Following slow but steady progress, in or about 2008, the proverbial bottom fell out of efforts related to diversity in many U.S. law firms. When the economic crisis escalated and there was a shortage of legal work, diversity too frequently became a casualty. Firms that had gone beyond hiring diverse lawyers in greater numbers than ones and twos, and likewise felt the need to hire diversity professionals, made a calculated decision that it was “OK” for diversity to be collateral damage as they trimmed expenses and adjusted to current financial conditions.
Overall, not only was the limited progress achieved in the years leading up to the economic crisis commencing in 2008 lost, but in too many instances diversity in the legal profession retrogressed. Much emphasis has been placed on practicing attorneys, but they were not the only casualties when downsizing began. Diversity professionals, most of whom, at the time, were both trained attorneys and ethnically diverse, were among the first to receive pink slips. Once considered unique positions, diversity professionals and tasks performed by them were ostensibly absorbed into human resources and/or professional-development departments. And, no matter what the Web site representations, the perception was that diversity was not a core value in law firms.
Because of the emphasis on survival of the law firm, many firms did not recognize how important diversity and inclusion were and continue to be to that survival. Stress as one of the primary barriers to success in law firms came into play. The stress of the economic crisis in conjunction with “in group” bias almost resulted in the total decimation of diversity in law firms. Whatever legal work that there was to be done was likely to be done by those who looked like those in power. The effect was obvious.
The mindset concerning diversity in 2008 and years prior was in many ways incomplete. Firms only thought about how they could make their firms more diverse, meaning how the numbers could be increased. It was strictly a numbers game. Not thinking beyond numbers was and continues to be a recipe for failure when financial difficulties or other stressors emerge. It was not difficult to view diversity as disposable because there had been no real inclusion of diverse lawyers: Diverse lawyers had not been integrated into the fabric of the law firms.
As the end of 2011 nears, there has been some progress. It has been a long journey back, and many firms are yet trying to recover from the losses suffered during the height of the recession and the decrease in corporate legal spend. While there is an immense amount of hope, much intentional effort is necessary. The existence of ethnically diverse attorneys in the legal profession is still somewhat tenuous. Recruiting has not returned to pre-2008 levels and there is still skittishness about the economy. Yet young diverse lawyers should be encouraged. As with 2008, mere numbers don’t provide a complete picture of efforts being undertaken to improve diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
Some law firms are taking new and more innovative approaches to ensure that true gains are made with respect to diversity and inclusion. In some instances there are outside influences helping to move them along in the right direction.
Unlike in the past, a holistic approach is being taken with respect to diversity. All facets of the legal profession are focused on diversity efforts, from law schools, to the judiciary, to corporations, law firms and all legal entities in between. Eyes have been opened to the fact that having diverse places of employment is not “trendy.” There is a recognition that there can be no diversity inclusion success without law firms recognizing that both diversity and inclusion are necessary for their success. Diversity doesn’t mean much if a firm has a different set of diverse people every year. Diversity and inclusion are both key components of a successful business model.
Law firms and other legal organizations are hiring experts to train them to be more successful. Training is ongoing, not once in a lifetime. Deeper issues are being explored to determine barriers to success, such as the significant and damaging effects of microinequities and the positive results of microaffirmations.
Firms are hiring coaches and professional development directors to help navigate diverse lawyers through circumstances sometimes culturally different and difficult for them. Importantly, some firms are going beyond providing mentors to providing sponsors.
Many law firms that once operated under the assumption that being diverse was the “right thing to do” have come to recognize that that notion is not nearly enough. That would require an unrealistic changing of hearts, which is not necessary. The focus must be on changing minds and attitudes — becoming very intentional. Firms, sometimes with the help of their clients, are now putting systems into place to avoid the pitfalls that occurred during the past three years.
Although the overall prognosis is good, there are still going to be bumps in the road. Ethnically diverse lawyers comprise approximately 6 percent of equity partners and women of color remain at less than 2 percent. These are abysmal statistics. They too, with the right amount of effort, can be changed.
Paulette Brown is a partner and the chief diversity officer at Edwards Wildman Palmer and a member of its labor and employment practice group. Throughout her career of more than 30 years, she has held a number of positions, including in-house counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies and municipal court judge. In 2008, the NLJ recognized her as one of the 50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America.