Why Law Firms Should Pay Attention to Diversity



South Carolina Lawyers Weekly
Dec. 10, 2010

Law firms, corporate and public law departments, and bar associations have focused attention in recent years on increasing the diversity of their workforces. Those organizations that explore increasing diversity face a number of common questions.

What are the rationales for a focus on diversity? Which individuals and groups should be considered? How much progress has the profession made in recent years, and how far does it have yet to travel? What forms should diversity programs take?

While the historical underrepresentation of various groups in all corners of the legal profession is well documented, rationales of the profession’s focus on diversity vary.

The April 2010 Summary Report and Recommendations from the American Bar Association’s Study of the State of Diversity in the Legal Profession cites and explores several of these rationales.

The ABA’s observations range from the “democracy rationale,” which addresses the benefits of diversity of lawyers and judges in discharging the profession’s role in preserving the rule of law, to the “business rationale,” with its focus on legal services organizations’ needs to meet the workforce diversity expectations of clients, as those clients compete in a rapidly changing global economy.

For many legal services organizations, the rationale is simply the recognition that the gap between the demographic makeup of the organization and that of its community reflects the presence of barriers to entry into the profession.

Diversity initiatives vary in the range of traditionally underrepresented groups on which they focus. These efforts typically consider participation of women and minority lawyers. In addition, many diversity initiatives focus on the presence of persons with disabilities; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender attorneys; and other underrepresented groups in the organization.

Any such initiative faces the dual challenges of focusing on a set of issues sufficiently narrow to reach consensus and achieve tangible progress, but not excluding similarly underrepresented groups from attention.

The National Association for Law Placement provides a readily available source of composite demographic information on law firms. While NALP also compiles demographic information on some corporate and public law departments, composite information on these organizations is not as readily available.

According to NALP, 2010 demographic statistics from its reporting law firms show that just over 12 percent of lawyers at reporting law firms are minorities, while just fewer than 33 percent of lawyers in these law firms are women. Minority women make up approximately 6 percent of lawyers in these firms.

At the partner level in these firms, the percentages of minority and women lawyers are significantly lower, with minority lawyers accounting for approximately 6 percent of partners and women making up just over 19 percent. Minority women account for less than 2 percent of these law firm’s partners.

Perhaps because of recent layoffs of lawyers, percentages of law firm lawyers comprised of minorities and women fell slightly from 2009 to 2010. While composite demographic information is not readily available for cities in South Carolina, neighboring Charlotte’s percentage of women and minority lawyers lags national averages, while Atlanta is comparable to national statistics.

Individual legal services organizations and bar associations have undertaken a range of programs designed to increase and sustain diversity among their lawyers.

For example, many law firms have expanded the number of schools at which they recruit in order to increase access to women and minority law students. Some organizations have actively pursued lateral attorney hires with an eye toward expanding access to women and minority lawyers already in the profession. Many of these firms also have held diversity training sessions designed to promote awareness of unique challenges that face women and minority lawyers within their ranks.

The Young Lawyer Division of the South Carolina Bar has established a Diversity/Minority Impact Committee, which undertakes projects ranging from a Minority Clerkship Program that provides legal employers with access to first-year law students from diverse backgrounds, to a Mothers-in-the-Law project that convenes members of the South Carolina Bar to discuss unique issues facing women attorneys.

Other statewide and local bar associations across the Carolinas have organized similar programs. Common components of these bar programs include efforts to increase the pipeline of traditionally underrepresented individuals into the legal profession and collaborative efforts to increase the retention and promotion of these lawyers.

Demographic information confirms that racial minorities, women and other groups remain underrepresented in the ranks of legal services organizations. For organizations addressing diversity within their ranks, many examples of efforts ongoing in the profession can provide valuable lessons and models.

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