For some, a diverse and inclusive workplace wasn’t something they spent much time thinking about until this year. However, 2020 has shined a light on longstanding inequities across our nation and caused law firms and in-house legal departments to take a closer look at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the legal profession.
To explore the impact of corporate efforts to promote inclusion in the legal profession, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA) recently surveyed nearly 300 attorneys, 70% of whom identify as Asian, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latinx, on their organizations’ efforts to create diverse and inclusive cultures.
The 2020 MCCA/RRA Inclusion Index survey rated factors impacting DEI on a scale of one to five. The factors included working across differences; leveraging different perspectives; leadership commitment; organizational fairness; accommodating differences; workplace respect; employee recruitment, development, and retention; and voice and influence.
Stagnant Progress on Inclusion Efforts
According to the survey, attorneys ranked their organization as lower on many of the Inclusion Index factors than they have in previous years, and all ratings were lower than other professional services benchmarks. The responses, which were gathered in 2019, showed that attorneys of color were less likely to feel a sense of inclusion in the legal profession when compared to those in other professional service jobs.
Notably, survey respondents rated their organizational “voice and influence” lower in 2019 than in 2018. This factor is defined as “the extent to which employees of all backgrounds are given a voice, as well as influential representation in leadership.” Conversely, professionals in other have seen an increase in voice and influence year over year.
Additional factors that saw notable drops included “leveraging of different perspectives” and “employee recruitment, development and retention.” Like “voice and influence,” the decline in these two factors shows a growing need to amplify and listen to the voices of diverse attorneys.
“People of color are demanding more because they don’t see the benefits themselves,” said Jean Lee, president and CEO of the MCCA. “Lawyers by nature are extremely critical and analytical. They expect more.”
Working Together for Inclusion in the Legal Profession
According to John Kim, counsel at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and a commissioner at the Commission on Professionalism, increasing awareness of DEI challenges is a good step, but real changes in inclusion in the legal profession will happen when attorneys, legal organizations, and other stakeholders work together.
“We need to do something. We need to do more than just say something,” Kim said in a Reimagining Law interview. “We need to work together to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive bar that we want to practice in and that we want the next generation of lawyers to practice in, but also that’s reflective of our clients and our communities.”
So how can law firms and in-house counsel work together to create real change in the legal profession? It’s complicated, but Kim believes there are three pillars to successful DEI initiatives: recruitment, retention, and development/promotion of diverse attorneys.
“It’s not just the [hiring] of diverse lawyers, but intentional promotion, development, and credit from an origination perspective for diverse senior associates and young partners to help them progress in the firm,” Kim explains.
While many are rethinking efforts to increase inclusion in the legal profession, data from the MCCA/RRA survey says it’s not happening quickly enough for diverse attorneys. As Kim explained, speaking up is an important early step, but real change must be a holistic and intentional team effort.
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