Four Challenges to Address for Greater Diversity in Law Firms

Diversity has long been a measure applied in the legal sector – but are we looking at this in completely the wrong way? The true focus needs to be on creating an inclusive environment. Inclusion drives greater diversity, not the other way round. Both are needed to generate the benefits that diverse perspectives bring, such as attraction and retention of the very best talent; more creative and innovative ways of working; and the ability to adapt to meet changing client needs.

Diversity in the legal profession, especially at Partner level, is still tracking behind corporates and other professions. This is despite a focus from many firms on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

There are no quick fixes, but here are four challenges that firms need to address to create truly diverse and inclusive practices.

1. Lack of a perceived ‘burning platform’ for change

Where billings are strong and partners have highly profitable books of business it can be hard to acknowledge a need for change. The topic of diversity may be viewed as a side issue to the strategic ambitions of the firm. If you’ve created employee interest groups around gender, LGBT, age, ethnicity and differently-abled, for example, you may believe you are ‘ticking the box’.

Firms need to paint a vivid picture for change, acknowledging that what got them to where they are may not take them where they need to be. Firms working with newer technology clients may notice how a typical CEO is younger than in the past; more diverse perspectives at Partner level may well generate an improved ability to connect clients and their challenges; a truly inclusive environment will enable firms to attract and retain the more diverse workforce of the future.

Don’t focus on diversity, but rather target inclusion. Headline your internal narrative with hard-hitting examples of how a lack of inclusion hampers the achievement of strategic objectives. Seek to create an environment where everyone stands a chance to be the best they can be – to deliver against the firm’s objectives.

2. Inequitable process of work allocation and effects on career progression

The decision about who gets to work on career-enhancing projects and cases usually sits with individual partners and they have a free rein to choose. These choices unwittingly favour ‘people like them’; those they have worked with before; and those who already have a reputation for working well on such cases. Thus the opportunity to develop legal skills and broaden client networks remains with a privileged group.

Many partners believe they already address this. However, thinking structures can be complex. Consider a belief, most likely held at a sub-conscious level, that positions diversity in conflict with high standards and excellence (this is typically articulated explicitly as ‘we may need to lower our standards to bring diversity into the mix’). That thinking inevitably steers an individual towards the ‘safe’ decision and can be surprisingly easy to justify intellectually. Whilst a partner may be able to override the belief for one or more decisions, changing it is more difficult. Everyone involved in these decisions needs to engage with the case for change and learn simple, practical strategies to disrupt their patterns of thinking and challenge deeply held beliefs.

Diversity in the Legal Sector

  • Whilst proportions of women at entry level make up broadly 50% of trainees, that figure typically plummets to less than 25% at partner level.
  • Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that a staggering 81% of employees in the legal sector are white.


3. The leadership structure within partnerships values the wrong things

Those who rise to the top in law firms are typically deemed to have excellent legal skills and a profitable and sustainable book of business. This differs from the corporate world where a senior leader may demonstrate strong management skills in addition to their area of expertise. Good lawyers, and those who are excellent at business development, do not necessarily make the best leaders. Nor are they accountable in a structured way for the progression of others.

This presents a challenge for law firms, because the principles of inclusion are at odds with a ‘billable hours’ structure and a reward framework that largely focuses on ‘me’ and not ‘us’. Inclusion relies on change being driven from the top, and yet few people will challenge, or hold accountable, the partner who has a book of business worth millions and a choice of who they want to work with.

Only when a shift is made away from the archaic billable hours structure to a more outcomes-focussed way of delivering for clients will firms truly start to leverage the benefits of inclusive working.

4. D&I training is not appealing to partners and may focus on the wrong things

We see a high number of no-shows on law firm training sessions, more so than in other businesses. If the training is positioned around diversity, it can be the kiss of death to start with: many are jaded with the topic. Making the link between inclusion and business outcomes is a more relevant and palatable way of positioning the topic.

With unconscious bias training, partners and associates find it hard to take broad-based principles about inclusion and unconscious bias and translate them into practical actions. Training needs to address specific workplace processes and scenarios and provide simple, practical actions to address the effects of non-inclusion. Examples of such actions are:

  • List of considerations when reviewing the resume of a potential hire
  • A checklist of things to remember when preparing for, and conducting, an appraisal conversation
  • How to support and challenge others when you witness explicit bias being demonstrated or you suspect implicit bias.

Increasingly our training at PDT focuses on specific workplace interactions and processes such as recruitment, performance management and delegation / work allocation. Participants learn how to adopt the appropriate language and behaviour to mitigate the effects of bias in the day-to-day.

These challenges are not the only ones preventing law firms from moving forward on diversity. However, firms that commit to tackling these challenges, and demonstrating the progress they have made, stand the best chance of leading the charge and securing the substantial benefits of a more diverse and inclusive way of working.