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Law Practice Magazine


How to Improve Diversity in the Legal Profession

John Eric Harrity and Samantha Sullivan


  • The general legal profession faces its diversity challenges, diversity statistics are even more concerning when it comes to patent law, our area of practice.
  • Tackling the lack of diversity in the legal profession comes down to the root of that issue—the lack of diverse individuals pursuing a career in the legal profession in the first place.
  • Foundational programs are needed today to achieve greater diversity in the legal profession. Imagine the future of the legal profession if the focus shifts from reporting specific diversity numbers to taking actions to increase them.
How to Improve Diversity in the Legal Profession

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The legal profession is struggling with diversity. Women make up 37% of practicing attorneys, even though they account for 50.8% of the U.S. population. Men still outnumber women in equity partner positions nearly 5 to 1. Only 4.7% of practicing attorneys are Black, with about 10% of attorneys falling into other racial minority groups. Within the legal profession since 2010, representation of individuals in minority racial and ethnic groups combined has grown just 6%, the percentage of practicing Black attorneys has increased by less than 1%, and the percentage of women attorneys has only increased 4.6%. At this rate, it will take 30 years for the demographics of the legal profession to reflect the demographics of today’s population.

While the general legal profession faces its diversity challenges, diversity statistics are even more concerning when it comes to patent law, our area of practice. To practice in the patent field, individuals must take and pass the patent bar. To be eligible to take the patent bar, individuals must have a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) background, an education discipline that has traditionally also been predominately made up of men. In fact, men account for 73% of all STEM jobs, and 78% of all United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) registrants.

Since 1950, less than 6% of USPTO registrants have been racially diverse. There are more patent attorneys and agents named “Michael” in the United States than there are racially diverse women, with an average of just 2.2% of registrants being racially diverse women since 2000. Moreover, less than 15% of registered patent practitioners are diverse in any way (race, gender, LGBTQ, individuals with disabilities) in the areas of computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. So, while legal diversity is not a new issue, successfully addressing it does require a new approach.

Tackling the lack of diversity in the legal profession comes down to the root of that issue—the lack of diverse individuals pursuing a career in the legal profession in the first place. Progress is being made through the implementation of programs such as internships and mentoring, and rules such as the Mansfield Rule, which requires law firms to affirmatively consider a minimum of 30% diverse candidates for senior roles. Many corporations have adopted similar policies, requiring their outside counsel or legal departments to meet specific diversity numbers when it comes to hiring practices and work distribution. While helpful for retention, these programs focus more on diverse individuals already practicing in the legal profession. To help drive further progress, additional approaches are needed that complement existing rules and programs and address the root of the issue by focusing on increasing the number of diverse individuals entering the legal profession.

Steps to drive change

Realistically, three steps must occur to generate long-term demographic change: inform, educate and act. First, we must inform diverse students and their parents that the legal profession is a realistic career option. This requires making middle and high school students and their families aware of the legal profession and what entering it entails. Next, we must educate. This step requires equipping diverse students in middle and high school and their parents with information about legal career opportunities and the programs available to encourage them to pursue the legal profession.

The final stage is act. After informing diverse individuals at a young age of the career opportunities within the legal profession and providing the proper education needed to pursue such careers, we must incite action. By putting programs in place to steer these students toward college and ultimately law school, we can help embolden diverse individuals to take the necessary actions to enter the legal profession. With additional assistance throughout the process, we can help diverse students overcome obstacles such as lack of financial resources, lack of college readiness, lack of focus and self-motivation, or lack of assistance and engagement. To do so, programs such as Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) preparation, scholarships, internships and mentoring can be implemented. It is critical that barriers to participation in these programs be removed to ensure that the greatest number of diverse students can participate.

Taking the needed steps

How do law firms, companies, government entities and other legal employers take these steps? These organizations must work together to improve diversity, particularly in education and at the early career stages. One way to facilitate change is to incentivize action. Organizations and their clients can encourage attorneys to create and implement new diversity solutions that bring more diverse candidates into the legal profession. By encouraging and rewarding innovative and disruptive diversity solutions, we can begin to address the issue from the ground up. Whether this means rewarding attorneys or law firms with the most beneficial solutions, investing in programs through sponsorships or scholarships, or creating other applicable incentives, the goal is that organizations will switch their focus from scrambling to find diverse attorneys from the small pool of existing practitioners or recruiting from competing firms, to increasing diversity and making a lasting impact on the legal profession.

Organizations can further benefit from these programs by growing their community outreach, increasing brand awareness and improving internal diversity. This can be done by getting involved in the generation and execution of ground-up diversity programs, or by providing mentoring and financial assistance to existing programs. If organizations hold themselves accountable not just for interviewing or hiring diverse candidates but for creating impactful initiatives, there will be more resources available to diverse individuals to begin a legal career, and therefore a higher likelihood of making a difference at improving diversity within the legal profession.

Program considerations

When implementing diversity programs that will inform, educate and encourage action, organizations need to think about these programs in three categories: shortterm programs, midterm programs and long-term programs. Short-term programs are ones that improve diversity in the legal profession in the next one to three years. Midterm programs improve diversity in the legal profession in the next three to 10 years. Finally, long-term programs improve diversity in the legal profession over more than 10 years. Different approaches can be taken for each of these program categories, each of which will target a different group of diverse students.

For example, short-term programs may target diverse individuals who are juniors or seniors in college, as well as those attending or planning to attend law school. These short-term programs may include LSAT preparation courses, scholarships, internships and mentoring. This will encourage these individuals to pursue and finish law school and continue on a legal career path. Midterm programs may target juniors and seniors in high school, or freshman and sophomores in college. These programs may include attorneys speaking to classes about specific types of law and legal careers, providing tutoring in these areas so students are equipped with the knowledge needed to pursue such a career, and college and career counseling to help students decide what path is right for them as they are considering their options. Longterm change will focus on elementary to middle school-aged students and entail speaking to them on a high-level basis about the opportunities within the legal profession to get them interested in and excited about a future career in law.

Getting started

For organizations that do not know where to start, forming a diversity committee is a natural first step. Pulling together an organization’s most out-of-the-box thinkers, and especially those who are passionate about diversity, for regular meetings can begin to spark ideas that lead to implementation. It is important to include diverse and nondiverse members, as well as at least one decision maker, such as a designated diversity partner. By involving individuals with various backgrounds, upbringings, educations, job duties and perspectives, the committee can produce more innovation.

Diversity programs should be established to align with an organization’s area of practice. Rather than trying to take on a program that is going to drain resources and create a burden, organizations should focus on creating programs centered on the type of law they specialize in. Consider different attorneys’ pathways to arrive at where they are today. What lessons or resources could they have benefited from at the early career stages? By examining the career paths of existing employees, organizations can create foundational programs to get diverse candidates started in the legal field and set them up for success.

Creating and measuring impact

Organizations can achieve significant impact without a large budget. By leveraging employees’ strengths, organizations can cost-effectively use internal resources to brainstorm, implement and execute programs centered on increasing diversity in the legal profession. For example, someone may have a large network they can leverage to create program awareness, find program partners or fundraise. An organization’s recruiting team can also help source participants for programs. The marketing team can advertise the programs, and attorneys can teach programs or mentor individuals. Another avenue is to ask clients to get involved; it may be that clients are equally as interested and invested in potential programs as the attorneys themselves. Partnering with other organizations in the legal profession can also help to accomplish larger goals by combining resources and bandwidth. Carving out just one hour per week to devote to diversity initiatives and involving individuals who are committed to making the initiatives a reality can make a huge impact.

For programs to be impactful, it is necessary to have a way to measure success. By surveying past participants and including benchmarking questions related to their career progress, organizations can easily track how their program impacted participants’ legal paths. It may be beneficial to ask participants what part of the program was most valuable, what part was least valuable and what part can be improved. In addition, participants can be asked if they have ideas as to how to improve the program and if they would like ongoing mentoring. This way, organizations can use the feedback to continue to improve and evolve their programs and ensure their resources are being put to the best use.

While creating impactful diversity solutions may seem challenging, especially for organizations of a smaller scale, it is entirely possible. We know this from personal experience. With just 37 attorneys and 69 total employees at the end of May, and 38 and 70 by July, our firm has successfully implemented a variety of programs to introduce diverse individuals to our area of practice: patent preparation and prosecution. In addition, our programs provide education, training and mentoring at several stages to coincide with our short-term, midterm and long-term goals.

Our experience as an example

The solutions our diversity committee has identified provide diverse groups with free, high-quality resources to inform, educate and help participants act. This is accomplished through skills training, mentoring and career counseling to help diverse individuals break into patent law and succeed in the profession. By leveraging the firm’s resources, pooled knowledge and desire to give back, our diversity committee creates initiatives that are available at no financial cost to participants or the firm and focus on our area of practice. We would not be able to properly or passionately encourage, train or mentor students in another area, so we invest our efforts into the space we know best—patent law.

For the patent profession, our shortterm programs target diverse individuals who are currently working toward or have recently graduated from undergrad with a STEM degree or those who are already practicing engineers or scientists but are not yet working in the patent field. This also includes diverse individuals in law school who have STEM degrees but are not yet pursuing the patent field. An additional short-term goal is to provide resources to practicing diverse patent attorneys to help further their careers and increase retention among diverse attorneys.

Our midterm programs target earlier undergraduate students who are already pursuing STEM degrees, as well as high school students who may be interested in or are taking STEM classes. Our longterm programs target middle school students who are not yet aware of the career potential in patent law. Both the midterm and long-term programs share the objective of providing diverse students with the resources needed to succeed in STEM at a young age to increase the likelihood of them going on to pursue a degree and a career in STEM—a critical first step for entering the field of patent law. With an overall goal of increasing the percentage of diverse USPTO-registered patent professionals, students need to both be made aware of this opportunity and be equipped to succeed should they pursue it, which future programs hope to accomplish through aid such as tutoring, mentoring and scholarships.

With the current demographic landscape of patent law, our firm is focused on having an immediate impact. Therefore, the majority of our current programs are centered on achieving short-term change. As that is accomplished, we will continue to shift back to our midterm and longterm goals. These programs, which we hope will inspire other organizations to create their own foundational initiatives, are outlined below.

Patent Pathways. While each of our diversity programs have the implicit goal of encouraging diversity and inclusion in the patent legal field, Patent Pathways will have the most direct impact on the least represented group: Black female patent practitioners. The program includes an introduction to careers in patent law, several weeks of patent preparation and prosecution training, corporate sponsorships for patent bar preparation courses and patent bar exam and registration fees, as well as potential law school scholarships offered and career opportunities to those who pass the patent bar. The goal of the program is to register 20 Black women with the patent bar within one year, creating a short turnaround time from entry into the program until they are eligible to practice patent law. Patent Pathways participants will also be matched with patent attorneys for ongoing mentoring and to maintain an alumni network of Patent Pathway participants.

Diversity in Innovation ThinkTank. We have sought out some of the most innovative thinkers in the field of patent law to discuss big ideas on how to increase diversity in patent law, starting with women practitioners. Participants from leading law firms, top corporations, diversity organizations and the USPTO have come together to brainstorm, refine and implement new diversity solutions. Participating law firms have committed to launching the new programs, which share the end goal of registering women for the patent bar and providing resources for women to succeed in a patent law career. Future ThinkTanks will focus on other underrepresented demographics in the field.

Harrity for Parity—Women’s Patent Law Workshop. Our fifth annual Women’s Workshop was held in May 2022. This four-day virtual workshop introduces the field of patent law to female science and engineering students, law school students and recent graduates. Women from across the country joined us online for skills training in patent preparation, prosecution and legal writing; career and resume mentoring; and patent bar preparation. In addition, participants learned firsthand from partners at major law firms, leaders in university tech transfer and in-house counsel about their experiences as women in the legal field. By engaging women still in school or at the early stages of their careers, we hope to encourage them to join the patent law profession and provide them with tools to do so successfully.

The Harrity Academy. Launched in September of 2020, the Harrity Academy is a free virtual program comprised of three courses that introduce diverse participants to the field of patent law. The courses provide exclusive training practice materials and mentorship and teach participants how to effectively and efficiently draft and prosecute high-quality patent applications. The goal of this program is to help increase the number of diverse candidates entering the patent law field by targeting diverse students in undergrad or graduate STEM programs and law schools, newly practicing attorneys and early career engineers. Courses are held each spring and fall, with 20 to 30 participants per class, and are voluntarily taught by our attorneys. Over 200 diverse students have participated in one or more courses to date, many of whom have gone on to pursue a career in patent law or obtain a new job or promotion in their current field based on their experiences gained in the Harrity Academy.

Minority Firm Incubator Program. We hired our first Minority Firm Incubator (MFI) candidate in 2020. This program was established to help train, cultivate and launch minority-owned patent law firms. The program consists of four phases: drafting patent applications, prosecuting patent applications, firm management and firm launch. In the fourth phase, participants have the tools, knowledge and experience required to launch their own patent law firms, with the added benefit of established corporate relationships from their time at our firm. Firm leaders receive ongoing mentorship from our firm to help ensure their success. The goal of the program is to increase the number of minority-owned law firms. Incubator programs are vital because they help jump-start a new law firm in the same way venture capital funding helps start-ups ramp up operations. Minority-owned firms are less likely to have access to the capital and resources needed to run a sustainable business, and the Harrity MFI reduces these obstacles by connecting new firms with clients and by providing personalized training to the firm’s leadership team. Minority-owned firms are also more likely to hire minority candidates and invest resources in diversity programs, to help budding attorneys like themselves. In June of 2021, Onyx IP Group was launched, making it the first minority-owned firm to come out of the incubator program.

Minority Firm Incubator 2.0. To make our MFI program more impactful to the patent law field, we developed an enhanced version of our incubator program. Known as the MFI 2.0, this program is both a virtual and condensed version of the original MFI, focused on helping multiple existing minority-owned patent firms succeed through 42 weekly virtual lessons taught by Harrity attorneys, in-house counsel, law firm partners and guest speakers. The program teaches best practices of firm management and focuses on improving quality and efficiency processes within the firms, creating a unique brand, revising hiring standards and other processes. Participating firms will leave the program with the ability to give better pitches, win more business and produce higher-quality work product.

In conclusion

Foundational programs are needed today to achieve greater diversity in the legal profession. Imagine the future of the legal profession if the focus shifts from reporting specific diversity numbers to taking actions to increase them—to where a majority of organizations and clients together are developing new and disruptive diversity programs that finally eliminate the underrepresentation of minority groups in the legal profession. One of the largest obstacles we face in this battle is a lack of action. While current approaches attempt to address internal diversity counts, they fail to account for the reality of the legal profession: the insufficient number of diverse attorneys. Rarely are organizations creating external programs directed at fixing the root cause of the issue. The legal profession first needs to recognize that the problem is not that organizations do not want to hire diverse candidates, but that sufficient numbers of diverse candidates do not exist in the profession in the first place. Organizations can employ an “inform, educate and act” approach to achieve practical and attainable solutions that increase the number of diverse individuals entering the legal profession. We can then create proportionate opportunities for diverse individuals to thrive in the profession and finally experience a legal landscape that reflects the demographics of our society.

So, we leave you with just one question: How will your organization make a difference?