By Melissa J. Anderson

A recent report by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession has revealed that while plenty of law firms and corporations are talking up the business case for diversity, real progress in terms of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is moving very slowly.

But, Sandra Yamate, Executive Director of the IILP, said that the fact that so many firms and companies were eager to participate in the study, shows some steps toward progress. “The legal profession remains one of the least diverse in the country. And what was really fascinating about this study is that for the first time, we’re getting some hard numbers. For the last few years, the evidence has been so anecdotal.”

While the study showed progress isn’t moving fast enough, it also pointed out several areas where diversity and inclusion efforts can be improved, as well as potential solutions.

Recognizing Unrealistic Expectations

The study, which surveyed 52 Fortune 500 companies, 391 of the United States’ largest law firms, and 1,032 diverse partners, revealed that while corporate clients are encouraging outside corporate council to be more diverse, the amount of business actually going to diverse attorneys isn’t as significant. According to the study, “72.7% of law firms receive only 0-5% of their gross revenues from clients who ask about the firm’s diversity.” The talk is bigger than the actual commitment.

And according to Yamate, this may be leading to unrealistic expectations on behalf of law firms in terms of business development goals for diverse lawyers, as well as disappointment on behalf of the attorneys themselves.

She said, “There’s so much media attention about the diversity issue, but the study shows that there isn’t a corresponding amount of business being given out. Firms are asking, ‘why aren’t you bringing more business in?’”

She continued, “Diverse attorneys need to know that the problem isn’t necessarily about them.”

How can we solve the issue? Yamate said, “First of all, there needs to be more transparency about the amount of business that corporate clients are truly giving to diverse lawyers. Secondly, it would be helpful for firms to focus on creating inclusive environments, rather than diverse environments. And finally, we need more data about what’s actually happening, and to recognize those firms that are doing what they ought to be doing.”

Pushing the Business Case into Action

According to Yamate, the push toward inclusion isn’t happening fast enough. Study participants said that corporations regularly discuss the merits of having a diverse in house staff of lawyers. But, the report says, they “rarely implement strategies to reward in-house counsel for choosing diverse outside counsel or bestow more business upon those firms that are succeeding in their diversity endeavors.”

The study revealed that 12.5% of survey respondents said that corporations have changed relationships with law firms because of a lack of diversity. And, of those who had changed their relationship, only 16.6% terminated it. While 12.5% doesn’t seem like a huge number, it is still a significant population.

But, Yamate explained, it’s not enough. “We’ve been talking about the business case for diversity since the ’80s,” she said. “The progress is incremental, and what we’re really seeing is a revolving door. We’re not seeing significant career progression. Diverse lawyers are generally in and out, and this is troubling.”

Solution Lies with Leadership

The IILP report implies that true diversity in the legal profession will require legal clients (rather than partners or senior management) to understand the benefits of a more heterogeneous legal team.

But perhaps it’s time for the mindset of senior partners or leadership to change as well. According to the report, “84.1% of diverse partners have served on their law firm’s diversity committee, but only 8.1% have ever served on their firm’s executive committee.”

When diverse lawyers aren’t being seen as potential leaders by their peers, how will clients see them? Until senior leadership takes diversity seriously, it’s not likely that business development efforts will reflect the need for diverse candidates either.

Yamate said, “What it says to us is that organizations are pigeon-holing diverse partners into what they think are appropriate roles, instead of finding ways to include them in firm leadership.”

She continued, “True leadership can do a lot in terms of nurturing and mentoring diverse lawyers, as well as providing the training and client exposure they need to reach their full potential.

Additionally, she said, this guidance can help diverse attorneys make better choices and understand their own strengths. “Diverse lawyers should be more strategic in how they pursue business development roles. The research shows that many are taking a more scattered approach to development opportunities – they are trying to do everything. But not all of these opportunities are effective, and this can be discouraging.”

She continued, “They need to understand that they are not necessarily bad at marketing themselves, but they have been misled about the amount of business available.”

Finally, she said corporate clients need to understand the value of diversity more. “I think corporate clients need to be encouraged to examine how they are selecting outside counsel, and provide greater transparency about the amount of business they give to diverse lawyers.”

Next Steps

The next steps for the IILP will be formulating ways to use the data to push diversity and inclusion forward. Yamate said, “The fact that we finally have the data available is a significant step forward for the whole profession. We want to find ways to help those concerned, and build upon what we learned.”

She continued, “Instead of pointing fingers, we want to see what the pressure points are and find ways around them.”

Yamate said that the organization is planning a symposium series in the next few months. Toward the end of the summer the IILP will be publishing a larger review of work on the subject of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, which will include, among other work, a series of essays by diverse lawyers. “We want to discuss diversity within diversity,” she explained.