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June 29, 2015 Practice Points

Legal Profession Lacks Diversity in High-Level Positions

By Melissa Moravec

In her recent article in the Washington Post, author Deborah L. Rhode points out the lack of diversity in the legal profession, suggests reasons for the lack of diversity, and proposes ways to address the issue.

Ms. Rhode notes that law is one of the least diverse professions in the nation, particularly in high-level positions. While women make up more than one-third of the profession, they only account for about one-fifth of law firm partners, general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations, and law school deans. The article indicates that women experience greater dissatisfaction than men with respect to level of responsibility, recognition for work, and chances for advancement.

Ms. Rhode suggests that part of the problem is a lack of consensus that there is actually a significant problem. Many lawyers think the barriers are gone and that any lingering inequality is a function of different capabilities, commitment, and choices. According to the author, however, even when factors such as law school grades or time spent out of the workforce or on part-time schedules are controlled, studies show that men are two to five times more likely to make partner than women.

Exclusion from networks can also hinder career development for women and minorities. American Bar Association research reveals that 62 percent of women of color and 60 percent of white women, but only four percent of white men, felt excluded from formal and informal networking opportunities. Rhode recommends mentoring programs as a means of resolving this problem.

Rhode suggests the most successful approach to addressing diversity issues is to create a task force or committee with diverse members who have credibility with their colleagues and a stake in the outcome. Moreover, she says that assessment is a crucial part of diversity initiatives. In other words, organizations should collect both quantitative and qualitative data on matters such as retention, assignments, satisfaction, mentoring, and work/family conflicts in order to analyze the effectiveness of their diversity initiatives.

Rhode advocates for lawyers to assume personal responsibility for professional changes. She says these reforms should be seen as organizational priorities in which everyone has a stake, instead of merely “women” or “minority” issues.

Keywords: diversity, legal profession, inequality, initiatives, women

Melissa Moravec works at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota

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