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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the Legal Profession

“[T]he U.S. is in the midst of a demographic change,” writes Law360, “that will have enormous consequences for all businesses, including the business of law.” Decades ago, a folksinger wrote, “The times they are a changin’”—no doubt, Bob Dylan’s words aptly define this moment in history across the American landscape. The demographic transformation emphasized above by Law360 suggests a tectonic shift of power and inclusion in the workplace. “Diversity in the legal field lags behind other professions,” writes the Justice Lab at the University of Utah College of Law, “people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities are underrepresented.” The American Bar Association agrees, “The legal profession remains one of the least diverse of any profession.” In fact, the ABA calls the advancement of racial and ethnic diversity in their profession “bleak.”

The Future Is Now

Since the onset of the pandemic and the shared national experience of righteous indignation regarding racial and gender justice, the American society and its workplace has morphed into a hyper-transparent and increasingly connected playing field—the very real concept of corporate social responsibility has gained significant currency among employers and employees alike. The national initiative of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) is evolving and affecting the way employers recruit and hire, as well as the way candidates interview and select positions. As the Washington Post bluntly stated, “For younger job seekers, diversity and inclusion in the workplace aren’t a preference. They’re a requirement.”

In times like these, times of dramatic change, it’s vitally important to listen to the new generation coming to the forefront as they will most definitely define the future—and in the legal field where diversity, equity, and inclusion trail other professions, their voice is intrinsic to change.

Sarah Martinez, Jacqueline Rosen, and Ryan Williams are law students from the Justice Lab at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law. They argue that “the legal profession will not live up to its essential ideals — preserving fairness, equality and justice — unless and until the profession’s demographics reflect our communities.” They believe that those in power must use their position and means to promote recruitment and retention methods that embrace marginalized but vast populations. Martinez, Rosen, and Williams maintain that law firms need to take strong action when it comes to recruiting diverse candidates “rather than hoping for diverse lawyers to apply.” Their vision is clear:

“Our generation is already 50% of the workforce and will likely increase to 75% by 2030. We can’t speak for everyone in our generation, but many of us are serious about selecting workplaces that demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to work hard for employers who show they are serious about these values, too.”

A Closer Look at “DEI”

Over the last ten years, diversity, equity, and inclusion have transformed from concepts to reality and, at the same time, have gained traction across divergent fields. Corporations, firms, and organizations have created an internal apparatus (committees and task forces) charged with designing initiatives that will forge change throughout these institutions to (1) acknowledge the significance of DEI and then (2) layout the framework to establish and cement true institutional change. Taking it a step further, experts in human resources and those studying the development of DEI have found that the initiatives are especially effective when incorporated universally in a company or firm rather than subsections. Diversity proves equally important to the success of a business in the long-term. Law360 writes, “More than a decade of studies and commentaries consistently show that people from diverse backgrounds, working together, produce more innovation and achieve better solutions and results.”

When we speak about “diversity” we’re actually addressing “representation”—acknowledging in real practice the idea that diverse individuals offer distinctive and unique perspectives to (in our case) the practice of law based on varied identities, experiences, and backgrounds.

When we attempt to define “equity” we’re finding ways to acknowledge that inequities and biases exist due to a long history of unfairness. The gender gap between men and women is the quintessential example, especially when it comes to pay and why women, on average, earn less than men. In fact, fifty years after pay discrimination was outlawed in the U.S., “a persistent pay gap between men and women continues to hurt our nation’s workers and our national economy.” Women who work full-time make eighty-two cents to every dollar paid to their male counterparts. Equity in the DEI paradigm is about breaking the cultural bias and system that financially rewards men more than women for simply being male.

Finally “inclusion”—and this is simply about fitting in, or belonging. Years, decades, and centuries of discrimination and twisted logic has subverted fairness, allowing society to both consciously and subconsciously embrace and integrate strong biases into the DNA of culture in general and the workplace in particular. The component of “inclusion” is essential because it allows individuals/employees/partners to feel integral to the operation.

Impact on Candidates & Law Firms

Moving forward, how will these developing models affect the average law firm? Many firms that do not initiate a DEI plan will find it increasingly difficult to recruit candidates of color as well as women lawyers as there will most assuredly be a dearth of diverse legal talent in the marketplace—a vast majority of these lawyers having already landed at progressive firms. Law firms slow to act will also have a difficult time retaining and advancing their diverse talent who may very well be lost to more aggressive firms.

The numbers don’t lie. “In 10 years,” Law360 points out, “a far larger number of lawyers than ever before will be women and people of color. By 2030, the majority of baby boomer lawyers—who entered the profession before 1989, and were largely white and male—will be over age 70 and typically retired from the practice of law.” Clearly, these very real demographic shifts will have a major impact on the near-future for firms slow to act.

Studies have also found that it’s not just a firm’s HR managers or their hiring managers that are clamoring for change, but the clients themselves. “More and more clients are increasing their demands that female lawyers and lawyers of color play meaningful roles on matters,” Law360 writes, “Firms that fail to meet that need will find themselves losing business to others that are able to successfully recruit, retain and promote the widest range of talent that the legal profession has to offer.”

If that’s not a clarion call for robust and immediate change, then we’re not sure what is.

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Superior Executive and Legal Recruiting is an executive and legal placement firm. Our mission is simple: provide world-class recruiting and placement services to all of our clients and candidates.

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