How to Improve Diversity in Law Firms: Cultivate a Culture

As two men of color who have spent more than 20 years each in the legal industry, we have long known that leadership in the legal profession woefully lacks diversity.

Although African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans constitute over a third of the U.S. population, Bloomberg Law’s 2021 DEI Framework study reveals that nine out of 10 top law firm leaders are White, and 81% are male. Practice heads and department leaders do not fare much differently: Only 27% are White women, 6% are minority men, and 4% are minority women.

Our legal system is predicated on applying just and equitable laws fairly to every person. The law firm leaders we know— most of whom are not from diverse backgrounds—agree wholeheartedly that the lack of diversity at all levels in our profession hinders that goal. But touting diversity without tasking, measuring, and incentivizing law firm leadership ensures that we continue the status quo, with each new year’s surveys showing the same lack of diversity in law firm leadership.

Well-intentioned law firm leaders who hire a smattering of younger diverse lawyers into a firm where leadership is not diverse, dedicated, and incentivized to grow and maintain a diverse workforce often find that those diverse attorneys feel isolated, unheard, and unsupported, and eventually leave the firm. Law firm leaders are likely to then struggle to refill those same few diverse spots with new diverse lawyers, and the cycle begins again.

Instead, to break that cycle, we must hire not just one or two diverse lawyers or promote just one or two to token leadership positions, but hire and make meaningful opportunities available to a critical mass of diverse lawyers so that they can be promoted, and cultivate a culture where diverse lawyers can thrive and become leaders themselves.

The Challenge: Dramatically Increasing Hiring

We want to make clear that finding and recruiting diverse candidates is not easy, and is not cheap. Law firm leaders, partners, and recruiting departments already know how to find the same small number of diverse candidates year in and year out. The challenge now is to figure out how to dramatically increase those diverse hires.

First, we strongly recommend that firms partner with Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) law schools such as Howard University School of Law, Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, and Florida A&M University College of Law, though a number of top law firms are already doing that. But in addition, we know that fishing in the same pond yields the same fish, and many law firms that we know recruit from the same top 10 schools (typically the schools where current law firm leaders attended), which means that every large law firm is fighting for the same small number of diverse candidates.

Is it expensive or does it require significantly more non-billable time for partners to recruit from, say, twice as many schools as you recruited from last year? Yes, it is, and this is money and time that all law firms should be spending. The result will be a larger pool of strong diverse candidates.

Second, to find a diverse set of legal professionals at all levels, law firm leaders themselves—not just the firms’ recruiting professionals—need to network with diverse bar organizations, including, among others, the California Minority Counsel Program, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the National Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and attend their conferences, galas, and meetings.

Show the people in the room that your firm cares enough about diversity to send its top people. Impress the diverse lawyers in the room that you care enough to take the time out to focus on recruiting a diverse workforce. Of course, this is non-billable time for law firm leaders. Your firm should commit to rewarding partners for time spent recruiting diverse candidates from a wider array of schools.

Third, provide incentives to current employees to recommend and refer lawyers from diverse backgrounds, above and beyond your existing referral bonuses. How often have you asked your current employees—both your legal and business professionals—to consider referring someone to the firm?

Has your recruiting department asked people in person, or just via an impersonal email? Putting in a little more effort to source candidates internally can result in some great diverse hires.

Implement Diverse Hiring Panels

A diverse hiring team can also ensure that diverse recruits feel comfortable that they will fit in at your firm. Make sure that each candidate meets with a number of people from different backgrounds at each step of the interview process.

This simple step has been shown to improve diversity hiring; for example, at Intel, diversity among new hires increased from 31% to 45% after the company required diverse interview panels.

Measure, Track, Be Accountable to the Firm and Clients

Finally, it is crucial to set goals, track metrics, and meet regularly to disclose and evaluate the results of your initiative to diversify your legal team. Consider not only sharing your diversity hiring and promotion goals, and results internally, but also publishing goals and results on your firm’s website.

Everyone at the law firm—not just those on a diversity committee—should know and understand the firm’s diversity initiatives so that everyone is dedicated and incentivized to hire and work with diverse teams.

The time is now to build diverse legal teams and promote diverse legal professionals to leadership positions. We look forward to working at, and with, law firms that reflect the true makeup of our nation.

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

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Author Information

Arvin Patel is the chief operating officer for Invention Investment Funds at Intellectual Ventures.

Jonathan K. Waldrop is a partner and the head of the Intellectual Property group at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP.

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