When law firms reflect the diverse reality of the world at large, they are able to acquire a larger pool of clients. Firms with bilingual attorneys are even more at an advantage, enabling them to acquire clients from different cultures and countries. Clients from different backgrounds will find the firm relatable and be more confident in the firm’s ability to represent their diverse interests. A larger client base results in a better bottom line and spurs economic growth for the firm overall.
A legal team with individuals from diverse backgrounds and perspectives leads to improved problem-solving skills. A range of opinions and experiences in the room spurs intellectual debate when devising legal strategies, and ultimately results in new and innovative ideas. Having different perspectives in the room also results in increased critical thinking and advocacy skills, requiring attorneys to think through their ideas and how to support them more carefully.
Obtaining and sustaining a diverse legal workforce means employers must widen the pool of qualified candidates. In turn, employers can be assured that they are hiring the most qualified candidates for the positions they’re filling, leading to higher-quality work and more successful legal outcomes.
Attorneys at firms with higher diversity rates report being happier in their jobs. Attorneys of color and other minority groups are less likely to be isolated - rather, they will feel more like a member of their community and enjoy greater camaraderie with their colleagues. This sense of belonging results in higher productivity and increased retention rates.
How Law Firms Can Be More Inclusive in a Digital World
As remote working environments became the “new normal” for law firms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives has become an even more critical priority. Two recent reports from the ABA - one in April 2020 entitled “Walking Out The Door” focused on female attorneys generally, followed by a June 2020 report specific to women of color, entitled “Left Out & Left Behind” - highlight persistent barriers to advancement for women in the profession, especially women of color.
“Walking Out The Door,” authored by Roberta (“Bobbi”) Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf, found that 67% of female attorneys said they believed they were denied access to business development opportunities, 54% had been denied a salary increase or a bonus as a result of their gender, and 53% reported that they were denied advancement opportunities because of their gender. In another study by Catalyst, an organization that works to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion, 34% of women of color reported that current law firm diversity efforts place too little emphasis on the quality of the work environment or workplace culture, compared to 16% of white men and women. Not surprisingly, “Left Out & Left Behind,” authored by Paulette Brown, Destiny Peery, and Eileen Letts, found that most women of color leave or consider leaving the legal profession primarily due to feeling undervalued and experiencing barriers to advancement.
Treat DEI as a core value. Show the value of diversity throughout the firm. Work with clients to own the business case for diversity (diverse teams create better results!) and demonstrate this value to everyone in leadership. Leaders must assess the firm’s diversity and inclusion goals and performance in order to remedy the negative impacts of remote work, and not just assume that everyone has adjusted to the “new normal.”
Cultivate sponsorships and mentorships for diverse attorneys. Law firm leadership must be proactive about helping diverse attorneys access mentorships and take on leadership roles - and not just add these on top of their existing workload.
Provide continued training and education. There is no secret sauce to maintaining diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Most organizations will need to use multiple training methods, but employees at all levels should receive ongoing instruction on interrupting implicit bias.
Be flexible. Leadership must realistically assess pandemic-imposed burdens outside of work, and set reasonable goals and expectations of an employee’s performance metrics. Be respectful to the attorneys who are juggling family responsibilities and regularly examine caseloads and billable hour requirements. Post-pandemic, make sure to provide these attorneys with growth opportunities alongside those who have fewer family obligations.
Keep the conversation going. Conversations about race and gender bias can be uncomfortable, but avoiding these important issues is a recipe for disaster. Law firm leaders should create space for open conversation to share diverse attorneys’ experiences, and for new initiatives that arise from these necessary conversations.
Attorneys and staff can also help to maintain diversity, equity, and inclusion in a remote working environment. Reach across your screen to stay connected with partners and colleagues. Learn new areas of law that may impact clients due to the pandemic, and find growth opportunities to provide better client service. If law firms listen to diverse voices and bring them to the table, there are unique opportunities for law firms to emerge from the downturn stronger and more resilient.
How to Achieve Gender Parity in Your Firm’s Senior Leadership
Women have entered the legal profession in significant numbers since the 1970s, and have made up half of law school classes for decades. Yet, only 4% of managing partners are women. Why do legal organizations fail to promote and retain more women in senior leadership?
An ABA study shows that women are four to eight times more likely to be overlooked for advancement, denied salary increases, and deprived of business development opportunities. In response, the ABA has promulgated Model Rule 8.4(g), which states that it is professional misconduct to “engage in conduct that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is…discrimination on the basis of…sex…in conduct related to the practice of law.” The ABA has set this as their mission statement for state disciplinary authority to adopt.
Step 1: Gather Information. There are many kinds of biases at play in law firms - affinity bias, gender bias, and more. Learn about your biases so you can address them.
Step 2: Use Blind Auditions. Find ways to exclude identification on written documents that may be used for hiring and employee promotion discussions. While you may be taking steps to address your bias, removing the opportunity for bias to arise is even better.
Step 3: Slow Down. Slow thinking helps to ensure that decisions are more logical, rational, and careful - and it gives you time to notice and address any implicit biases. When making hiring, promotion, and compensation decisions, and when formally evaluating employees, slow down your thinking and decision-making. Once you’ve arrived at a decision - take another day. And check in with your peers, mentors, and subordinates, who may catch things you miss.
Step 4: Eliminate Discretion. Discretion allows subjectivity into the picture, which is when biases emerge. Legal organizations should limit the amount of discretion that leadership is given in decision-making. This means evaluations should be made based on predetermined criteria that can be measured objectively - and can be blinded, as in Step 2.
Step 5: Permit Flexible Schedules. Women are generally still taking on heavier burdens of childcare, elder care, and other domestic responsibilities than their male counterparts. Flexible schedules can allow attorneys to manage their personal lives, which has been shown to enhance productivity.
Step 6: Focus on Small Wins. Achieving a long-term goal should be taken one step at a time. One small step at a time can move mountains. Set small goals on a consistent basis so you can measure the progress you are making toward achieving gender equity in your organization.
Step 7: Enlist Male Allies. Gender diversity efforts are not a zero-sum game, and men have to be part of the conversation and solution. Working towards gender equity in senior leadership will benefit the whole organization, and male allies will recognize and promote this goal.