Working across different jurisdictions (Middle East, UK, USA) has enabled me to meet with lawyers from a wide range of backgrounds. I have managed to gain a great understanding of the different initiatives law firms have to promote diversity and inclusion on a global scale.
We’re living in a world today where it’s even more important to focus on diversity within the workplace on a global scale. Building a legal team that is not only diverse in race, ethnicity and gender but also in thought, experiences and perspective allow for a more dynamic and creative work environment.
To properly address this lack of diversity, law firms and legal teams need to take the fundamental first step of holding intentional conversations about the importance of diversity.
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In more recent years, the industry has begun to acknowledge this pervasive gap with discussions about ways to bring more diversity into firms. But to turn talk into action, leadership must start prioritising diversity and inclusion. Reinforcing these priorities will help them trickle down to the rest of the team.
Below are five steps that partners in law firms can take to build more diversity and create a firm more inclusive to all lawyers.
To properly address this lack of diversity, law firms and legal teams need to take the fundamental first step of holding intentional conversations about the importance of diversity. The topic can be sensitive, but it must be addressed internally for all other initiatives to be effective. Conversations among leadership should focus on the current climate of diversity in the firm, define what diversity means to them, and set concrete goals for the future. With this foundation, leadership can create a plan of action for bringing more diverse lawyers into the firm or team.
Similar conversations must be had with the entire team. Unconscious bias training, or exercises to help lawyers understand the stereotypes and biases they hold about groups of people, can be effective in sparking these initial conversations. Often, people are not aware of how their own thinking hinders them. Such trainings raise consciousness around the issue, helping lawyers become more aware of how problematic a lack of diversity truly is. This will, in turn, increase buy-in on the initiatives the leadership has set forth.
After a baseline of communication has been established, it is up to the leadership to dedicate a portion of the department or firm's spending to diversity initiatives. Employee trainings, conferences, networking events, and affinity groups all come at a price. Without a line item in the budget, it is unlikely that diversity initiatives will receive the spending that they deserve.
Similarly, tying a portion of compensation to fulfilling diversity goals will put the initiatives in the forefront of lawyer’s minds. Some firms add criteria to partners' reviews questioning what he or she has done to promote diversity within the firm. Those who have completed substantive actions toward meeting the firm's diversity goals will see this reflected in their bonuses or raises. A similar self-reflection process could be added to evaluations of all lawyers in the firm or team. Knowing that they will be asked this question during yearly reviews, lawyers at all levels will be more likely to commit their time to the efforts throughout the year, rather than letting them fall by the wayside when other work takes over.
While money can motivate partners to act, all lawyers need to be on board with promoting diversity efforts as well. In addition to unconscious bias training, law firms and legal departments can create more awareness about the importance of diversity by holding sensitivity and inclusion trainings, hosting speakers on the topic, or distributing self-assessments asking what each lawyer is doing to promote a better culture within the firm. After all, shifting a culture requires adjustments from everyone.
Lawyers have a tendency to hire based on cultural similarity, even if it means passing on a more qualified candidate. However, to create a diverse firm, leadership needs to proactively disrupt this cycle and develop their own network for recruiting diverse lawyers. It is not possible to expand the horizons of the recruitment pool without being in front of minority lawyers. Attending networking events specifically geared to minority lawyers is one way to shake up the pool of candidates. It can also be beneficial to partner with an outside recruitment specialist like to find diverse candidates. A third-party opinion will bring an outside perspective to recruitment, helping to ensure that the pool of applicants reflects the firm's diversity goals.
Now more than ever before, law firms and legal teams realise that improving their diversity is critical, but there is also pressure from clients to have diverse legal teams. It is no longer sufficient to place a team of standardised lawyers in front of clients during presentations – they want to see a legal team that reflects the same values that they do.
The legal industry knows that diversity is the right thing to do, but when clients begin looking to obtain their legal services elsewhere because of a lack of diversity, law firms start to take the problem much more seriously.
Shifting the culture of the legal industry toward more inclusivity is not easy. The onus is on partners and to start setting the tone within their firms. Changes will not come immediately, but they will surely spread throughout the industry in time with a concerted effort from those at the top.