Building a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Industry

Nov. 13, 2020

Women and People of Color at Law Firms in 2019

Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, National Association for Law Placement

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Major law firms and corporations have increasingly expressed a commitment to greater diversity among employees in recent years. While that constitutes progress in the field of diversity and inclusion, there is still plenty of work to be done, according to a recent Bloomberg Law panel discussion.

To discuss the legal industry’s current status in recruiting and retaining a diverse talent pool, as well as essential next steps, “The Next Generation of Law: Building a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion” convened three leading experts in the field:

  • Hon. Rubén Castillo (Ret.), litigation practice group partner and chair of Akerman Bench at Akerman LLP
  • Robert J. Grey Jr., president of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity
  • Kimya S.P. Johnson, senior counsel and chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Legal Practice Group at Ogletree Deakins

The panel was moderated by Grace Maral Burnett, Bloomberg Law transactions analysis manager.

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“All of the panelists are here because we support you, and we are happy that you made the decision to go into the legal profession,” Castillo said as the discussion kicked off. “We want to leave our profession more diverse than we found it.”

Creating diverse pipelines

To that end, the panelists shared how their companies are making systemic changes to establish diverse pipelines.

“We’re very intentionally focused on creating networks and avenues by which we can identify and bring in diverse associates,” said Johnson. “That’s step one. Step two is we’re also personally invested. So many of us are very passionate, about not only who we are, but who is coming behind us.”

Castillo added that in order to make systemic changes, firms must be prepared to step out of their comfort zones. That includes creating new internships or externships with diverse local organizations, designing mentorship programs, and thinking differently about what truly adds value to the firm.

“They’re used to always looking for associates in the same manner and at the same law schools,” he said. “All of us who are privileged to be at a law firm pushing diversity are trying to get firms to think outside the box.”

Grey’s organization, Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, facilitates a mentorship program that has matched about 750 members of law firms and departments throughout the country with first-year law students. As the students progress through school and prepare to enter the workforce, “hopefully those relationships continue,” Grey said.

Thinking outside the box in a virtual world

Turning to the present moment, which requires relationships to develop and be cultivated virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the panelists discussed the opportunities this new environment presents. Connecting virtually, they noted, offers new ways to differentiate yourself.

Perhaps that means designing your resume in a different way than you might for an in-person interview, coming up with a creative way of introducing yourself in a virtual space, Grey said. “We are treading new waters, cutting a new trail, and you have the opportunity to lead. Take advantage of it.”

[Learn more from law firm leaders about how to succeed as a law student and new lawyer during the Covid-19 pandemic.]

As protests for racial justice and related social unrest this past summer put an even greater spotlight on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, panelists said they have seen a renewed commitment to cultivating it in their own organizations.

“I think everyone was talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion before they knew what it was,” Johnson said. “Now folks are really digging into understanding why it works … all of the various programs, initiatives, and areas of focus that fall within it, and why it’s important, why it matters. They’re open and more prepared not only to resource these initiatives, but to be very public about taking action.”

What are the next steps?

At this point, in order to move forward, it’s not enough to pay lip service to the cause. With Black attorneys accounting for less than 2% of partners among firms surveyed by the National Association for Law Placement, the legal industry is still a long way from fully addressing internal racial inequality.

“I think now we have got to hold ourselves accountable for results, and it is going to become a form of competition, I believe, for retaining and promoting the best talent,” Castillo said.

In addition to increasing diversity within, he added, corporations have a responsibility to demand accountability from outside counsel.

“The buck stops with those people who pay, and if they say something, we all listen. If it’s tied to compensation, what you do in diversity, inclusion, promotion of diverse talent, then all of a sudden it happens in a different way. It’s more intentional and more deliberate.”