an exercise I do in my law firm diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings. I call it the Ten-Year Challenge. I show a slide with race, ethnicity, and gender stats for large law firms 10 years ago. Then I show stats from this year. Then I ask my group, “What has changed?”

The answer? Not much.

To quote Bloomberg’s law firm DEI report from November 2021:“Nine out of 10 top leaders (either CEO or managing partner) are White and 81% of top leaders are male. Of attorneys who lead firm-wide practice groups or departments, 27% are White women, 6% are minority men, 4% are minority women, and the remainder are White men.”

We aren’t moving backwards. But we aren’t moving forward as quickly as we could be. At Inclusion Nation, we’ve worked with many law firms on DEI. Here are five of the biggest reasons I see for our slow progress on racial and ethnic diversity in large law firms.

1. Using the Business Case, and Only the Business Case

If the business case for diversity were the magical understanding that firm leaders needed, we would have solved DEI a generation ago. It is not.

People are not widgets. Putting a return value on investment in a human life is not how we start. Not every client is pushing for a diverse team, and not every matter implicates the transforming population of the workplace. Your case for diversity doesn’t need to have an extensive historical backing or be based solely on realizations from the global racial reckoning of summer 2020.

It can be as simple as this: Prioritize the success of people who work in your law firm because you hired them, and they should have an equal chance to succeed.

2. Using Non-Law Firm Approaches to Big Law

Yes, we should look outside of ourselves for solutions, but we should also remember that our profession is unique. Law firms can be hierarchical and traditionalist. Practice groups, and even partners, are often silos within firms.

Lawyers have never been taught how to manage people—ever. Attrition rather than retention can be beneficial to profits-per-partner. And Big Law has a large proportion of employees—including many women and people of color—who are often not considered in most firms’ diversity work because they don’t have JDs.

Your diversity consultant or in-house professional doesn’t have to have a legal background, but they should have some grounding in law-firm life to recognize what can work—and what will never work—in Big Law.

3. Not Trusting Your Diversity Leaders to Do the Work

The best law firms delivering DEI success are ones that allow their DEI professionals the runway to succeed. Those firms do not limit which attorneys the DEI professionals can work with, or second-guess the professional’s approaches because they don’t fit the culture of the firm.

They succeed at balancing a hands-off approach (you figure it out!) and a micromanager approach (here’s what 16 different partners believe you should do) and choose not to take the “slippery slope” approach to DEI—if we do this, then all these terrible actions will inevitably result.

I should also mention that many Big Law DEI professionals are women, and women of color, and the biases and stereotypes I discuss in my trainings apply there as well. If you are already biased to believe someone is not competent because of the identity they have, then you are already inclined to underestimate and undervalue them.

If you’re hiring someone to do an extraordinarily difficult job, give the person you chose the resources, the confidence, and the time to succeed.

4. Investing in New Initiatives Instead of Fixing Existing Ones

One of our most popular workshops at Inclusion Nation is where stakeholders work together to identify the root cause of specific DEI challenges, then design a testable four-part solution to address it. You know what they often find? Many of the solutions are programs already in place that can be adjusted to fit diversity needs.

What do you already do for talent acquisition? Succession-planning? Business generation? We call it using a DEI lens. You partner with law schools for on-interviews. How can you do that with a DEI lens? You made accommodations for remote workers. How can you do that with a DEI lens? You coach high performers. How can you do that with a DEI lens?

You already have existing talent development initiatives. Re-design them with a DEI lens.

5. Not Recognizing How Much Authenticity and Belonging Matter

Imagine you are a person of color. None of the partners you work with are of the same race or ethnicity as you.

None of them went to the same schools as you. Some of them were in sororities and fraternities, but they have never heard of yours.

None of them grew up in neighborhoods like yours. You like different music, fashion, movies, TV shows, and sports. You celebrate different holidays. You have different family structures. You have different opinions on social justice.

And there are comments you hear—where are you really from, you’re so well-spoken, what interesting hair, your name’s hard to pronounce—what we politely call “microaggressions.” You look at the culture of a firm that says it’s inclusive and feel like “inclusive” does not include you. It. Is. Exhausting.

The best law firms are ones that know that new hires, at whatever level they enter the firm, will feel that exhaustion. Those firms ensure through onboarding, employee resource groups, thoughtful mentoring matches, personal development plans, and invested executive committee members, that both attorneys and business professionals can feel like they can belong here. That is the real work of change.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Michelle Silverthorn is a licensed attorney, founder, and CEO of Inclusion Nation. She practiced for large law firms in New York and Chicago before transitioning to the diversity field, where she has trained thousands of lawyers about bias, race, equity, and belonging in the workplace. She is author of the book: “Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good.”