chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Standard 4.5 on Staff Diversity

Standard 4.4 | Table of Contents | Standard 4.6


Legal aid organizations should be intentional about hiring, including, and retaining a diverse workforce that mirrors the communities and individuals that they serve. Non-traditional approaches should be considered in efforts to reach and maintain staff and leadership diversity.


The Importance of Staff Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A legal aid organization should function in ways that demonstrate a commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity, and competence in responding to that diversity, as well as an understanding of how racism, disability discrimination, and poverty intersect in this country and in its service area. To the degree possible, its staff should reflect the diversity of the populations that it serves. 

Diversity recognizes, respects, and values differences based on ethnicity, gender, gender identity, color, age, race, religion, disability, national origin, and sexual orientation. It also includes individual characteristics and experiences, such as life experiences, career path, communication style, educational background, geographic location, income level, marital status, military experience, parental status, and a multitude of other variables that influence personal perspective.

Equity seeks to ensure fair treatment, equality of opportunity, and fairness in access to information and resources for all. 

Inclusion is the creation of a sense of being valued and belonging, as well as the elimination of barriers for disabled persons within the legal aid organization so that all staff feel, and are, welcomed. Inclusion is the act of establishing philosophies, policies, practices, and procedures to ensure equal access to opportunities and resources.

Diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces can earn deeper trust and more commitment from their employees. Inclusion leads to a happier staff and greater innovation. It is also important that a legal aid organization reflect the diverse population it serves.Having a visibly diverse workforce conveys to potential clients that the organization understands and is open to people from different backgrounds. Relationships of mutual trust may be developed more readily when clients encounter staff that reflects the community's diversity. Diverse work environments gain knowledge and empathy, enabling the ability to work and act across differences. Without equity and inclusion, it is not possible for a diverse staff to do their best work advocating for clients.

A legal aid organization should have a staff that is well-trained in principles of equity, anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and anti-oppression, and should have the skills and insight necessary to serve its diverse populations. The legal aid organization should develop practices, policies, and organizational structures that are responsive to the diverse cultures and populations it serves.

How to Recruit and Build a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion

The only way to truly build a diverse staff is with intentionality and by taking action-oriented steps. This section is designed as a basic toolbox for legal aid practitioners working toward building a culture of diversity and inclusion. These tools should also be applied to building and retaining a diverse and inclusive governing body.

Leadership must make diversity a priority. This must be articulated in the strategic plans and work plans prepared by the legal aid organization. Emails and other communications sent out to staff that discuss the overall goals and mission of the legal aid organization should articulate the importance of building a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and itemize the specific steps that will be taken to achieve and retain a diverse workforce. 

A diversity and inclusion committee should be formed with members coming from several tiers within the legal aid organization. The committee should be tasked with putting together a recruitment strategy that focuses on encouraging applicants with diverse backgrounds to apply for positions within the legal aid organization, reflecting the communities they serve. Welcome letters for new hires should be sent by the committee to orient new staff members about the function of this group. 

Recruitment strategies should include effective communication with area law schools, non-profit organizations, diverse bar associations, and organizations that work with persons with disabilities about the priority for hiring diverse candidates that reflect the communities they serve. This would also involve meeting with student affinity groups and hosting events that are geared toward diverse student groups. The recruitment strategy should also include event planning, with participation in and hosting of hiring fairs with an emphasis on diverse candidates. 

Recruitment materials (both print and online) should emphasize the legal aid organization's diversity and its willingness and desire to be inclusive. Marketing materials should follow the ADA standards for accessibility. Job descriptions and postings should state that the legal aid organization's hiring goals are inclusive and committed to reflecting the communities that it serves. 

Recruitment strategies should seek to remove barriers to obtaining diverse candidates and hires. For example, internal internship programs should be structured with diverse candidates in mind and should be marketed to those prospective applicants. Also, annual training should be done with leadership and hiring committees on unconscious bias and other barriers that preclude hiring a staff that is diverse. 

A separate annual training should be done for all staff and leadership with a requirement of 100% participation. Training should emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion and appropriate communication strategies in order for all staff members to feel comfortable and welcome in the workplace. The diversity and inclusion committee should be heavily involved in the formation and scheduling of these trainings.

It is important for legal aid organizations to have a reputation for effective and open interaction with the various communities served. A potential recruit who recognizes that the legal aid organization makes a significant and successful effort to serve the population with which the person identifies is more likely to want to join that organization. 

It can be particularly challenging to ensure diversity within legal aid organizations because the pool of available candidates may be small and competition for them intense. However, diverse candidates tend to gravitate toward legal aid organizations that are structured to be welcoming and to listen to differing voices. In addition, as more diverse candidates are hired, they can play a role in recruiting others, especially if their own experiences within the workplace are positive. Consider how internal mentoring programs may advance feelings of connection and inclusion.

How to Retain Staff Members from Diverse Backgrounds

While it is imperative for legal aid organizations to have an effective recruitment strategy - involving community partners, colleges and universities, provider agencies, and others - it is equally imperative to develop a retention strategy that demonstrates the program's commitment to maintain a staff that is reflective of the community served.  Staff retention has been a longstanding issue for legal aid organizations. Developing a messaging strategy explaining why staff retention is an important value can help obtain buy-in from all sectors. This communication should include the message that the client community is well-served when staff, at all levels, is reflective of the community, including through racial and ethnic diversity, gender, age, disability, language, and outward religious affiliation. Being able to bring one's authentic self to the workplace allows one to feel connected to coworkers. 

Inclusion goes hand-in-hand with retention. The messaging should include the concept that life experiences are also relevant and important in maintaining a staff that is reflective of the client community. Communicating these values to staff - and even at the point of recruitment - demonstrates to staff that they will be and are valued and needed. 

While competitive salaries and benefits and contributions to a retirement plan are key markers in the effort to retain all staff, program leadership must demonstrate an understanding that these markers are likely even more important to diverse staff due to the historical economic inequities in society. Options such as allowing part- or full-time remote work for certain positions should also be considered.

Developing a strategy to ensure that leadership opportunities are available to staff provides a window for newer staff to see themselves on those paths. This strategy must be intentional, starting with discussions with staff about their own leadership paths, following up with a viable plan. 

Another important retention strategy is to have substantive professional development that will ensure staff are able to fully develop. Receiving important assignments, such as handling complex legal matters early in their careers, should be a part of professional development. Being able to make appellate court arguments, handling federal court matters, working on complex administrative cases, and establishing and maintaining key community partnerships are all the kinds of professional development opportunities that send the message that staff are valued in terms of their skill development. If diverse staff see themselves being able to have these kinds of development opportunities, without barriers such as length of tenure on staff, the message is clear: "This is a place where you can grow."

Legal aid organizations should have plans and policies in place to identify and address the isolation staff may feel. Affinity groups or other opportunities for staff to feel connected should be developed. 

Developing a set of communication norms that promote the values of inclusion and respect, as well as regular dialogue about how those norms can help to promote a positive work environment, sends the message that leadership values positive communication. Seeking staff ideas about other inclusion and retention strategies should become routine, and this could be done through regular staff surveys and the development of a recruitment committee.

In addition, organizations should train staff in the skills and perspectives needed to work cross-culturally.Organizations should offer advocates training in cross-cultural communication skills, such as the ability to focus deeply on content, to read verbal and nonverbal behavior, and to adapt to differing conversational and behavioral styles that may vary depending on culture. Training on cultural competency materials related to people with disabilities should also be provided for the development of skills and sensitivity to advocate for persons with disabilities. This will negate habits such as talking louder to someone who is deaf, pushing someone in a wheelchair or touching assistive technology equipment, grabbing the arm of one who is blind, or petting a service animal.

In summary, legal aid organizations should develop intentional steps and a plan to meet specific goals regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring, recruiting, and retaining employees. These steps should be taken in conjunction with training and listening sessions with staff members. Goals should be clearly communicated to staff along with the accompanying message about the value of a diverse staff in achieving the overall mission of providing excellent overall client services. 

Equal Employment Opportunity

Staff diversity is important for a legal aid organization in and of itself because of the positive impact on its service to its client community. It can also be reflective of compliance with federal, state, and local laws regarding equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. The legal aid organization should also comply with federal and state laws governing the accommodation of persons with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to perform a job. 

A legal aid organization should pursue appropriate steps, including self-assessment of its workforce, to ensure equal employment opportunity at all levels of the legal aid organization. The legal aid organization should designate a key staff member, with authority and responsibility, to monitor its work to achieve both compliance and the positive impacts brought by a diverse staff.