The diversity and inclusion conversation as it relates to the legal profession is a well-worn one spanning multiple years. Unfortunately, for all the talk and glossy marketing materials, only minimal progress has been made. According to Law360’s 2016 Law Firm Diversity Snapshot, less than 15% of lawyers at U.S. law firms are minorities. And the number is less than 9% when considering minorities who are members of the elite club called “law firm partnership.” Likewise, regarding corporate environments, as of 2015, the number of Fortune 500 minority general counsel is starting to decline.
Indeed, one can run the numbers a myriad of ways and still arrive at the same conclusion: When it comes to the legal profession, little has changed from prior years on the diversity and inclusion front and, in some instances, the situation has even grown worse.
The business case for diversity in the profession has long since been made and is readily apparent. The makeup of businesses and the customers they serve in the global marketplace is more diverse today than ever before. As a result, organizations are looking for legal professionals that “look like them” and value what they value. Further, there are countless statistics and reports demonstrating that a truly diverse and inclusive workforce drives engagement, retention, and profits.
One could say that in 2016, if you still need convincing as to the business case for diversity, that strongly suggests that you really do not care about diversity and inclusion at all. So if the benefits are so readily apparent, why so little change? And what can be done? I think the answer lies on the other side of a bit of introspection, if you will.
“There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it is convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses. Only results.” – Author unknown
Why so little change? Because the legal profession, beyond being traditionally change-adverse, for the most part has only been “interested” in diversity and inclusion, not “committed.” Programming, at times, has been reactionary and designed to appease the customer/business partner, not to truly change a culture. Resources afforded to diversity and inclusion initiatives have been limited. And integration has been surface, rarely affecting, on a real level, the women and minority legal professionals who are the purported beneficiaries of such forward thinking.
So then what can be done? Decide. Law firms and legal departments need to decide, once and for all, who they are and who they want to be in the future. Plainly, they need to decide if they are “interested” or “committed” (i.e., decide whether or not they are “all in”). And be honest. Customers and clients can tell when you are faking it. Worse, the women and minorities who are part of your organization can tell and that often ultimately drives whether they stay or go.
If your answer is “committed,” then your best next step is clear. You must immediately and deliberately elevate the business of diversity and inclusion to be in complete alignment with your organization. Translation: Organizations that decide they are truly committed to diversity and inclusion must, without delay, take bold steps to ensure strategic priorities for diversity and inclusion are considered on a wholesale level, at all major decision-making points, such as strategic planning, hiring/recruiting, lateral growth, promotion to leadership positions, budgeting, management structure, work assignments, marketing pitches, supplier and third-party vendor selection, charitable and other community outreach efforts, staffing, etc.
How and why
The “how” will vary. For example, some organizations drive diversity and inclusion initiatives by committee. Further, according to the MCCA’s 2011 Law Firm Diversity Professional Survey, a majority of law firms rely on dedicated personnel to advance their diversity and inclusion platform. This approach may translate in a corporate environment as well. At any rate, the makeup of such dedicated personnel runs the gamut. According to that survey, 29% of the firms surveyed reported that their diversity and inclusion initiatives were spearheaded by a “practicing lawyer with an annual billable hour requirement.” In addition, 7.5% have filled this role with a “practicing lawyer without an annual billable hour requirement” and 41.9% employ a “nonpracticing lawyer.” The report said that 19.4% use a “nonlawyer professional.” And 2.2% noted “other,” which was defined as either a “practicing partner with a half-time billable goal” or a “law firm executive, not a lawyer.”
The duties and responsibilities of these committees or diversity professionals are equally varied. Bottom line, one size does not fit all. Instead, organizations that say they are “committed” to diversity and inclusion must find a structure that fits their size, their culture, and their clients.
That said, regardless of the path chosen, both corporate legal departments and law firms truly committed to diversity and inclusion must ensure that whoever is leading the charge is truly empowered. Having a seat at the table is very different than having a voice. Further, there must be discernable buy-in and support by leadership which necessarily includes accountability. “Accountability breeds responsibility,” says Steven Covey. Absent such, the desired change will never come.
Dawn R. Rosemond is a partner and director of diversity, professional development, and inclusion for Barnes & Thornburg LLP, a national full-service law firm with more than 600 legal professionals in 13 U.S. offices.
This article should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own lawyer on any specific legal questions you may have concerning your situation.