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July 12, 2023

Inaugural Model Diversity Summit

Matthew Archer-Beck, Author | Tamara Nash, Editor
Matt Archer-Beck

Matt Archer-Beck

Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Commissioner

On June 27, 2023, the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession (the Commission) and the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (ALFDP) convened a summit on the Commission’s Model Diversity Survey (MDS) entitled, “Performative Art vs. True Commitment: Stakeholders and Change Makers Using Diversity Data.” Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP generously hosted the summit at its Minneapolis, Minnesota offices. Although flight cancellations prevented some from attending in-person, the summit’s planned hybrid format successfully allowed the summit to proceed without interruption. The summit, which followed the release of the Commission's third Model Diversity Survey Report in May, brought together corporate counsel, law firm lawyers and diversity professionals, and ABA leaders to examine how the MDS can better enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the legal profession.

The MDS traces its origins to the work of the ABA’s Diversity 360 Commission and the adoption of Resolution 113 by the ABA’s House of Delegates in August 2016. The resolution urges legal service providers to expand and create opportunities for diverse attorneys and urges the buyers of legal services to direct a greater percentage of legal spend towards diverse attorneys. The MDS enlists “signatories”—corporate and organizational users of legal services—to solicit the law firms from which they receive legal services to complete a yearly survey about the state of diversity within their firms. From the outset, according to former ABA President Paulette Brown, the MDS was seen as an “accountability tool” for achieving the goals of Resolution 113. In other words, only by gathering data about the state of DEI in the legal profession could it be determined whether efforts to diversify the profession were actually working. So, since 2017, the MDS has been gathering data about the state of law firm DEI. And the Commission has issued three reports (2020, 2021, and 2022) about what the data show.

Gathering and reporting data, however, is a necessary but not sufficient step to move the needle on diversity in the legal profession. For the MDS to be a true accountability tool, the data must be used to make changes that will further DEI goals. It is with that idea in mind that the summit was convened: to explore how gathering diversity data can be used to move beyond “performative art” to show a “true commitment” to DEI objectives. As the Commission’s chair, Michelle Behnke, explained, “We know that collecting the data alone won’t change the demographics.” Thus, one aim of the summit, according to Chair Behnke, was to discuss “whether the data collection is being used by change makers or whether data collection is being used as a performative act without substantive changes to the way that corporations and law firms operate.”

Following welcoming remarks by Chair Behnke as well as the introduction of ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross and ALFDP President Karlie Ilaria Garcia, the summit consisted of four sessions. The first session provided a brief history of the MDS from Paulette Brown and Eileen Letts, who chaired the Diversity 360 Commission. They discussed the motivation behind the survey and its anticipated outcomes.

In the second session, law firm diversity professionals discussed their perspective on the MDS, including why it is their preferred diversity survey, and how law firms and clients can better collaborate to further DEI goals using MDS data and otherwise. In the third session, a panel of corporate counsel discussed their approaches to embedding DEI into their relationships with outside counsel and how the MDS could be used in these efforts. Both law firm diversity professionals and corporate counsel stressed the importance of having follow-up conversations after data had been shared to ensure the data collection does not become an end in itself but part of a broader partnering to enhance DEI. Providing a forum for both law firms and clients to discuss their shared DEI goals and how they can work together to achieve them was a major impetus for the summit. “We are bringing corporations and law firms together for these discussions because we want to make sure that the survey is a useful tool that helps both law firms and corporations who are working to support and increase diversity,” said Chair Behnke.

The final session provided a closer look at the Commission’s third Model Diversity Survey report. Dr. Richard Harvey, the report’s author, explained some of the enhancements a more robust MDS dataset allowed in this report, including the reporting of intersectional data in more areas. He also highlighted some of the report’s key findings. Those findings included that White males were disproportionately overrepresented at the highest levels of law firms. This was true generally in terms of White males in the equity partner role but was even more pronounced looking at firms’ top earners and firm governance. For example, all non-White attorney groups had 2% or less representation in either the top 10% or next 20% of top earners in firms, and while females and non-White attorneys had made some inroads in leadership roles, White male attorneys were disproportionately overrepresented on firm governance committees. At the same time, the report noted that Black female attorneys had among the highest, if not the highest, turnover ratios for many of the attorney roles, particularly among the partnership roles. As Chair Behnke noted, “The Report identifies some good news with respect to hiring at the associate level, but some troubling news with respect to retention at the partner level especially for women of color.”

Matthew Archer-Beck

Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Commissioner

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