January 20, 2021 Feature

TIPS for Law Firms of All Sizes to Increase Diversity

By Sachin V. Java
Establishing mentorship programs is an efficient way of retaining diverse lawyers.

Establishing mentorship programs is an efficient way of retaining diverse lawyers.

Cecilie_Arcurs / E+ via Getty Images

With an emphasized focus on diversity, recruiting and retaining a diverse legal workforce is not only the right thing to do but is important to law firms and clients alike. Even with increased efforts, the diversity problem remains an issue. To assist in resolving this intricate issue of increasing diversity in the legal field, law firms of all sizes can take certain simple steps to tackle this problem.

Appoint Diversity Champions

Mid- to large-size firms should consider appointing a diversity officer or implementing a diversity committee as there are several advantages in doing so. The first advantage is that the organization will be able to take on diversity initiatives in an efficient manner. Second, it provides an avenue for diverse employees to participate in the management of the firm which is good for retention. Third, for those external to the firm, it showcases the commitment the firm has taken to increase diversity in the workforce.

Develop a Credo that Emphasizes Diversity and Inclusion

Without encouragement from leadership, any initiatives taken for diversity and inclusion are likely to fail. Thus, leadership must be aware of the importance of diversity. Also, the firm should develop and adopt a credo, mission, vision statement, or diversity plan as appropriate emphasizing the commitment to creating and maintaining a diverse workforce.

Use Analytics

In today’s world of data-driven decisions and analytics, firms must measure and maintain data concerning internal diversity. Internal diversity data should include, but not be limited to, diversity recruitment, retention, and inclusion. In addition, awareness of diversity data in the general geographic area will be helpful for focused recruiting.

Retention and Internal Efforts

In my experience, retention of diverse attorneys is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of trying to tackle the issue. One way to retain diverse attorneys is to establish a mentorship program. Many firms do not have formal mentorship programs and this a problem. It is possible that a diverse attorney may organically find a mentor, but this is not always the case. The establishment of mentorship programs is an efficient way of ensuring diverse lawyers are getting effective training, constructive feedback, opportunities to connect with clients, and have increasing responsibility with the firm and access to key decision-makers.

Another way to retain diverse attorneys is to consider them for specific projects and leadership positions within firms. For example, initiatives like the Mansfield Rule which is based on the concept of the NFL’s Rooney Rule can help to ensure diversity. The Rooney Rule requires that law firms consider a certain percentage of historically underrepresented lawyers such as women, LGBTQ+, and minorities for significant leadership roles. Although this may not work for firms of all sizes, it is helpful to keep this concept in mind and try to implement it as best as possible.

The Issue of Unconscious Bias

Another major issue that is seen concerning diversity in law firms has been the problem of unconscious bias. To overcome this issue, diversity training should be implemented. Diversity training educates the workforce to understand their own biases, which in turn, helps to create a more welcoming environment. Another useful platform in overcoming this issue can be in the form of periodic firm lunch and learns (virtual for now, and in-person when safe to do so) where the diverse individuals are given the opportunity to showcase their food, and present information on their culture is another initiative a firm could take to recognize and celebrate diversity.

Recruiting and External Efforts

Creating and maintaining relationships early in a diverse attorney’s career is an essential tool in fixing the diversity issue at a firm. There are several simple steps a firm can undertake to do so. One way to do this is by partnering with student groups such as affinity groups which increases visibility and assists in forming relationships that will result in diverse recruiting. Another way, participation in local bar association minority clerkship programs is another avenue to emphasize diverse recruiting. Another step may be to establish programs that aim at involvement in the community. Presence in such community programs encourages individuals outside, including diverse candidates, to see the firm in a different light.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Diversity in the Legal Field

With concerns and uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic, there needs to a renewed emphasis on the efforts described above. Businesses, including law firms, that are not intentional and vigilant about how their short-term, economic-based decisions could impact diversity and inclusion efforts could easily lose the gains they had before the pandemic.

For instance, several in society are suffering from the economic implications associated with the pandemic. This presents an opportunity for firms to assist local affinity groups by promoting pro bono activities. Pandemic related changes have created chaos around the usually stable bar admission and recruiting process. No doubt, impacted diverse law students would appreciate the opportunity to connect, especially firms that continue to emphasize diversity during these trying times.

Particularly, in these times of remote work, It is essential that firm management follow their existing retention plans or create new plans in light of the pandemic, to continue to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. For instance, firm leadership could take simple internal measures such as regular check-ins with diverse professionals on their workload and asking non-diverse professionals to consider diverse professionals when they need assistance. Communicating the significance of diversity and inclusion throughout the organization is another basic step an organization could take. Virtual mentoring and sponsoring to keep diverse attorneys and others within the organization connected is another easy step an organization may choose to undertake.

The harsh reality of the pandemic is that tough business decisions need to be made including furloughs, layoffs, terminations, and reduced salaries. These decisions mustn’t be made in a vacuum. Decisions made solely based on billable hours and the overall productivity of the attorney neglect to account for potential subjective factors that impact such metrics, including confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories). To tackle such unconscious bias, a process-oriented approach is ideal. The process should include parameters for intentional assignment distribution during this time of increased teleworking to ensure that diverse attorneys have work and that there is an equitable distribution of assignments.

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By Sachin V. Java

Sachin V. Java is an attorney with Wegman Hessler in Cleveland, Ohio, representing businesses in commercial contracting, product liability litigation, and commercial litigation matters.