The importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal industry.
Written by Mandy Price and Star Carter
The Current State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Legal Industry
When businesses talk about the importance of diversity in the workplace, it’s often with the purpose of creating a workforce that reflects the world around us rather than a homogenous team that thinks, acts, and performs the same. Diversity includes ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and socioeconomic background, among other differentiation points that inform an individual’s experience. Addressing these areas in the workplace impacts hiring and recruitment, workplace policies on parental leave, short- and long-term leave, cultural celebrations, and retention and promotion strategies.
While progress has been made in many areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, in the workplace, employees continue to express that they think most companies struggle to create the ideal workplace that has a sense of belonging. For progress to be made, words and actions must match, with more than good intentions driving the change for diversity in the workplace.
The legal field, like most professional service industry companies, has had its fair share of issues related to diversity over the years, from the number of diverse students enrolling and graduating from law school to new hires and promotions within firms of all sizes. A 2018 report on diversity1 from the National Association for Law Placement included the following stats:
The percentage of reported LGBT lawyers is 2.86%;
16% of lawyers in U.S. law firms identify as racial and ethnic minorities; representation of black associates in 2018 is below 2009 pre-recession levels at 4.48% (compared to 4.66% in 2009);
Reporting on lawyers with disabilities is minimal; and
35% of lawyers in U.S. law firms identify as women.
When you look at law firms, the stagnant progress of DEI efforts is crystallized when looking at the lack of diversity of the equity ranks of women and diverse attorneys. Identifying disparities of women and diverse attorneys in equity partnerships at law firms is considered one of the most important metrics for law firms in determining progress in DEI. In an analysis of partnerships in the U.S. at 148 two-tiered partnerships for the 2014 through 2018 fiscal years, The American Lawyer found that “minorities are joining the non-equity ranks at three times the rate of their white colleagues.”2 This statistic is disconcerting given that the power dynamics of the law firm belong to equity partners as they control all aspects of the law firm.
Current Approaches to DEI
Despite the overwhelming proof that having a robust and well-articulated DEI perspective positively influences policies, initiatives, hiring and promotion, and overall culture, there are still systematic failures when it comes to how well companies are doing on this front. Even though 96%-98% of companies have a DEI program, 75% of underrepresented employees do not feel like they have benefited from the programs, according to a Harvard Business Review study.3 That same study found that half of the diverse employees surveyed expressed that bias is part of their everyday work experience and half also said that their companies do not think their companies have “the right mechanisms in place to ensure that major decisions … are free from bias.”
Traditional approaches to DEI, including one-time annual trainings, hiring tests and performance reviews, and outdated systems for reporting incidents of discrimination that leave employees vulnerable to retaliation, inevitably fail. These programs fail to address not only the systematic disparities and interpersonal issues facing diverse employees, but they also end up being feel-good tactics that aren’t tied into business and personnel goals for the company. Studies have shown that trainings can even worsen expressed bias, rather than end it.4
While the legal industry is doing better than others in some areas of inclusion—a recent Kanarys survey on parental leave initiatives at the largest Dallas law firms found that 45% of law firms gave parental leave to attorneys from their first day at the job, among other benefits related to the needs of working parents—work remains to be done.5
Recommended Approaches to DEI and Incorporating
Since current DEI initiatives and programs are not providing measurable progress, it’s time for the legal industry to consider alternative approaches to DEI, including a shift from diversity numbers and metrics in annual reports to inclusive policies and leadership perspectives that in turn, change the focus to the policies and programs that are creating inequality in our workplaces. That inequality affects hiring, pay and promotion, and the everyday interactions that make up the experiences that aren’t captured by annual surveys. The truth is that all changes must start at the top. Companies and law firms that only dedicate a small team toward DEI or hire a DEI leader but don’t provide a support team, money, and latitude to make true changes are destined to earn the same results year after year. Fiduciary and personnel investments must be made for true change to happen. Businesses need leaders who are unafraid to budget toward DEI as they do research and development and professional development on an annual basis.
Once a company’s culture becomes inclusive, it flourishes with 360-view-listening-first approach rather than a top-down-hierarchical approach. If leaders don’t understand specifically how to make their teams feel valued, the cycle of poor results both in surveys and attrition outcomes continues. Value can come from pay, performance reviews, new opportunities, new hires, and retention. Hiring statistics are an entry point but true inclusion has no “end” as it involves the everyday experience of employees.
Finally, using technology designed to deliver insight is key to helping human resources and people managers understand the underlying issues at hand, rather than focusing on the individuals involved. In addition, technology can help companies create longitudinal views of their DEI work to see the long-term changes, improvements, and opportunities for growth.
As co-founders of Kanarys and as former Big Law lawyers, we launched the platform in 2019 in response to experiences that we had as working mothers of color at our previous firms. Incidents that included being called the company’s “diverse partner” and challenges experienced in trying to pump comfortably during the workday. Both of us knew that the gaps in DEI initiatives could be solved through thorough planning and getting beyond the emotions of DEI to the recurring and explainable issues that employees express when they’re able to speak anonymously without fear of retaliation. The Kanarys platform provides employers more than a 1-10 rating of how they’re doing in connection with DEI. Kanarys delivers qualitative and quantitative data through natural language processing and artifical intelligence to give next level insight that can shape how a company or firm plans and executes against its DEI goals. Employees and employers have the ability to meet at the table and solve issues, ultimately improving the workplace for all.
As the demographics of the country continue to become more diverse, American professional culture is shifting and employees are unafraid to make their needs known. DEI is the key to building a strong corporate culture and improving the bottom line.TBJ
is an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion as the CEO and co-founder of Kanarys, an online platform that allows companies to measure their performance against DEI benchmarks and identify areas of improvement and growth. Previously, Price served on the Women's Task Force at Barnes & Thornburg, as a member of the Diversity Committee at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and as the former president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association. She earned her juris doctorate from Harvard Law School and a bachelor of business administration from the University of Texas at Austin. She resides in Dallas with her husband and two children.
is an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion as the chief operating officer, general counsel, and co-founder of Kanarys, an online platform that helps organizations acquire and retain diverse talent and build more inclusive workplace cultures. Prior to joining Kanarys, Carter served as an associate counsel to Hudson Advisors, counsel to Sidley Austin, and as a senior associate in Weil Gotshal & Manges.