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Three Ways the Legal Profession Can Do Better on Diversity

By Melissa J. Anderson

Earlier this week, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession convened a group of motivated lawyers for a symposium on diversity research as it pertains to law. The IILP discussed its own research on diversity and inclusion which was published earlier this year, and hosted other researchers on the topic.

One thing was clear: while the legal profession has worked hard over the past few decades to improve diversity within its ranks, it has a long way to go. The symposium, which was held at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in New York City, was one of six gatherings to present the research.

As one presenter explained, the organization hoped that by using a nontraditional format to present this research, the gathering would inspire fresh thinking on the subject. Floyd Holloway, Counsel at State Farm Insurance and Board Member of the IILP, explained, “we need to keep this dialogue at the level it needs to be at to keep moving forward.”

Based on the symposium, here are three ways the legal profession can improve its track record on diversity and inclusion.

1. Move Faster: Less Talk and More Action

As Sandra Yamate, Executive Director of the IILP, made clear in an interview with Evolved Employer this summer, the profession isn’t moving nearly quickly enough when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “We’ve been talking about the business case for diversity since the ’80s.” She continued, “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.”

Holloway echoed this notion at this week’s symposium when he said, “We don’t have the luxury of looking at the issue with a pensive state… as we might have done two decades ago.”

He continued, “The pipeline issue is still very much alive today.”

Compounding the issue is the slow pace of culture change, he explained. At his own company, State Farm, he said “Culture change is huge and it’s still going on.” He called on all lawyers to commit to diversity professionally and personally. In the legal profession, he and his peers are committed to justice, fairness, and equality, he explained. Rather than leaving a legacy as a generation of lawyers who didn’t strive for these ideals in their own profession, they should commit to being the change they want to see.

“Make the difference and carry the dialogue forward,” he urged.

2. Gather Better Data

Yamate explained at the symposium that in many cases, the legal profession isn’t moving quickly enough, simply at the level of data capture. “It’s really important that we at least know what we’re talking about so we know the problems we’re trying to solve.”

For example, she said “So much of the diversity dialogue tends to focus on large law firms – because there’s very little detailed information [on smaller firms].”

Hopefully, the IILP’s own study on the numbers, which came out earlier this year, can help change agents in the profession know where their firm stands in comparison to others, and encourage them to move the needle when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

3. Acknowledge the Business Case for Inclusion

One way to move the case for diversity forward is to acknowledge its business benefits, pointed out Brian W. Duwe, Managing Partner, of the Chicago Office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “We will maximize our ability to find… the best talent and enhance our ability to attract new clients if our teams reflect the diversity of our clients,” he said.

Diverse teams enable better problem solving and build a more “nimble and adaptive organization,” he explained.

Yet, he continued, “Achieving real, tangible progress toward diversity and inclusion has been more than a little challenge.”

Skadden Arps was one of the first firms to establish an office of diversity in the 1980s, yet the firm still isn’t quite where it wants to be. “The frustration is… not withstanding all of the efforts, which are going on at every organization in the profession, the state of diversity in the legal profession is still woefully [behind] other industries – and that of our clients.”

By focusing on the business case for diversity, he explained, change agents in the profession can hope to put more muscle behind their firms’ diversity efforts.

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