Law firm diversity and inclusion were hot topics in the legal industry in 2021. Like other industries, the public had law firms under a microscope for their DEI practices.

As 2021 wraps up, law firms should consider what the industry learned throughout the year, how DEI can be improved in 2022, and the general outlook for DEI in the legal industry in the new year and beyond.

DEI Framework

Bloomberg Law debuted its DEI Framework last year, which has a list of law firms that meet or exceed the standards of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

This framework is divided into:

  • Firm demographics
  • Recruitment and retention
  • Leadership and talent
  • Marketing
  • Business innovation
  • Diversity and inclusion

Each of these principles receives a score from 0 to 100. Points may be based on standards from the American Bar Association and other professional organizations or endorsing DEI practices.

The results were simply okay, leaving law firms with a lot of room for improvement. Generally, the law firms that submitted data performed well on the majority of the principles, including recruiting diverse lawyers, creating and implementing retention practices, marketing, including DEI in business strategy, and contributing to diversity in the community.

Leadership and talent scores are lower, however. Among managing partners and CEOs, nine out of 10 are white and 81 percent of the top leaders are male. Lawyers who are leaders of departments or large groups are mostly white men, though over a quarter are white women. The rest are minorities at single-digit percentages.

For lawyers, leadership takes years of experience and personal branding, so the lack of diversity in leadership positions is disconcerting. New minority recruits need coaching and guidance to prepare for leadership positions in the future.

Advancements in DEI

Despite some of these weaknesses, not all hope is lost. Beginning in 2008, Microsoft started the Law Firm Diversity Program to reward law firm partners who succeed in matters of diversity and inclusion.

For 2021, the results showed significant progress and accomplishments to create more inclusive and diverse environments. In the past year, the program identified growth in the following areas:

  • Diversity in attorney hours spent on Microsoft grew from 60 percent to 63 percent.
  • Diversity among executive committees grew from 43 percent to 47.4 percent.
  • Diversity among partner ranking grew from 37.9 percent to 40.1 percent, which includes a 4 percent growth in partners who are women.

Historically, the Strategic Partner Program firms for Microsoft showed excellent progress for diversity in leadership, including:

  • Diversity among management and executive leadership grew from 31.2 percent to 45.6 percent.
  • Diversity among partners grew from 33.2 percent to 40.1 percent.
  • Diversity in partner hours spent on Microsoft grew from 35.8 percent to 52.3 percent.
  • Diversity among lawyers working at Microsoft grew from 50 percent to 64.2 percent.

Investment in the Future

Along with measurable change, the Law Firm Diversity Program considers the future of diversity and inclusion and recognizes the investments that law firms need to make in their infrastructure and culture. Continued investment in leadership, sponsorship and mentoring creates an environment with equal opportunity for success.

Among the firms surveyed:

  • 93 percent of firms have a dedicated diversity and inclusion committee.
  • 89 percent of firms have a strategic plan for recruiting, retaining, and promoting diverse individuals.
  • 82 percent of firms provide diversity and inclusion training.
  • 82 percent of firms participate in pipeline development for diversity and inclusion in younger demographics and high school or college students.

Though progress is trending upward, law firms need to set goals and look for opportunities to invest in diversity and inclusion at every level, especially the leadership and management aspects.

Women in leadership is trending, but the lack of diversity represents opportunities for black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Latinx, and LGBTQI+ lawyers to become a bigger part of the talent and leadership pipeline for law firms.

Moving Toward Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion in the legal industry are falling behind other industries. Though discussed for years at many firms, a positive outlook relies on more than policies and programs. The legal industry is largely homogenous in both race and gender, and it hasn’t changed much recently.

True diversity requires inclusion in terms of race and gender, but also sexual orientation or identity, ethnicity, age, and disabilities.

A law firm’s branding has a lot of influence over change and growth, especially with diversity and inclusion. The brand is about more than a logo – law firms with inclusive brands have a company culture focused on increasing diversity, reducing bias, and increasing emotional intelligence for the betterment of the firm and the larger industry.

For example, if everyone at a firm looks the same in terms of race, age, gender, and sexual orientation, that doesn’t reflect diversity. In addition, a firm misses out on valuable connections with clients and industry professionals and lacks creative problem solving and innovative thinking that comes from individuals in diverse backgrounds.

Like any other goals and objectives, law firms need to set specific, measurable diversity and inclusion goals and define metrics to determine progress and success. Firms saying “get more diverse” doesn’t cut it.

Diversity and inclusion goals should be imperative to business operations and infused into the company culture. Some goals and metrics may include tracking the percentage of non-white employees and their roles and comparing year over year.

Diversity Strategies

Law firms must understand and educate the team on recognizing and overcoming bias. This can be done through lunch meetings or video conferencing once every few weeks with discussions on bias and learning open for discussion.

Diversity and inclusion begin on an organizational level. People from all demographics must be able to discuss issues and have unpleasant or awkward conversations. This requires a detailed plan for how to handle diversity issues and bias, especially if issues or opinions come up that conflict with firm ethics and values and can harm the brand.

If appropriate, law firms should create an international hiring plan that prioritizes diversity and reinforces the firm’s vision and values.

By supporting diversity and inclusion on the firm level, lawyers and partners can gain a deeper understanding of the scope of the problem and take concrete steps toward contributing to diversity and inclusion on an industry level.