It’s common knowledge that the legal industry has fallen short of expectations when it comes to Diversity and Inclusion (also known as D&I) and, unless addressed properly, there’s little hope that this travesty will change in the near future. For this failure to be rectified, law firm diversity and inclusion should be emphasized and new measures taken by the entire legal industry to improve their foundation.

A quick perusal of the latest NALP Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms shows that while there were minor improvements in some areas, there is still much work to be done. The percentage of associates of color is only 26.48%. Black associates are just now getting past 5% for the first time, ever. Black women associates are even lower at 3.04% and they’re the lowest represented sector in partners, making up less than 1%. 

With the help of organizations such as the ABA, a new focus on D&I is being spread across the country and more law firms are implementing diversity and inclusion policies than ever. 

For some, they’re addressing their foundational principles and asking questions such as, “What is racial bias?” for the first time since establishing their practice. By partnering with outside counsel and working with 3rd parties, individuals within the legal industry are gaining fresh perspectives and setting into practice new strategies for D&I. 

What is racial bias?

Racial bias refers to the automatic association people make between groups of people and stereotypes about those groups. This unconscious prejudice has even infiltrated institutions and the effects can be seen in the legal industry despite the presence of nondiscriminatory policies or standards. The key to addressing this bias is first acknowledging its existence and then defining strategies to overcome it. 

Six strategies for mmproving law firm diversity and inclusion

Now that the inevitability of racial bias has been acknowledged, the best way to address it is by implementing best practices and strategies for eliminating it within your organization. These strategies work best when established and fully adopted across all levels of a law firm, and especially when exemplified at the senior level.

1. Face the facts head on by reviewing data

Before any new practices or policies can be established, it’s crucial to thoroughly examine the data of one’s organization. By dissecting a firm’s data, one is able to identify areas where diversity and inclusion are lacking. Does the desire to be more inclusive show in the people the firm is hiring? This applies to associates and staff. What about the cases that are being taken on and the organizations the firm is affiliated with? 

By analyzing this data one is able to see what’s working and what’s not. This will help an organization set D&I goals and have a way to measure them in the future. Make these numbers and goals transparent in the organization so all individuals fully understand the intentions moving forward. 

2. Establish commitment to diversity & inclusion at the foundation

When it comes to law firm diversity, the commitment should be obvious from the mission statement to hiring policies. Now is the time to re-examine the foundational values and statements to ensure they align with the new focus. Establish and implement policies, practices, and procedures that will help the organization identify areas where D&I has suffered in the past and how it will be addressed in the future. 

These newly defined core values and mission statements should be committed to by all in the law firm, including the partners and general counsel. If these individuals aren’t demonstrating this commitment to D&I, there’s little hope that others will. After all, an organization’s culture is established at the higher levels and trickles down to hired staff and admin. Be sure that the firm has everyone’s buy-in for the best outcome. 

3. Make newly established goals transparent and apparent

A law firm’s commitment to D&I is something that should never be kept in confidence. To be fair and equitable to all, the goals for pursuing D&I must be transparent and apparent. Make them visible and clear to everyone within the department, around the organization, and the firm’s outside partners. 

As metrics are developed to track progress, update all departments on the outcome and establish new goals moving forward. This transparency will benefit the entire organization and keep diversity and inclusion at the forefront for all involved. 

4. Conduct ongoing training

Dictating an organization’s D&I goals isn’t enough to truly achieve racial equity within one’s law firm. Rather, ongoing training of associates and staff should be conducted to ensure that everyone is aware of the presence of bias and understands how to address it. Informal training can be beneficial and will encourage conversation among the team making everyone more comfortable with the subject and the new policies. 

5. Work with 3rd parties to promote law firm diversity and inclusion

In addition to improving the environment within the walls of a law firm, it’s also imperative to form partnerships and working relationships with third parties that will support the firm’s commitment to D&I. These organizations may include industry interest groups, industry peers, or bar associations. 

The ABA and many national, state, and local bar associations have designated diversity committees that help promote and establish diversity among their members. They also help advance the careers for legal professionals within given categories such as DRBA, NAWL, and HNBA by providing financial support and promoting their initiatives. 

Law firms committed to D&I have the opportunity to work alongside 3rd parties such as these to further encourage minorities to enter and grow their careers in the legal field. 

6. Be intentional when hiring

Finally, the legal industry must become more intentional in its hiring procedures. It’s not enough to contribute to the cause of D&I if the firm isn’t actively encouraging the hiring and promotion of minorities. By practicing racial equity when interviewing associates and staff, law firms are being part of the solution rather than just shedding light on the problem. 

Change can start with YOUR firm

Diversity and Inclusion is one area in which the legal industry has lagged for years. With the vast majority of attorneys being white males, the need for systemic change is apparent and critical. The key to this change is not only raising awareness of the issue but also being part of the solution. How is this done? By enacting new D&I-focused policies and procedures at the firm level across the nation in hopes that they’ll open the door to minorities and the ears of all involved.

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