What needs to change in law firms’ diversity and inclusion efforts

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In Episode 2 of The Advisory Board, Jake Heller met with Wendell Taylor of Hunton Andrews Kurth, Cindy-Ann Thomas of Littler, and Lois Durant of Sheppard Mullin to learn more about the legal industry’s role in combating systemic racism. George Floyd’s death has caused a shift in the law firms’ conversations about diversity and inclusion. Jake wanted to know: with those conversations in mind, what do law firms need to change? 

Move away from “tried-and-true” methods

When it comes to putting diversity into practice, law firms need to move away from “tried-and-true” methods — something that may feel unnatural for a profession rooted in precedent. “If we want something different, we’re going to have to do something different,” Cindy Ann says. “We simply have to explore less supposedly tried-and-true methods of recruiting, hiring, mentoring, networking, allocating work.” 

Cindy Ann uses law firm “refer a friend” recruiting programs as an example, pointing to a 2014 study that found that the social circles of 90% of white Americans are comprised of other white people; only 5% of white Americans have friends of other races. With these statistics in mind, it is apparent how “refer a friend” programs can work against law firms’ efforts to improve diversity in hiring. 

Be honest about how implicit bias affects law firm processes 

Wendell adds that firms need to continue addressing implicit bias and how it impacts processes within a law firm. He encourages lawyers and law firms to be more honest about how implicit biases affect them: “When I watch a boxing match and it’s a white guy fighting a black guy, I reflexively pull for the black guy. I think we should all be honest that those are things we do, and we can take the sting away from it.” 

As an example of the ways that implicit bias affects law firms efforts to drive diversity, Wendell points to the way firms consider “fit” in the hiring process, which often reflects the biases of whoever is assessing a potential new hire. “It’s up to us to realize that part of what they’re saying is, ‘That person looks like me and belongs to the clubs I belong to,’ and therefore we need to pull away from that,” he says. 

Listen to clients, but don’t focus exclusively on external pressures

“What’s really helping to change this conversation are clients that are really pushing us in the right direction,” Wendell says. Clients advocate for diversity in the firms that represent them, not just by asking them to stop bringing exclusively white men to pitches, but also by making sure that minorities and women are actually working on their matters and getting credit for the work they do. 

But as Lois points out, there is also a danger in law firms relying on external pressures — such as industry organizations, surveys, and recruiting, as well as clients — which eliminates the attention that law firms pay to the diversity of their staff. 

“I get it; the lawyers are the foundation of the business,” she says, “but if we’re going to start talking about creating inclusive communities, we have to expand the conversation beyond talking about just attorneys.” 

Hire chief diversity officers, but make sure diversity issues are understood across law firm functions

Another critical measure that Cindy Ann recommends law firms consider when it comes to accountability is a dedicated diversity officer to provide leadership for lawyers. “Committees of passionate, philanthropic attorneys who have 2,000 hours/year billable requirements cannot possibly do their job effectively and take your firm to the next level in the diversity and inclusion space if you are really looking to go to another level,” she says. 

Although Lois agrees with Cindy Ann on the importance of a diversity and inclusion officer, she cautions that law firms need to ensure that diversity is being considered across functions within law firms. “It can’t just be your one diversity person running around in circles trying to figure it out for everyone. We need to be demanding a level of expertise and awareness around diversity issues across all these functions where folks can do it without having your diversity person in the room.” 


For more on Wendell, Cindy-Ann, and Lois’s discussion about what the legal industry should be doing to combat systemic racism, click here to watch episode 2 of The Advisory Board

You can also sign up for an email reminder for Episode 4 here.