Law Firm Diversity: Sell the Effort, Not the Results
Before we dive into the topic of diversity awards, we would like you to answer the question below.
Take note of the information you relied on to answer the question above. Was it independent research? Or, rather, was it a social media post or news article that you read? For most of our readers, we hypothesize that (potentially skewed) market signals were used to answer the poll above.
What signals, you ask? You may read an article about a law firm’s receipt of an award in appreciation of its diversity efforts. You may also hear news that a law firm has taken some action to promote diversity in the legal profession (for example, the launch of an anti-racism initiative with the nation of Wakanda). Law firms may also use social media to flood the market with signals that convey that they have a received a diversity “stamp of approval” (for lack of a better phrase). Similar to a produce manufacturer that touts being “certified organic,” a law firm may broadcast that is “certified diverse” by reference to receipt of a certification or other metric.
Given the prevalence of these market signals, we would not be surprised if the results of the poll above suggest that racial diversity trends have been improving over the past several years. When looking at hard data, however, what do we observe?
Diversity Among Equity Partner Ranks
Unfortunately, very little has changed over the last several years, at least when looking at racial diversity among equity partner ranks. The bar chart race below suggests the following patterns:
- Hispanic / Latinx representation among Equity Partners has stayed within a tight range over the past several years (low of 2.42%, high of 3.12%).
- African American / Black representation among Equity Partners dipped below 2% in 2017, and has only barely beat this mark as of 2021.
- Asian representation among Equity Partners has not surpassed 2015 levels.
Selling the Effort, Not the Results
You may be wondering why there is such a disconnect between the signals we receive about US law firms (i.e., that they have a diversity “stamp of approval”) when the hard data seems to tell a completely different story. Below we provide a few reasons that may explain why this contrast continues.
- Fear of negative branding. In order to compete for diverse talent, a law firm may not want to be seen as not caring about diversity — despite what the hard data would reveal. When a law firm’s diversity statistics do not convey that it cares about diversity, a law firm may consider resorting to the next best signal: diversity efforts.
- Bridging the Gap. A law firm may have decided to make significant institutional changes to promote racial diversity and hold senior leadership accountable for change. Law firm management may find it valuable to broadcast these institutional changes before they are reflected in (presumably improved) diversity statistics.
- A cynic’s view. The more that the market focuses on diversity efforts, the less time there will be to focus on (potentially unattractive) diversity numbers.
While we anticipate existing trends will continue (i.e., unsatisfactory racial diversity numbers and continued broadcasting of diversity efforts), we would like to highlight a few points for our readers.
While diversity awards have value, they are far from a good proxy of a law firm’s attitude towards diversity. We encourage our readers to ask challenging questions of law firm leadership, including the following:
- Of those individuals that lead a management committee, office, or other senior group of the firm, what percentage of those are underrepresented (in terms of race, gender, and other attributes)?
- Out of all of the speakers that the firm hires to come to speak to the firm, to what extent are these speakers diverse? How do these numbers change when removing DEI speakers from the equation?
- Does the firm require periodic DEI training for all attorneys and staff?
- Does the firm hold senior leadership accountable (financially or otherwise) with respect to diversity goals? If so, how?
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