Although more attention has been paid to increasing diversity in the legal profession, the industry as a whole still struggles to make meaningful progress on the hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys. A recent industry survey on diversity found that between 2015 and 2016 there was only a one-point increase in the number of minority attorneys at any level (partner, nonpartner or head count).
While the statistics seem stagnant, more innovative strategies to improve diversity in the legal field continue to emerge. Law firms are inviting academics to study their hiring and promotion practices, and expanding their diversity programs beyond just offering identity-based affinity groups. In fact, across the legal industry, there have been increased efforts to move toward more collaborative programs and events that unite different diverse identity groups and foster organic relationship building between diverse attorneys.
By way of background, since the 1960s, diversity and inclusion programs in corporate America have been centered primarily around affinity groups based on gender and race. Law firm affinity groups may also include groups based on sexual orientation, family and veteran status. The groups exist to support the development and retention of diverse attorneys while also educating the broader firm about the history and traditions of their cultures.
More recent trends in diversity show that organizations are moving toward a broader approach to diversity and inclusion efforts. The Philadelphia Diversity Law Group has created several programs and initiatives “to enhance recruitment and retention of lawyers of diverse backgrounds by law firms and corporate law departments.” At Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, the diverse student organizations formed the Affinity Group Coalition, a collaborative effort that provides their members with access to shared resources and additional employment opportunities. Diane Kim (Temple Law, ‘19) is a student leader of the coalition and describes that the organizations “recognized [they] shared many of the same initiatives, [and] decided to work together [to provide] high-quality programming for [their] respective memberships.” The Philadelphia Bar Association Diversity in the Profession Committee now consists of representatives from Philadelphia’s affinity bar associations who collaborate on issues of mutual interest.
In 2017, the diverse associates in Dechert’s Philadelphia office—with the support of the firm—began convening an informal lunch group on a monthly basis as a way to get to know each other and build relationships to support one another, professionally and personally. Dechert’s Philadelphia Diverse Associates Group includes associates from a variety of practice groups, of varying levels of experience, who identify as diverse in numerous ways. The objective, at the outset, was focused on improving the sense of community among diverse associates in the office. However, the opportunity to engage in frank and open discussions in a safe space, with like-minded individuals, empowered the group to develop a more strategic focus, which now includes engagement and advocacy by the diverse associates to help the firm address diversity and inclusion issues.
Some organizations have taken this new broader perspective on diversity and inclusion a step further. In 2017, Deloitte announced the end of its traditional affinity groups, and created new inclusion councils. Through these inclusion councils, Deloitte seeks to “bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues,” but, at this time, it may stand alone in its plan to end affinity groups.
Affinity groups still serve an important role in law firms by bringing together attorneys from around the globe. Law firm affinity groups encourage attorneys to meet in one place and connect with colleagues from other offices at cultural events, group lunches and meetings.
However, opportunities for affinity groups to join in person are usually less frequent since members of affinity groups are spread out across many offices, with only a handful in each. Recognizing the need to fill this void in their own office and their strength as a unit of many, the diverse associates in Dechert’s Philadelphia office have created an intra-office group of diverse allies who have formed significant personal and professional relationships. The broader group also allows members to address the intersections of numerous identities.
Rather than replace traditional affinity groups, a diverse associates group may exist to complement them. At Dechert, by way of example, the Diverse Associates Group strengthens diversity and inclusion efforts in three key ways:
First, the Diverse Associates Group provides a collaborative space where associates can use their collective strength and ingenuity to create change and articulate their needs. The group provides a sense of community that is imperative to the survival of young attorneys at the start of what can be an isolating career in a law firm. Law firms are particularly isolating for diverse attorneys who may face issues that their nondiverse counterparts may not face and often cannot find resources to address their unique issues. The Diverse Associates Group counteracts these feelings of isolation by providing a structured support system that allows for the opportunity to acknowledge shared experiences, candidly discuss issues that diverse attorneys might face, and work together to promote diversity efforts. By inviting different diverse identity groups to the table, not only does the Diverse Associates Group increase the sense of community and shared experience, it also fosters more nuanced discussions about how race, gender and other issues can intersect and affect diverse attorneys in different ways; and ultimately, lead to more comprehensive and effective solutions.
Second, the Diverse Associates Group offers a unique vehicle to gather and share strategic resources. Resources are often shared among lawyers in informal ways. Diverse associates who are the among the first in their families to join the legal profession often do not have large networks of lawyers in their families or social circles struggle to gain exposure to information about important players, institutional knowledge and soft skills. As a recent study commissioned by the National Asian Pacific American Association concluded, although the number of Asian Americans entering the legal field has increased, they still struggle with reaching the top ranks of the legal profession due to lack of access to mentors to help them learn, network and develop the soft skills required for success. The Diverse Associates Group provides a forum where diverse attorneys can share and exchange their experiences and networks.
Lastly, the Diverse Associates Group provides unparalleled leadership opportunities. Because associates lead the group, it offers opportunities for attorneys to practice and develop leadership and management skills. Each member of the Diverse Associates Group rotates the responsibility of leading monthly meetings, presentations and planning events. A byproduct of these leadership opportunities is that members of the group raise their firm profile by making connections with law firm management and taking a public role in promoting the firm’s development and diversity efforts. An additional byproduct of these leadership opportunities is that they foster a feeling of investment in the firm, which promotes retention.
A model like the Diverse Associates Group shows that a larger number of diverse attorneys collaborating across traditional affinity groups—with the support of the firm—can be one path that firms can follow to deepen the impact of their already existing diversity and inclusion efforts.
Geneva Campbell Brown, Michelle Nguyen, Amanda Reed and Steve Stoute are associates in Dechert’s Philadelphia office. They are all members of the firm’s Diverse Associates Group.