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June 26, 2024 Get the SciTech Edge

Fostering Diversity within the Legal Profession

Joanne Charles

Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned established equal protection law with its decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (SFFA v. Harvard) and SFFA v UNC-Chapel Hill, and largely eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions. As a result of these decisions, most universities are prohibited from expressly considering race in the admissions-decision process. In the year since these decisions, employers have reviewed their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs considering whether commitments to DEI programs related to recruitment, supplier diversity, employee resource groups, and scholarship programs should continue. Closer inspection of these cases reveals that the decisions do not invalidate employment diversity efforts and legal employers should continue to invest in DEI programs.

Fostering diversity within the legal profession is not only a matter of social justice but also a crucial practice for ensuring the legitimacy and effectiveness of the legal system. By recruiting and promoting minority lawyers, law firms and legal departments contribute to a more representative judiciary and legal workforce, which reflects the communities we represent and enhances the credibility and fairness of the legal process. A 2023 report from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities, illustrates that while more women and minorities, including Black, Latine, and Indigenous people, worked in STEM in the last decade than previously, these groups as well as people with disabilities remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics when compared to the broader U.S. population. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s Report on Diversity at U.S. Law, in 2023, women made up the majority of associates for the first time in the more than 30 years that NALP has been tracking law firm diversity data; and last year saw the largest year-over-year increase in the percentage of associates of color—growing by 1.8 percentage points to 30.15%. Despite these advances, the work is not done. To continue to see the benefits of DEI programs in STEM and in legal departments, employers should understand the benefits of investing in these programs and the risks associated with abandoning them.

Studies consistently show that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams in terms of decision-making and performance. Law firms should understand that by attracting and retaining top talent from diverse backgrounds, they gain a competitive edge in today’s marketplace. Moreover, in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, law firms that embrace DEI are better positioned to adapt to changing demographics and societal expectations, thereby enhancing their long-term viability and competitiveness. Political efforts to conflate higher education and private practice may mislead legal employers, but law firms and legal department hiring managers should look to evidence of the benefits of pursuing DEI to achieve better business representation, develop better legal talent and provide better legal advice.

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Joanne Charles

Gilead Sciences

Joanne Charles is chair of the MAD Committee and associate general counsel at Gilead Sciences. Her work focuses on AI, privacy, and data ethics. Prior to joining Gilead, Joanne was senior corporate counsel in Microsoft’s Corporate, External and Legal Affairs Department.