What Law Firms Get Wrong About Diversity

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This article was first featured in the Fall 2017 edition of the Cook County Bar Association's Sidebar and then in the January 25, 2018 issue of Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. 

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.

So why are law firms still behind the curve? Here are five things firms are getting wrong when it comes to diversity.

Firms Don’t See the Value of Diversity

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 by attracting and retaining better lawyers, offering better service to the client and meeting the diversity requirements of their corporate clients,  the powers that be sit up and pay attention.

Firms Harbor Faulty Thought Processes about Diversity

“We just want to hire the best person for the job” is often a common retort when firms are asked why they aren’t more diverse. This type of thinking assumes that making the effort to hire more diverse candidates means the firm is lowering the bar and giving the job to an unqualified candidate. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Diverse candidates can still be the “best person for the job” by offering different perspectives and challenging the status quo, which makes for more satisfied clients in the long run.

Firms Recruit from the Same Places

Firms that actually want to make diverse hires often ask “where is the diverse talent?” They claim that whenever they put out a job posting, they don’t get any diverse talent to apply. This is mostly because firms recruit from the same places and expect for diverse talent to magically appear. If firms truly want to hire diverse talent, they need to go where that talent is. Partner with recruiters that have access to the diverse talent they seek to attract. Also, partner with the different multicultural bar associations and get involved. This can be through sponsorships, speaking on panels, etc. Get to know the members and they’ll have a ripe pipeline for diverse talent.

Firms Make Diversity the Responsibility of One Person or Department

Having a Director of Diversity or a Diversity & Inclusion department is a step in the right direction for many firms. However, that is only the first step. Diversity is the responsibility of every person in the firm from the top down, not just a single person or department. If the whole firm is not committed to making the firm a diverse and inclusive place to work, all the efforts of the diversity person or department is for naught.

Firms Focus on Diversity and Neglect Inclusion

Due to increasing demands by corporate clients to have diversity, many firms are buckling down and attempting to make more diverse hires. However, an important piece of diversity is inclusion. If the diverse attorneys don’t feel welcome and included once they begin working at the firm, they won’t last long and it becomes an endless revolving door of new hires. Diverse attorneys aren’t aliens, they want the same work experience as anyone else. Make them feel included by inviting them out to lunch, for drinks, offering mentorship, substantive work assignments and valuing their thoughts and input. If they feel as if they are a valued part of the team, it goes along way with keeping them engaged and loyal to the firm.

Law firms that choose to take diversity seriously and get it right 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. Those firms that continue to put diversity on the backburner will eventually find themselves left out in the cold.