More Than a Diversity Statement
To hire and retain diverse talent and foster true inclusion in your firm, implement these practical strategies.March 2022
George Floyd’s death in 2020 caused a racial awakening. It forced the majority to have conversations minorities have had for years. Tough conversations about race and implicit bias have increased recently, with countless employers working to strengthen their diversity and inclusion efforts. These efforts often begin with a “diversity statement”—“a written explanation of [your organization’s] commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for [your] employees and customers.”1 A good diversity statement should tell “stakeholders how diversity fits into your organization’s mission and values.”2 But while diversity statements are often well-intentioned, what truly matters is the tangible and quantifiable results that these statements produce.
Without marked outcomes, diversity mottos could become viewed as lip service and “the right thing to say at the time.” If law firms really want to show genuineness in their diversity and inclusion efforts, it’s time to back up those words with actions that produce measurable results. Here is practical guidance for implementing diversity and inclusion efforts in law firms and ensuring the retention and success of diverse talent.
Have Diverse Hiring Practices
Retaining diverse talent starts with recruiting diverse talent. The United States boasts more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities brimming with minority talent.3 And there are six historically Black law schools in the nation.4 Law firms seeking to diversify their rosters should make a pointed effort to visit these schools for on-campus interviews. Don’t just hire summer associates; also offer undergraduates opportunities for internships. Contact the career services departments and pre-law advisors at undergraduate institutions to find potential undergraduate interns. And many undergraduate institutions have pre-law societies and other recognized student organizations with which firms can partner to offer internship opportunities.
Interns from varying majors could benefit your firm in many areas—research and writing, file management, proofreading and editing, administrative tasks, and more. At the undergraduate level, students will relish the chance to get a glimpse of the profession to which they aspire, and an internship at any level can offer them the opportunity to see if the atmosphere of the legal field is what they truly want to pursue. Undergraduate internships also can be an opportunity for firms to simultaneously establish a mentorship program to continue a relationship with students who eventually attend law school.
Additionally, you could invite diverse students to your office to provide exposure to the inner workings of a law firm, perhaps for a lunch presentation on the work and history of the firm and a tour of the facilities. Also, allowing diverse student organizations to use your facilities for meetings or symposiums shows genuine interest in leveling the playing field for minorities who are underrepresented in the legal profession. Offering to sponsor the organization’s future events such as banquets and award ceremonies or inviting the club’s members to certain firm events are great ways to maintain contact and foster the growth of these relationships.
Carrying through to the hiring process, law firms should always make a pointed effort to ensure that diverse candidates are among those considered for any open positions. This can be achieved by proactively ensuring available positions are advertised with local affinity bar associations. (For more on improving firm diversity, see p. 39.)
Create Meaningful Opportunities
It has been said that diversity is inviting minorities to the party, but inclusion is offering them the opportunity to dance. There are far too many accounts from minority associates who are simply added to a file to ensure the firm can check its diversity box or who are brought to court before a minority judge and asked to sit at counsel table for appearances. These disingenuous practices must stop. Majority firms need to staff their cases with minority attorneys, but those minority attorneys also must be given meaningful opportunities for advancement such as forward-facing client contact and interaction, first-chairing depositions and mediations and arguing motions, and having their names signed to pleadings.
Pass the Torch
The underrepresentation of minority attorneys does not just exist at the associate level—it continues up the ladder to making partner at a firm. Associates need their own set of cases and clients to build their path to becoming a partner. Paying it forward as a majority partner starts with allowing a minority associate to be the point of contact for a client. Go to bat for the attorney, and reassure the client that you have full faith in the associate, who can handle any concerns and will have access to you if needed. And at the appropriate time, based on the associate’s skillset, let him or her handle a case as the lead to begin building a history of leadership.
Majority firms need to staff their cases with minority attorneys, but those attorneys also must be afforded meaningful opportunities for advancement.
Equip Your Firm to Address Biases
Just like it may be difficult for an all-male law firm to develop an effective maternity leave policy, majority firms may be ill-equipped to address issues that uniquely affect their minority attorneys. For instance, research shows that minorities may be less likely to make eye contact and may look away even while actively listening to a speaker.5 Data also shows that minorities often are generally distrusting of others due to their societal experiences.6 Of critical importance is research that shows that white people often view the faces of black people as angrier than a white face making the same expression.7
This is important information if human resources issues arise with a minority staff member or if minority attorneys are sidelined at your firm. If no one with decision-making power at your firm can relate to these issues or understand the consequences and effects of microaggressions, minority associates often are left to feel misunderstood and consistently victimized. Majority firms can address this by having an outside human resources consultant who may be more diverse help field certain issues and act as a mediator.8
Plan Firm Events With Diversity in Mind
If majority firms seek to foster an inclusive environment for all, diversity must be kept in mind when planning law firm events. Particularly in the South, for example, it is not uncommon for some country clubs and restaurants to have pasts rooted in segregation. Take the initiative to ensure that the location for your firm event does not have a storied past so everyone feels comfortable.
Also acknowledge holidays and events in Black culture such as Juneteenth and Black History Month, and genuinely embrace celebrations around these events. For instance, if the office is closed for MLK Day, encourage your firm to participate in a day of service rather than supporting undertones that working is still expected that day.
Law firms must commit serious time and resources to show a genuine commitment to diversifying the legal profession. The first step is appreciating the benefits diversity offers to our profession and recognizing the need for change. The next step is ensuring your firm rids itself of excuses and takes deliberate steps to do its part.
Carlos Moore is the president and R. Allyce Bailey is the press secretary of the National Bar Association.
- Derek Doeing, Craft the Perfect Diversity Statement for Your Organization, Learn Hub, May 9, 2019, https://learn.g2.com/diversity-statement.
- For a full list of historically Black colleges and universities, visit http://thehundred-seven.org/hbculist.html.
- The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Black Enrollments at the Law Schools at Historically Black Universities, Dec. 23, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/2p8jzpk8.
- Margaret Foegen Karsten, Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace: Issues and Challenges for Today’s Organizations (2006).
- Sara Sternberg Greene, Race, Class, and Access to Civil Justice, 101 Iowa L. Rev. 1263, 1277–81 (2016); David Cole, No Equal Justice (1999).
- Keith Payne, Laura Niemi, & John M. Doris, How to Think About ‘Implicit Bias’, Sci. Am. (2018), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-think-about-implicit-bias/.
- For more on dealing with implicit bias and fostering an inclusive environment, see Karine Joy (KJ) Williams, The Building Blocks of Equality & Equity, Trial, January 2021, at 40; Wendell Y. Tong, Looking Within for Implicit Bias, Trial, June 2017, at 28.