The legal community is bogged down with the constant problem of how to resolve the issue of diversity—or the lack thereof—in law firms. But is diversity and inclusion truly a goal, or is it a topic that allows law firms to pay lip service to the notion while still maintaining the status quo?
Touting a commitment to diversity has become an increasingly popular practice for law firms. However, what we see in reality is tokenism, wherein firms symbolically recruit a small number of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of a diverse workforce. It is a shame that firms still try to sell the image of diversity by consciously selecting a few minority associates and partners to be placed on firm brochures. These firms often fail to genuinely foster an environment that encourages, supports and cherishes the exchange of diverse ideas, and the equal treatment of attorneys.
Some in the legal community have opined that to remedy the problem with diversity, the decision must be made at the top. This is true in part, as a firm’s management would have to be receptive to the idea of diversity, but being receptive and actually buying into the idea are two different things. There are those who simply want diverse candidates because, like icing on a cake, the optics are appealing to an outside audience, even if devoid of any substance.
On the other hand, some attorneys understand that their community comprises people from different backgrounds, races, cultures and geographies. They appreciate that to adequately serve their clients and provide a wealth of different perspectives, the firm must be able to create a workforce that thinks like and is representative of the clientele it serves. Accomplishing such a diverse workforce is truly difficult, because true diversity would require acceptance of people who are different from the status quo. I dare say it would force management to confront the biases and underlying prejudices that exist within firms.
The National Association for Law Placement released its 2018 report on diversity in law firms, showing that despite small increases in the past three years, representation of black associates remains just below the pre-recession level of 4.66 percent (now at 4.48 percent). Minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, and representation of black partners has barely increased since the recession, with the number currently at 1.83 percent.
These figures lead to some relevant questions: How are black associates being perceived and treated at firms? Have firms’ management and employees alike been trained to check their implicit biases toward minority attorneys? Are minority attorneys paired with mentors who are willing to invest in their growth as attorneys? Is there a clear path toward partnership or management? Are they treated as valued members of the firm? Are they afforded the same treatment as the majority attorneys within the firm? Are their actions judged in the same way? Is the firm taking proactive measures to hold itself accountable to these ideals?
The aforementioned questions are building blocks that firms should first consider in trying to implement a diverse and inclusive culture. Unfortunately, firms are not immune to the social ills and prejudices that exist in society. Consciously or unconsciously, these prejudices play out within their walls. Some in management would rather believe that these issues are nonexistent and would give the majority within their firms the benefit of the doubt. However, the same benefit is not afforded to black attorneys. They constantly must prove that they are educated enough, that they earned their bar licenses, and that they belong. I contend that no other group within the legal profession is prejudged more based on race, despite their effort, hard work, character, accomplishments and accolades. Justifiably, I am led to ask whether a huge part of the problem with diversity in the legal community is being black. Furthermore, do most law firms truly want black attorneys as part of their firms at all, and do they genuinely encourage their success?
Indeed, diversity is good for business. Nonetheless, it cannot be achieved if the people who are supposed to champion the cause—those directly affected—are put down by prevailing stereotypes and actions that run counterintuitive to that end. We need to stay aware and try to create a conducive environment for diversity and inclusion to thrive. If the minority attorneys or, specifically, the black attorneys within a firm are happy, valued and satisfied with their positions, they will speak positively about diversity and be roused to serve as mentors and champions in recruitment activities.
There has been a sentiment expressed that the lack of diversity can also be attributed to fewer diverse candidates applying for associate job openings. This is somewhat true, as the number of racially diverse candidates, specifically black candidates, in law schools has dwindled. But it is no coincidence that the firms that use this as their main excuse are the least-diverse firms. Instead of shifting blame to the candidate pool, firms should re-examine their hiring practices; culture/structure; retention and promotion of their diverse associates/partners; and credit distributions/bonuses. The legal community is a small one. Over time we get to know people in each other’s circles. Black attorneys make up an even smaller subset of the legal community. Not surprisingly, they share their plights and frustrations, especially if firms are not treating them well or fostering their growth and development. When it comes to diversity in the law, appearances matter, but the mistake made by firms is thinking that representation equals satisfaction.
Change does not come easy. The struggle toward achieving the goal of diversity and inclusion in the legal community is a process, but one that we all must be invested in. Certainly, this is not a plea for special treatment but for fair and equal treatment of minority attorneys in law firms and the legal community in general. This piece is not intended to ascribe blame; rather, the purpose is to express the frustration that is shared by many minority attorneys. It is intended to force us to not only talk, but act, regarding the elephant in the room. How are black attorneys being treated at our firms? How are minority attorneys being treated at our firms? We can entertain this unpopular viewpoint or ignore it as the angry rambling of a disgruntled black attorney. The choice is ours.
Henry E. Ibe is the founder and principal of H.I. Legal in Southfield, Michigan.