Despite the legal industry’s efforts to enhance diversity in its ranks, it still lags behind in reflecting the population as a whole.
In the U.S., more than 85% of lawyers are white, yet less than 60% of the U.S. population identifies as white. Meanwhile, even though 20% of law school graduates identify as persons of color, they represent just 10% of law firm equity partners and 12% of General Counsels at large corporations. The numbers for women are not much better. Women have comprised more than 50% of law school graduates for a number of years, but they represent only 23% of equity partners and 26% of Fortune 500 General Counsel.
So, how can the legal industry make better progress in driving and supporting successful diversity efforts?
Adopt the attitude that diversity in legal is a win
A workforce that is diverse is not only more equitable, it also yields better legal solutions for clients.
The legal industry is client-facing, so having a diverse workforce benefits your firm or corporation in that clients will be able to see that your staff represents the greater population. Diversity of ethnicities, races, ages, sexes, and gender expressions broadens the perspectives and ideas that teams can bring to bear to solve client problems—inspiring creativity and driving innovation. Alternatively, homogenous teams are less able to challenge one another with different views and experiences.
Ideally, teams should comprise a variety of people from different backgrounds, geographic locations, and experiences to come up with solutions that are well-rounded and well-thought-out for different types of clients.
Target affinity groups when recruiting legal talent
When recruiting legal talent, your firm or corporation can find a more diverse pool of job candidates by connecting with groups and organizations that represent diverse groups in the legal field. For instance, you could forge relationships with affinity associations that draw attorney members from the Black, African-American, LGBTQ+, Asian-American, and women communities, just to name a few.
If you handle recruiting in-house at your firm or organization, outreach can be as simple as extending a communication to those groups along with a sincere invitation to connect with their membership.
If you work with a legal talent staffing firm, ask about what affinity groups they regularly reach out to or are involved with. A good legal staffing organization will proactively recruit in places where diverse candidates are found, notify affinity groups about upcoming opportunities, and find you candidates you might otherwise not have reached.
Ask your legal talent provider for diverse legal applicants.
The effort to drive and support diversity becomes even more powerful when clients that understand the importance of recruiting diverse applicants set expectations with their talent providers. When a client makes clear that it expects to see a diverse slate of candidates, this ensures that both parties are working toward the same goal.
Look deeper into legal candidates’ job experiences.
While law school rankings and GPAs are undeniably valuable attributes, digging deeper into an applicant’s story could potentially reveal a good match for your firm or corporation.
Evaluating a resume based on bullet points that meet the specifications for an assignment is one way to select a talented lawyer. But you also should spend some time evaluating how an applicant’s other experiences might translate into a great fit for the job.
For example, consider an applicant’s work history both before and during law school. Although most law school students are discouraged from working full-time jobs while matriculating, some students may maintain full-time jobs while attending a part-time law school program. When evaluating a candidate, consider that this characteristic may demonstrate an applicant’s dedication, tenacity, maturity, or ability to effectively multi-task.
Accept discomfort while reaching for diversity in legal.
Increasing diversity requires an openness and commitment from the top down, including a financial commitment to assessing needs and implementing changes.
This typically involves analyzing metrics, conducting surveys of employees, and perhaps hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant to help implement changes.
This kind of work requires personal and professional introspection, and reconsideration of past actions and ways of thinking. It involves asking questions of every leader and every employee in the organization. This kind of introspective work can feel a little uncomfortable. Be open to and accept the possibility of some discomfort and commit to pushing past it.
Mentor someone: Legal mentorship matters
American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman once said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
In other words, lawyers, especially minorities, can help empower the younger generation to expand what they see as possible by being role models. Consider volunteering to mentor a student or speak at a school or organization that helps introduce the legal field to young minorities.
Mentorships can be formal or informal. Some firms or corporations may have a structured program that you can participate in. Or you could start a mentor relationship with a young person at your organization or whom you meet elsewhere.
There are also outside mentorship programs for the legal industry specifically. For example, the Georgia State University College of Law hosts the Justice Robert Benham Law Camp, sponsored by the Gate City Bar Association, which exposes high school students to the practice of law. The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity offers a mentoring program to law students in 33 cities across the U.S. Outside the U.S., the Law Society of England and Wales developed a mentoring program to help support women and minorities interested in seeking leadership roles at their firms.
There’s much work to be done to ensure the individuals who make up the legal profession reflect the diversity of the general population – but the work is worth doing. Embracing diversity strengthens an organization, adding to its success and ability to deliver excellent, creative legal advice.