Making the Case for Diversity

The lack of diversity in the legal profession has been a hot button topic for decades now and the industry has recently seen small gains. The National Association of Legal Placement’s 2016 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms reported that the representation of minority associates has continued to increase (from 19.53% to 22.72%) since 2010 following widespread layoffs in 2009. In 2016, minorities accounted for 8.05% of partners in the nation’s major firms. However, minority women continue to be the most underrepresented group of partners at just 2.76%. Despite the small gains in minority representation at both the associate and partnership level, the legal industry still has a long way to go to be considered a diverse industry.

Traditional proponents of diversity were motivated by their own sense of morals, arguing that having a law firm that women, people of color and more recently, those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and disability communities felt welcomed and supported was simply the “right thing to do.” This school of thought is certainly correct and admirable.  In an ideal world, every law firm would naturally want to hire minorities and diverse communities and give them the tools and resources they need to thrive and succeed. However, this isn’t a reality. One issue with basing personnel decisions on morals is that it is often personal and getting others to see the value becomes difficult.

So, if law firms don’t naturally value having diverse attorneys in their firm, then how do you get law firms to care about being diverse?

Recently, making a business case for diversity has been the most effective at getting firms to see the value of having a diverse law firm. When you show how diversity, or the lack thereof, impacts the firm’s bottom line, the powers that be sit up and pay attention.

Diverse Firms Attract and Retain Better Lawyers

Firms that value diversity are often seen as more progressive than those that subscribe to the “old boys network.” Good attorneys, especially millennial attorneys, want to be associated with firms that are progressive. It’s not enough to simply be diverse. Firms that have mastered how to make their diverse attorneys feel included in the firm and not simply a quota, will find that they are able to retain their minority and diverse attorneys and will ultimately get the best work product out of them.

Diverse Firms Can Better Serve the Client

Diversity enhances the quality of lawyering. When you assemble teams of people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and diverse points of view, the client gets a better work product because those at the table can offer unique and creative solutions to problems that otherwise would not have happened due to groupthink. Also, some clients are presenting cases in front of diverse groups of jurors and they want to make sure that the law firm that represents them is able to best relate to the jury.

Corporate Clients Demand Diverse Firms

Corporate clients are holding law firms accountable and becoming more and more insistent that their outside counsel consist of diverse attorneys. In fact, firms that are not diverse will not get the business. It’s important to note that diversity for diversity’s sake is not the goal. However, the point is to have law firms be both diverse and inclusive. Firms that are simply paying lip service to diversity will find themselves on the outside looking in. Corporate clients don’t just want to see that you have the numbers that support diversity, but they want to know that those diverse attorneys are going to be working on the case and/or getting business development credit. “We don’t want to see you bring 3 minority attorneys in the first meeting and then we never see them again.” says Wintrust Bank’s General Counsel.

There are numerous cases to be made for the importance of diversity in law firms. Law firms that choose to take diversity seriously will benefit from having not only a thriving firm with top talent, but a plethora of business from clients that value the firm’s unique perspectives on issues due to its diversity. Law firms that continue to put diversity on the backburner will eventually find themselves left out in the cold.