The legal profession is one of the least diverse in the US, despite the commitment to rectify this in recent years. According to figures or the National Association of Law Placement, in 2019, less than one in five equity partners in law firms were female, and only 6.6% were from an ethnic minority.
Reports indicate that the more diverse and inclusive a workplace is, the more productive and better its turnover is. So, how much are we doing to encourage diversity in the legal profession?
The pipeline was supposed to fuel diversity
For years, the lack of diversity was assumed to stem from the pipeline. However, as graduation rates between men and women have equalized for more than four decades, the disproportion between genders remains. As far as racial diversity is concerned, law firms still don’t reflect one-fifth of law school graduates, especially in upper-level positions.
Often, socio-economic factors mean that fewer people in minority groups can access educational opportunities. In addition, the high cost of pursuing a degree certainly does their access to a successful career path.
Bias and lack of opportunities
Research highlights how bias impacts women, people of color, the disabled, and members of the LGBTQ community in law firms. Often firms say that bias is unconscious and not implicit, but people from these groups are subject to explicit acts of sexism or racism when making staffing decisions. They also have less access to mentors.
One study showed that partners in a law firm rated memos higher if they believed White associates drew them up. But, conversely, they felt that the memo lacked authority if they thought a Black team member drew it up.
Women in law firms also face the problem of a lack of support. In addition, it is deemed that these groups of legal professionals are at a disadvantage because of a lack of networking opportunities.
Progress in the field
Since there is more than one reason for the lack of diversity, there are a few practical actions that law firms have taken to reduce unconscious bias and systemic racism and sexism, and law firm structures.
Diversity training can help to reduce these types of biases that stem from stereotypes. However, they also need to look at the problem of self-assessment bias, which is very prominent among these groups, who tend to rate themselves lower in skill-related surveys.
There are various programs available to allow people from disadvantaged social backgrounds to access law school and pursue a career in law. These include financial aid, outreach programs, and internal training opportunities. However, the onus to make this help available lies on legal professionals.
More and more law firms across America are denouncing the lack of diversity and racial inequality. However, necessary change requires aggressive systemic changes. Therefore, it is up to law firms to review their policies and practices.
Unfortunately, many law firms prefer to hide that they are “unique,” saying that law firms are different from other businesses. It is no excuse for some law firms to continue insisting that they require a specific talent pool that is highly trained. Encouraging law firms to think out of the box and engage in creativity will ensure they cultivate organizations that can serve a diverse population. After all, various legal teams are more capable of highlighting issues faced by their respective groups.
Finally, the Mansfield Rule is a program created by Diversity Lab, and legal firms can sign up. It provides metrics for legal organizations to increase diversity with a pool of at least 30 percent of attorneys of color, women, LGBTQ+, and disabilities in leadership roles, for equity partner promotions, etc.
Retaining and promoting the best talent means that law firms must fully address all diversity. This not only starts from within but also with their clients. Once outside counsel demands accountability, law firms will have the added motivation to implement it. Unfortunately, these people pay, and legal firms have no choice but to fall over backward to please them.