What Does the Future of Diversity Hold for Law Firms?

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking at Legalweek 2018. The conference, sponsored by ALM, is a re-imagining of LegalTech, an industry conference that began in 1982. Its new incarnation, Legalweek, started in 2017 and now includes sub-conferences focused on parts of the legal industry beyond technology. One of those conferences is Legal Diversity and Talent Management (LDTM).

LDTM featured speaker panels from various sectors — law firms, companies, startups, bar associations and government. Being surrounded by legal innovation and discussions of the future of our industry, it was inevitable that LDTM focused on the future of diversity in that industry as well.

Five Thoughts on Legal Diversity’s Future

How can law firms engage with that future? Here are five things I learned.

1. Recognize that clients are demanding diversity progress from law firms. ABA Resolution 113. The Mansfield Rule. The HP Diversity Mandate. Each of these applies client pressure on law firms to increase lawyer diversity. Over and over again, panelists hammered home that clients can run the show when it comes to improving diversity at law firms. One lawyer told a story of leaving a daylong pitch session when the pitching law firm presented only male attorneys. The lawyer challenged the firm to do better on diversity. The next day, the same firm and the same practice group presented a far more diverse roster of attorneys. Panelists also cautioned that law firms should do more than simply have diverse attorneys show up at the pitch. Clients want to see that those diverse lawyers are staffed on the matter and that they do quality work on that matter, too.

2. Firms should use more diversity competencies. These days, law firms are laser-focused on competencies — the specific knowledge, skills and abilities attorneys need to succeed at every level of their career. LDTM panelists encouraged law firms to use competencies when it comes to diversity. If the firm wants its lawyers to be more inclusive and culturally competent, it needs to outline how precisely its lawyers are going to achieve that. What specific results does the firm want? What are the tasks that need to be done? How many of those tasks should a lawyer do per year? What are the routes to achieve that? Examples included sponsoring or attending two diversity-related conferences per year, taking minority attorneys to three business development opportunities, and engaging in four directed feedback sessions with minority attorneys.

3. Millennials have some good ideas, too. Maybe I’m biased because I was a millennial speaking about millennials on a millennial panel. However, it is always worth noting that what millennials want and what lawyers of all generations want are not necessarily opposed. Millennials are well-known for seeking more work-life balance, flexible work arrangements, greater transparency, alternative career tracks, and perks other than an end-of-year bonus. Those are all benefits that other generations — Gen Xers, baby boomers and the soon-to-arrive Generation Y — want as well.

4. Start using metrics to measure diversity success. Since we were in a future law-focused space, the conversation inevitably turned to data and the importance of acquiring it. Law firm leaders need to do more than measure the number of their diversity initiatives and list them on their website or annual report. Instead, they need to measure and demonstrate the impact of those initiatives. As the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Without metrics, it’s hard to say you’ve moved the needle on diversity.

5. Bias matters. Every LDTM panel had one common theme: If we want to improve diversity and inclusion, we must keep addressing implicit bias. Implicit bias comes into play in recruiting, hiring, training, mentoring, promoting, and on and on. (My organization recognizes that, which is why we created a free diversity e-learning module on implicit bias in the legal workplace.) Law firms need to recognize the biases inherent in their systems and explicitly work to correct them. This includes:

  • Addressing what assignments are given

  • Discussing which partners are working with which associates and why

  • Articulating competencies and promotion expectations

  • Providing candid and real-time feedback from supervising attorneys

Law firms need to take on that challenge. Otherwise, we’ll be right back here in 10 years talking about the same issues in diversity and inclusion.

What other trends are you seeing in diversity and inclusion? What tips would you share with law firms that are navigating the space?

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