What Does the Future of Legal Diversity Look Like?
Legal diversity is a fairly self-explanatory term. While diversity can mean something different to different people, the concept fundamentally includes persons of every background, gender, age, race, sexual orientation, and/or disability.
The sad truth is, according to the American Bar Association, the legal profession has historically been one of the least diverse professions in the US – and according to a recent survey they conducted, it continues to be so today. Why does this matter?
As they explain, we should care about legal diversity because:
“…racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession is necessary to demonstrate that our laws are being made and administered for the benefit of all persons. Because the public’s perception of the legal profession often informs impressions of the legal system, a diverse bar and bench create greater trust in the rule of law.”
This goes beyond just the public’s confidence in the legal system. Both legal services and legal decisions are affected by the level of diversity in the system. It also brings up the question of fair representation. To take it a step further, diversity fosters creativity, and lowers the risk of making decisions that are steeped in unconscious (or conscious) bias.
Where are we today?
Let’s take a quick look at a few telling statistics:
- 96% of participating firms currently have a diversity committee – of those, 92% include management representation
- Law firms are hiring and promoting more women and people of color than a decade ago, but the level of diversity still reduces drastically as you move up the leadership ladder.
- 47% of associates are female, and 27% are people of color.
- Yet 75% of law firm partners are male, and 89% are Caucasian.
- 41% of partners promoted in 2019 were women, and 17% were people of color. Yet among males, 53% of Caucasian men are partners, and only 24% of men of color are partners. Among females, 32% of Caucasian women are partners, and just 17% of women of color are partners.
Clearly, in terms of legal diversity, we aren’t quite where we should be…yet.
On January 1st, 2020, there were 1,328,692 active lawyers in the U.S., which is about 10% more than the past decade. However, this increase doesn’t reflect much of a growth in diversity. The predominant drivers of this increase were white men and (to a lesser extent) white women.
Between 2009 and 2016, for instance, the percentage of female lawyers increased by less than one percent. That’s a little disheartening for a span of seven years. In 2007, 4% of attorneys identified as African-American and 4% as Hispanic – ten years later, both of those numbers were only at 5% each, despite the fact that African-Americans now made up 13.3% of the population, and Hispanics, 17.8%.
This disparity is even more obvious when you look at the top of the legal ladder. According to the 2019 Vault/MCCA (Minority Corporate Counsel Association) Law Firm Diversity Survey, “Sixteen percent of the partners promoted in 2018 are attorneys of color, compared to 14 percent in 2017. Minority attorneys now represent 10 percent of all partners and 9 percent of equity partners.” On the bright side, this is a significant increase over minority representation among partners in previous years.
Clearly, progress is slow. Which leads us beautifully into our next point – any progress should be beneficial, yes?
The dangers of slow progress in legal diversity?
As we mentioned before, it’s not just that legal diversity is beneficial – a lack of diversity can actually be detrimental to society as a whole.
Social and individual human inequalities
Lack of diversity can cause significant bias in a firm’s operations as a whole. As the University of Pennsylvania puts it, “Diversity and inequality result from physical environments and human physiological features interacting with economic, political, cultural and social institutions and practices in complex ways, involving historical as well as contemporary forces.”
If your firm is composed largely of a single socioeconomic group, chances are high that there are inequalities that may not even be recognized due to a lack of diversity. Certain risks or inequities require a varied set of eyes and experiences to be properly discerned and addressed.
Business value creation remains untapped
This stands true for not just legal diversity, but any organization – there are numerous benefits to having diversity and inclusion initiatives in any organization. One of the major advantages is creativity and innovation – diversity breeds creativity. If your organization consists of people from largely similar backgrounds, odds are you’ll find similar approaches to any challenges that may arise.
According to the 2018 study Delivering through Diversity by McKinsey:
“The relationship between diversity and business performance persists. The statistically significant correlation between a more diverse leadership team and financial outperformance demonstrated three years ago continues to hold true on an updated, enlarged, and global data set.”
This reflects on different aspects of diversity too – a few more nuggets from the same study?
- Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.
- Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability.
Clearly, having diversity higher up the ladder has a huge impact on profitability and business value creation – and this is not a new realization.
In some regions, regulators are testing the waters when it comes to pushing for diversity in regulated sectors like financial services. U.K. regulators, for instance, are looking at the possibilities of eventually making diversity reporting mandatory. Someday, regularly reporting you have a diverse organization may be a matter of law, with attendant penalties for noncompliance.
Steps to improve future legal diversity
There are various approaches you can take to start improving the legal diversity in your organization, so you can create a future where DEI is an everyday business reality, not a hoped-for goal. These are some of the more prevalent steps being taken by legal departments to to start diversifying:
Take a top-down approach
As you begin to look at the many changes you can make, pay special attention to leadership roles. Hiring diverse candidates is, of course, a necessary step, but stand back and evaluate the composition of your legal leadership team and see what may be lacking there.
Implement dedicated mentoring programs
Many organizations choose to implement diversity mentorship programs that help you create an inclusive atmosphere. They support diverse populations in terms of career growth, and can improve diversity in leadership roles by establishing clear career paths for certain demographics. They also provide a network of support and knowledge for employees.
Attract and retain diverse candidates
As you hire more diverse candidates, your pool of applicants naturally becomes wider. As your reputation as a diverse and inclusive legal department grows, you’re more likely to attract top talent that is drawn in by your DEI programs.
While diversity helps with employee retention among all industries, this is a specific problem in the legal industry. In fact, female and attorney of color leave their firms at a disproportionately high rate:
- Women of color represented less than 10% of all attorneys but over 13% of attorneys who left their firms in 2019
- African American/Black attorneys represented under 4% of all attorneys but nearly 6% of attorney departures
- Asian American attorneys represented less than 8% of all attorneys but over 10% of departures
Measure diversity success
Without the proper use of metrics, there’s no way to understand if your diversity efforts are truly making a difference. Make sure you are defining meaningful diversity and inclusion metrics, and track your progress regularly.