Work + Growth

The Best Ways to Improve Diversity and Inclusion at Law Firms

  • The complex reasons that law firms lack female and minority representation can be addressed by taking specific steps, such as unconscious bias training and increasing transparency and objective criteria for advancement
  • Retention is one of the biggest diversity issues firms face; engagement and inclusion helps lawyers want to stay
  • Studies show diverse teams tend to be more successful, so robust diversity programs are a win-win for lawyers and firms alike

The complex reasons for the lack of female and minority representation in the law have been increasingly explored over the past decade.

We know that prestigious law firms recruit almost exclusively from law schools that fit within a narrow set of parameters, usually Ivy League organizations, which leaves a lot of groups out, including those who attend historically black universities, for example. We also know that women and minorities have lower attrition rates than white men, often due to low mobility opportunities, reportedly unwelcoming environments, unequal pay rates, and lack of access to informal networking and advancement channels. Now how can we fix it?

Look Past Recruitment

It’s great to recruit from a diverse pool, but it means very little if a firm can’t retain people. For a lasting shift to take hold, the way firms are organized needs to change. Implementing unconscious bias training is one way to effect change that will be seen in various areas of the workplace. This type of training will help people become more aware of their own unconscious biases and give them tools to make decisions that bypass those biases.

The types of changes that have been shown to garner positive results include:

  • Setting up clear channels and requirements for equitable work distribution, client-facing work, and increasing responsibilities.
  • Transparency built into the compensation process, as well as having a diverse compensation committee.
  • When rules are bent or steps are skipped for any reason, those deviations should be documented and justified.
  • Performance review systems must be created with objectivity and equal application in mind.
  • Objective, fair systems to allocate credit and calculate billing.

Engagement and Inclusion Leads to Retention

Engagement and inclusion mean that people from different backgrounds feel seen and valued, and see a path for advancement and success. Those who are in the majority often don’t understand how much mental and psychological energy it takes to navigate an environment as the “different” one who must contend with often conflicting assumptions and expectations from the majority in-group, or even simply fight being ignored. Imagine how much more effective lawyers who are able to alleviate that burden must be.

Inclusion needs to be baked into a firm’s inner workings at every level. From associates to partners—as well as support staff—everyone should receive education, training, and new ways of operating to ensure that attention and opportunity is given to those in underrepresented groups. To have those in positions of power completely on board, actively advocating for and purposely listening to women and minorities, goes a long way towards turning firm culture in a more inclusive direction.

What ways have you fostered an inclusive environment in your office?

Use Both Mentoring and Sponsorship Programs

Women and attorneys of color often cite a lack of guidance when they list their reasons for leaving big firms. Formal mentoring and sponsorship programs can assist those who are less likely to find informal mentoring options. Attorneys in senior positions often choose to mentor people who look like them, thus continuing the cultivation of predominantly white males. Mentoring and sponsorship programs should be created so that partners are working with people who don’t look just like them whenever feasible.

Sponsorship, which differs from mentorship in that it involves a person of power advocating for a newer lawyer, can be especially helpful. A mentor may help guide, give advice about the firm’s particulars, and be a sounding board; a sponsor can be an invaluable asset in getting their assignee key opportunities and advocating for her behind the scenes with other higher-ups.

It’s important that any steps taken are not simply superficial ones. For instance, including one woman or one racial minority in a pitch team when the actual working team will be a homogenous group of men is not a true step forward nor an accurate reflection of a firm’s inner workings. Practices must be put into place that avoid only the appearance of diversity to satisfy clients or check a box.

Studies show that diverse teams tend to be more successful, so it is in every firm’s best interest to cultivate candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Diversity does not simply happen naturally. Attention to detail and a willingness to do things differently for the good of everyone involved—the clients, the lawyers, and the firm as a whole—is key.