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3 Ways for Law Firms to Immediately Increase Diversity

Image: Turnerjoy.net

The diversity issue among law firms is a vexed one, but also one that has some ready and fast fixes.

Take the article written by Deborah L Rhode*, Professor of Law at Ernest W McFarland and author, she postulates that women and others should not be viewed by lawyers as ‘minorities’ but rather as ‘priorities’.

Everyone has a stake in raising the involvement of ‘minorities’ she writes and it is something that should be translated into daily ritual.

As she writes in the Post:

From the outside, the legal profession seems to be growing ever more diverse. Three women are now on the Supreme Court. Loretta Lynch is the second African American to hold the position of attorney general. The president and first lady are lawyers of color. Yet according to Bureau of Labor statistics, law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation. Eighty-eight percent of lawyers are white. Other careers do better — 81 percent of architects and engineers are white; 78 percent of accountants are white; and 72 percent of physicians and surgeons are white.

The legal profession supplies presidents, governors, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, general counsels, and heads of corporate, government, nonprofit and legal organizations. Its membership needs to be as inclusive as the populations it serves.

Part of the problem is a lack of consensus that there is a significant problem. Many lawyers believe that barriers have come down, women and minorities have moved up, and any lingering inequality is a function of different capabilities, commitment and choices.

The facts suggest otherwise.

Women constitute more than a third of the profession, but only about a fifth of law firm partners, general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations and law school deans. The situation is bleakest at the highest levels. Women account for only 17 percent of equity partners, and only seven of the nation’s 100 largest firms have a woman as chairman or managing partner. Women are less likely to make partner even controlling for other factors, including law school grades and time spent out of the workforce or on part-time schedules. Studies find that men are two to five times more likely to make partner than women.

Although blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans now constitute about a third of the population and a fifth of law school graduates, they make up fewer than 7 percent of law firm partners and 9 percent of general counsels of large corporations. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners are African Americans.

The problem is not lack of concern. I recently surveyed managing partners of the 100 largest law firms and general counsel of Fortune 100 companies. Virtually all of the 53 participants in the study said diversity was a high priority. But they attributed the under-representation of minorities to the lack of candidates in the pool. And they explained the “woman problem” by citing women’s different choices and disproportionate family responsibilities in the context of a 24/7 workplace. As one managing partner put it, “You have to be realistic. It’s a demanding profession. . . . I don’t claim we’ve figure it out.”

Such explanations capture only a partial truth. Minorities’ under-representation in law school does not explain their disproportionate attrition in law firms. And even women who work long hours and never take time out of the labor force have a lower chance of partnership than similarly situated men. Moreover, although data on women’s desires for partnership is lacking, what the research on women’s leadership preferences generally does not show is substantial gender disparities. In law, women experience greater dissatisfaction than men with key dimensions of practice such as level of responsibility, recognition for work and chances for advancement.

Moreover, substantial evidence suggests that unconscious bias and exclusion from informal networks of support and client development remain common. Minorities still lack the presumption of competence granted to white male counterparts, as illustrated in a recent study by a consulting firm. It gave a legal memo to law firm partners for “writing analysis” and told half the partners that the author was African American. The other half were told that that the writer was white. The partners gave the white man’s memo a rating of 4.1 on a scale of 5, while the African American’s memo got a 3.2. The white man received praise for his potential and analytical skills; the African American was said to be average at best and in need of “lots of work.”
Source: Washington Post

*Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, the director of the Center on the Legal Profession, and the director of the Program in Law and Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University. Her new book, The Trouble with Lawyers, will be released in June 2015 from Oxford University Press.
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