Diversity in the Legal Profession: Practical Challenges and Every Attorney’s Role in a Successful Outcome

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

In March of 2013, the Louisiana State Bar Association hosted its sixth annual Conclave on Diversity in the Legal Profession. The purpose of this conclave is to “encourage discussion among judges and attorneys, primarily hiring and managing attorneys within law firms and law departments, about the importance of diversity within the legal profession and how to improve diversity within the profession in Louisiana.” Featuring numerous high profile in-house counsel, local practitioners, and judges, the conclave consistently emphasized one important takeaway:  Diversity means being invited to the party, but inclusion means being asked to dance. 

To fully reach our goal of diversity in the legal profession, we need both diversity and inclusion. After we take the time to fully understand these concepts, our respective law firms will be ready to meet three of the fundamental challenges to successful diversity outreach: (1) eliminating inherent bias; (2) viewing diversity as essential to business success; and (3) understanding “diversity management” versus “diversity public relations.”  

1. Eliminating Inherent Bias

Adopting the proper mindset as it relates to diversity is arguably the most important step necessary to becoming a successful part of the diversity movement. Accordingly, law firms must sufficiently address and eliminate the inherent biases often associated with diversity outreach. In that same vein, it is necessary to engage in open and honest discussions regarding the need to eliminate the negative stereotypes associated with diversity outreach. For example, law firms must focus on tearing down the notion that diversity goals exist solely to meet a numerical standard or “quota system.” 

Similarly, individuals must do their part to overcome the often generalized notion that business standards are ultimately lowered to promote diversity. If left unchecked, these stereotypes ultimately affect retention of minority candidates by placing them in an environment where they are viewed as inferior and by giving them a higher burden by which to prove themselves. Taking the initial steps to adopt different mindsets—particularly through individual reflection and open discussion—works to promote diversity. 

2.  Viewing Diversity as Essential to Business Success

2014 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Roderick A. Palmore’s “A Call to Action, Diversity in the Legal Profession,” a written statement of commitment and call for support to diversity efforts from outside legal counsel and corporate legal departments. As noted by Palmore, American society is becoming more diverse every day and any business that does not adequately respond by seeking a diverse workforce is at a disadvantage. Just as most consumer businesses have diversified their products to appeal to a larger and more diverse market, the legal profession must likewise adapt to properly service a growing client base. 

Along the same lines, law firm attorneys (particularly those with recruitment, hiring, and management authority) must accept and, in turn, emphasize to their colleagues that diversity and inclusion are not just good business principles; they are essential business principles. Any law firm that has not already accepted this as fact will likely have the same fate as the dinosaurs in the next few years. Spread the word. 

3. Understanding “Diversity Management” Versus “Diversity Public Relations”

One of the potential drawbacks to law firms’ acknowledgement that implementing a diversified workforce creates greater profitability is the notion that diversity is a “numbers game.” The fact remains, however, that good minority statistics are only the beginning. By focusing solely on diversity statistics without looking beyond the surface, diversity goals are ultimately never met.  

One of the major problems contributing to the low retention of minorities in law firms is the profession’s inability to properly distinguish between diversity public relations (PR) and diversity management. A law firm adopts the “diversity PR” attitude when it makes an effort to hire minority candidates solely for the purpose of placating the growing demands of in-house counsel and society but it fails to make adequate efforts toward retaining and advancing these minority employees. Under this plan, where properly mentoring and supporting minority employees is not a strategic goal of the employer, any real diversity goals (to the extent that they exist) are rarely satisfied.   

Instead, law firms must engage in active “diversity management” efforts to bring any type of diversity initiative into fruition. Hiring minority candidates is only the first step to attaining a diverse workforce. Individual attorneys must commit to investing in these minority candidates after they are hired. Among the major instruments of such investment are teaching, support, and mentoring. As attorneys at majority law firms, it is our responsibility to understand these concepts and push our own diversity management efforts through support and mentorship of young minority attorneys.  

Ultimately, it is up to each of us to take the first step at assisting our respective firms with their diversity efforts. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. | Attorney Advertising

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