Do law firms pay more than lip service to diversity?

by Vault Law Editors | April 15, 2010

  • My Vault

At the risk of self-promotion, I recommend Allison Shields’ thoughtful article, “Are Today’s Law Firms Committed to Diversity?” from this month’s issue of Law Practice Today, the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section magazine. Drawing, to some extent, on data from the Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Database, Shields goes beyond the platitudes to explore why law firms haven’t shown more success in diversifying their ranks.   

Among her key arguments:

1. To the extent that law firms have embraced diversity initiatives, these changes have been largely driven by client demands. Because the impetus is external rather than internal, “many law firms are doing the bare minimum or only paying lip service to diversity issues”: “As long as law firms feel that they are being forced to change in order to retain their clients or to gain new business, it is likely that their diversity efforts will be insubstantial.”

2.Moreover, the Vault/MCCA data* “highlights the gap between recruitment and retention of diverse lawyers, which may indicate that firms are not fully committed to diversity and are failing to provide opportunities for diverse lawyers to flourish.”

3. While Vault and MCCA believe that numbers alone don’t present a complete picture and therefore not only collect demographic statistics but also ask firms qualitative questions about their diversity initiatives, Shields wonders whether the responses to such questions reflect “management’s aspirations rather than the experience of diverse lawyers interviewing with or working for the firm.”

4. Why is retention of diverse lawyers such a problem and what can firms do to redress it? “Mentoring and firm culture were often cited as the keys to progress on diversity,” Shields observes. Diverse lawyers may experience little sense of community and even less “opportunity to shine within the firm.”  Because attorneys tend to “seek out others like themselves” when divvying up the “good assignments,” minority and women lawyers are “too often relegated to mundane or routine work.”

To counter this sense of isolation and career stagnation, high-quality mentoring is critical. “Mentoring programs cannot be in name only,” nor should lawyers be forced to participate, since “not every great lawyer make a great mentor.” Mentoring performance should be measured, and “most importantly, the firm should recognize and reward mentors.”

In order both for mentoring to succeed and for firm culture to change, top-down commitment is essential; lawyers must feel that both diversity and mentoring are “a management priority.”

Lastly, law firms and lawyers “need to break through their comfort zones” and learn not only “to understand those from different cultures and backgrounds,” but also to appreciate different ways of doing things. Some “firms may unintentionally fail to provide opportunities for lawyers who do not fit into a firm’s usual mode of operation or approach to a problem, preventing the firm from benefiting from that lawyer’s unique talents, skills or approach.”

- posted by vera

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Filed Under: Law

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