Law firm diversity: Five reasons for slow progress

There’s an exercise I do in my law firm’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) trainings. I call it the Ten Year Challenge. I show a slide with statistics on race, ethnicity and gender for major law firms 10 years ago. Then I show the statistics for this year. Then I ask my group, “What has changed? »

The answer? Not a lot.

To quote Bloomberg Law Firm‘s November 2021 DEI report: “Nine of the top 10 executives (CEO or managing partner) are white and 81% of the top executives are male. Of lawyers who lead firm-wide practice groups or departments, 27% are white women, 6% are minority men, 4% are minority women, and the rest are men whites.

We are not backing down. But we are not moving as fast as we could. At Inclusion Nation, we have worked with many law firms on DEI. Here are five of the main reasons I see for our slow progress on racial and ethnic diversity at major law firms.

1. Use the business case, and only the business case

If the business case for diversity was the magical understanding business leaders needed, we would have solved DEI a generation ago. It’s not.

People are not widgets. Putting a return value on the investment in a human life is not how we start. Not all customers push for a diverse team, and not all business involves transforming the workplace population. Your case for diversity doesn’t need to have extensive historical support or be based solely on the achievements of the summer 2020 global racial reckoning.

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

2. Using Non-Law Firm Approaches to Big Law

Yes, we must seek solutions outside of ourselves, but we must also remember that our profession is unique. Law firms can be hierarchical and traditional. Practice groups, and even partners, are often siloed within companies.

Lawyers never learned how to manage people, ever. Attrition rather than retention can benefit earnings per partner. And Big Law has a large proportion of employees, including many women and people of color, who often aren’t considered in most companies’ diversity work because they don’t have JDs. .

Your diversity consultant or in-house professional doesn’t need to have a legal background, but they should have knowledge of life in a law firm to recognize what can work – and what never will – in BigLaw.

3. Not trusting your diversity leaders to do the job

The best law firms that deliver DEI success are those that enable their DEI professionals to succeed. These firms do not limit which lawyers DEI professionals can work with, nor do they question the professional’s approaches because they do not fit the firm’s culture.

They manage to balance a hands-off approach (you get it!) and a micromanager approach (here’s what 16 different partners think you should do) and choose not to take DEI’s “slippery slope” approach – if we do, 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 to them as well. If you already have a tendency to believe that 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’ve chosen the resources, the confidence, and the time to succeed.

4. Invest in new initiatives instead of fixing existing ones

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

What are you already doing for talent acquisition? Succession planning? Business generation? We call this using a DEI lens. You partner with law schools for interviews. How can you do this with a DEI lens? You have made arrangements for teleworkers. How can you do this with a DEI lens? You coach top performers. How can you do this with a DEI lens?

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

5. Failing to recognize how important authenticity and belonging are

Imagine that 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 never heard of yours.

None of them grew up in neighborhoods like yours. You like music, fashion, movies, TV shows and different 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 speak so well, what interesting hair, your name is hard to pronounce – what we politely call “microaggressions”. You look at the culture of a company that says it’s inclusive and you feel like “inclusive” doesn’t include you. This. East. Exhausting.

The best law firms are those who know that new hires, regardless of their level of entry into the firm, will feel this burnout. These companies ensure, through onboarding, employee resource groups, thoughtful mentorship matches, personal development plans and committed executive committee members, that lawyers and business can feel they can belong here. This is the real work of change.

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

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Author Information

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