By Melissa J. Anderson

Last week the New York Office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP hosted a symposium on diversity by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. Several researchers presented papers, and notable figures in the field gave talks on the importance of taking action, driving better data, and focusing on the business case for diversity (see a summary here).

But digging deeper into the presentations, it was clear that minority groups within the legal profession have different needs and different challenges. Obviously this should come as no surprise – but what it does mean, is that diversity teams within law firms are going to have to work a lot harder to move forward on inclusion, particular if they are looking to prove the business value of their efforts.

As David Bamlango, an associate at DLA Piper explained, “Diversity is hard work. We should not expect it to happen just because society has changed. It’s a good thing when law firms talk affirmative change, but it does not happen by chance.”

Microtargeting Diversity

Bamlango, who presented a paper on microtargeted diversity, explained that for law firms to fully reap the benefits of a diverse practice, they need to go deeper. Rather than recruiting, they need to recruit diverse individuals strategically.

One benefit, he explained, is “the incredible ability to innovate when you bring together people from different backgrounds.” Additionally, he pointed out how diversity improves problem solving. Furthermore, he continued, “The more diversity, the more of these benefits you should expect.”

To maximize these benefits, he continued, “Employers should be proactive about digging deep into diversity.” That means aligning diversity efforts with money-making strategies.

For instance, if a firm plans to do more work in Brazil, it should start targeting Portuguese speakers. And if it, at the same time, wants to increase the numbers of individuals in its workforce who are of African descent, it could consider recruiting in Angola, he explained.

Targeting diversity at such a granular level, however, is a lot of work, Bamlango continued. “You have to identify them, you have to go after them, you have to retain them”

But it can be done, Bamlango argued. After all, marketing campaigns do it all the time – segmenting out audiences by multitudes of attributes. “The same efforts can be applied to diversity,” he said.

Fighting the Box Checking Phenomenon

Another topic presented at the event was the controversy over “box checking” when it comes to individuals claiming Native American descent.

Mary L. Smith, partner at Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf and President-Elect of the National Native American Bar Association, began her talk by mentioning two numbers: 565 (the number of federally recognized tribes) and 0 (the number of current federal judges who are Native American.

There are, in fact, very few Native American lawyers in practice, but judging by the number of individuals who claim to be Native American on forms like the LSAT or Law School applications, one would expect the number to be much higher, Smith said. In fact, many people are just checking the box, regardless of whether they consider themselves part of Native American culture or not.

Smith said this is taking resources away from those who truly need them. She continued, “We know we have a pipeline problem. But if you’re inflating the numbers the problem is a bigger one than we think.”

But the box-checker problem is also an ethical one, she said, “If you’re willing to make a misrepresentation on your first paperwork as a lawyer, I think we should all care about that.”

Finally, the issue is very personal for Native Americans themselves, she continued, who don’t take matters of heritage and tradition lightly.

Smith and the National Native American Bar Association have introduced a proposal to the American Bar Association that would require anyone checking the “Native American Box” on paperwork to include their tribal affiliation, ID number, or a few sentences about their heritage. According to Smith, this would prevent people from exaggerating or misrepresenting their heritage.

The movement to keep a minority label exclusive, as with Native American status,  is interesting in that it reveals how messy diversity is becoming. And this should be considered a good thing – the deeper firms delve into the “diversity within diversity,” as Bamlango put it, the more they will benefit from building inclusive environments.

But the movement toward micro-diversities won’t be easy (or cheap). Diversity heads within firms will have to be sure to keep focusing on the business benefits of diversity and inclusion work to ensure they have the resources to maintain recruitment and retention programming. But, to look on the bright side – as the global marketplace becomes more diverse as well, the business case should continue to be highly visible.