Diversity Fatigue—Is the Alphabet Soup of Legal Diversity Organizations Helping or Hurting?

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I pride myself on being an upbeat, optimistic, get-it-done kind of person who more often than not can find the bright spot in any situation no matter how dire. Even practicing law for 13 years failed to instill in me the skeptical, almost pessimistic outlook many lawyers seem to embrace. But, lately, I have to admit, after six-plus years of being a diversity and inclusion practitioner in a major law firm, I am starting to feel a bit fatigued. The fatigue arises from the slow progress we are making in diversifying the legal profession and the sheer amount of work that remains to be done. Mainly, I find traces of skepticism beginning to emerge as I think about the plethora of diversity and inclusion organizations that have developed over the last few years to “improve” the status quo. I am beginning to wonder if these organizations can accomplish what they set out to do in the current silos within which they seem to operate.

As a diversity practitioner who is also in charge of talent management at my firm, I see my job as creating an environment that provides the resources and tools for our very talented lawyers to flourish in their careers—however they define that. I want to ensure that all of the lawyers in my firm have enough billable work that is challenging and allows them to develop the competencies and skill sets they need to progress in the firm, are being mentored by powerful partners who are capable of influencing the trajectory of their careers, and are ultimately moving up through the ranks into leadership positions so that those who are following in their footsteps can intuit that success is possible. However, somewhere along the road, this mission (as I have defined it) has been muddled by the need to wade through a lot of other diversity muck that involves sponsoring galas and conferences, vying for awards and accolades, and hopefully getting some continuing legal education in the process.

It has become a nearly full-time job for most diversity practitioners to keep up with the purpose and progress of the myriad of legal diversity organizations and how our law firms, our teams, and the attorneys who we are charged with developing can and should take advantage of their services. The legal diversity world, in my opinion, has devolved into an alphabet soup of competing interests. If we are not careful and if these organizations don’t begin to collaborate more effectively, we certainly run a high risk of ending up doing more harm than good in the long run.

To be fair, each of these organizations has a laudable mission with focused goals and action steps designed to achieve those goals. Just a quick scan of the websites of these organizations along with the multiple emails from them currently sitting in my Outlook inbox demonstrate this. For example:

  • The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) was “founded in 1997 to advance the hiring, retention, and promotion of diverse attorneys in legal departments and the law firms that serve them. MCCA accomplishes its mission through the collection and dissemination of information about diversity in the legal profession.” MCCA’s seminal Pathways research has been instrumental in providing strategies for legal businesses to improve their workplaces to be more inclusive for ethnic and racial minorities. Moreover, MCCA partnered with Vault to create a comprehensive annual diversity survey for law firms in an effort to have one, uniform survey to be utilized by outside counsel in evaluating the diversity progress of law firms.
  • The Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) is a non-profit institution at the University of California Hastings College of The Law whose hallmark “is to provide high-quality academic research to produce pragmatic solutions to business needs.” PAR has been a leader in linking gender equality with business mandates by promoting a comprehensive approach to increasing diversity and flexibility in the legal profession.
  • The Center for Legal Inclusiveness (CLI), formerly known as the Colorado Campaign for Inclusive Excellence, is also a non-profit, which is “dedicated to advancing diversity in the legal profession by actively educating and supporting private and public sector legal organizations in their own individual campaigns to create cultures of inclusion.” CLI developed an Inclusiveness Manual, an innovative online resource for legal organizations seeking to take diversity to the next level. Moreover, CLI offers intensive training on the fundamentals of inclusiveness via its Inclusiveness Institute.
  • The Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (ALFDP) is a not-for-profit association of law firm professionals founded in 2006. ALFDP’s mission is “to act as a catalyst for the advancement of diversity in the legal profession through collective knowledge, vision, expertise and advocacy in the arena of law firm diversity.” ALFDP partners with the National Association for Legal Professionals (NALP) to offer an annual diversity summit that explores cutting edge issues in the diversity and inclusion arena.
  • The Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP) is a multidisciplinary organization whose Board members hail from academia, government, and public service, law firms, and include bar associates, corporate in-house lawyers as well as non-lawyers. IILP “takes a real-world, common-sense approach that aims to acknowledge, understand, and address the reality of diversity in today’s legal profession.” IILP’s seminal research project was “The Business Case for Diversity,” a report concluding that while the business case for diversity is not dead, what it means and what expectations flow from it differ dramatically from one group of stakeholders to the next. Recently, in an innovative step, the IILP wrote to the American Bar Association’s president, Laurel Bellows, asking the organization to amend its Model Rules of Professional Conduct to declare that lawyers have an obligation to promote diversity and inclusion. (Incidentally, just a few months ago, in a budding attempt to break down one silo, I participated in a conference call to initiate a dialog between IILP and ALFDP in order to discuss ways that the two organizations can begin to collaborate and work towards our common goal of diversifying the legal profession.)
  • Finally, the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) “is an organization of nearly 200 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners dedicated to creating a truly diverse legal profession.” Formed in 2009 as an outgrowth of the 2008 Call to Action Summit, the organization’s leadership programs are conceived and implemented by four strategic committees: Pipeline, Talent Development, Partnerships and Teams, and Benchmark. Additionally, the LCLD launched a fellows program designed to provide annual leadership development training to top-performing corporate counsel and law firm junior partners.

As you can see, there are a plethora of organizations committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. MCCA, PAR, CLI, ALFDP, IILP, and LCLD are but six concrete examples of national initiatives trying to move the needle forward. For every one of them, I can name dozens more on the local, regional and even national level that have similarly aligned missions. At this point in time, to my knowledge, only one organization, ALFDP, has deemed its mission critical to develop a collaborative relationship with the five other prominent aforementioned national organizations.

Earlier this year, senior members of ALFDP were designated as formal liaisons to these and other national organizations in an attempt to provide a structure for much needed collaboration and synching of these myriad of diverse efforts. I, for one, believe that unless these organizations begin to partner on their research, annual conferences, mentoring programs, and initiatives, they will unintentionally continue to add to the diversity fatigue of diversity practitioners, and our mutual goal of creating a more diverse legal profession will take longer than we all desire and know to be critical for the sustainable success of our firms.