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Are GCs Really Pushing for Diversity at Law Firms? If So, Is It Working?

Diverse lawyers working together in an office
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on December 20, 2019 12:51 PM

Law firms are naturally reticent to change. That means a real push for diversity in the legal profession requires more than good intentions. It takes a concerted effort and actionable steps to jar firms out of the status quo.

Toward that end, in January of 2019, 170 general counsel signed an open letter to law firms stating that they would prioritize legal spend on firms that included a diverse lawyer workforce. At the time, however, the letter received some negative feedback as a cynical win for GCs. Since there were no measurable goals or stated consequences for failure, it was seen by some as a good public relations move with little risk or real obligation to GCs.

Assuming the letter reflects a genuine desire for improved diversity, however, it is worth looking back on 2019 to see if calls for change are having an effect.

Did Law Firms Take Note?

According to a recent report on law firm diversity by the National Association for Law Placement, 2019 had mixed results. The good news is that minority and female associate numbers improved slightly at the associate level, with 25.44% of all associates comprising people of color. The number of black associates rose to 4.76%.

As with earlier years, however, people of color remain underrepresented at the partner level, at just 9.55%. And while equity partnerships remain hard to get for anyone, non-equity partnerships have risen - but without a corresponding increase in diversity in partner ranks.

Diversity is improving. Just very slowly. 

Actual Steps GC's Can Take to Promote Diversity

Diversity in the legal profession is both a real and worthwhile goal. Fortunately, we know of several concrete steps GCs can take to meet this goal. For example, Michelle Fang, the author of the January letter, elaborated on actionable steps GCs can take. These include:

  • Measure. Hiring outside counsel involves multiple considerations. But for diversity to be a real goal of your company, you need to measure and account for it when making hiring decisions.
  • Develop. It's hard to change an embedded culture. It takes long-term planning, such as assisting underrepresented populations to go to law school, and then mentoring and providing exposure for those students.
  • Look at leadership. The numbers are getting better, but breaking into the top ranks of law firms remains difficult. Don't just look at overall numbers, hire minority-owned law firms or firms with a robust diversity and inclusion program that enables advancement.

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