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.