In my previous blawg, I wrote about the financial rewards of having a diverse workforce.  There are many sources that connect diversity with increases in revenue, profitability, workforce retention and access to clients.  Those all seem like decent carrots, or incentives, to encourage a more inclusive workplace.  The Bloomberg Law Big Law Business Diversity & Inclusion Annual Report was released recently, and confirms that rewards are important.  The final paragraph of the report includes this sentence: “The survey results show that monetary incentives would be a key driver for firm attorneys in promoting diversity and inclusion.”  That seems to support the idea that diversity and inclusion (D&I) will lead to exactly the monetary awards that firms desire.

However, the introduction to the Bloomberg Law report contains disheartening information.

After stating that diversity can help both law firms and corporate legal departments retain employees and gain a competitive advantage over less-diverse entities, the authors say “the results of our survey suggest that they (the respondents) may doubt whether their own firms or departments are up to the task.”  This seems to be confirmed by the fact that almost 40% of the corporate counsel who participated in the survey left their law firm positions “because of diversity and/or inclusion-related reasons.”

As you might expect, the Bloomberg Law report indicates a gap between what corporate clients say they want, and what actually happens.  In a chart of the ways clients express the importance of D&I, their highest ranking measure was “Requires diversity-related information in RFPs/Pitches.”  Of the 99 respondents, 44% said they use this measure “very often/often.”  65% use this measure “at least occasionally.”  The difference between this most frequent measure and the least frequent one is noteworthy.  Evidently, asking for the information in an RFP doesn’t automatically mean that there are consequences for outside counsel that have low diversity numbers.   At the bottom of the chart, only 6% of 97 respondents said they “very often/often” actually terminate or reduce work if their diversity expectations are not met.  Another 23% said they terminate work “at least occasionally.”  Corporate clients have an effective “stick” to use, by hiring diverse firms or terminating those who don’t meet their standards.  These survey numbers indicate that there are few consequences when the standards aren’t met.

The study lists 15 challenges to advancing D&I at law firms.  While all 15 factors deserve more discussion, I’ll focus on the one that had the highest rating.  A full 69% of the law firm respondents said implicit / unconscious bias was the biggest challenge.  However, in the section of the report about best practices, only 13% of the respondents indicated that an effective strategy for furthering D&I was “being aware of alternative ways to be inclusive / remove unconscious bias.” That’s a significant gap.  Lawyers are required to take CLE classes on this topic, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in culture.  Even if your firm or company is committed to D&I, the real test of your organization’s values is to observe who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.

Human beings are capable of change, although most of us don’t respond well to carrots or sticks.  We need to have a context for changing our behavior, and we need to know that everyone is committed to change.  The work of D&I is difficult, but the potential rewards are more than worth the effort.

What actions can you, or your firm, take now?

Here are a few questions to consider, as you evaluate your next steps on the D&I path.

  • Are our actions consistent with the values that appear on our website?
  • Given that implicit bias is such a critical part of this issue, are we committed to interrupting bias when it occurs? Do we encourage everyone to speak up?
  • Are we setting the context for diversity in a clear way? Is there agreement about our goals?
  • What metrics are important for us to track? Do the numbers we report correspond to the experience people have?
  • Can we inspire ourselves and our colleagues to stay committed to our goals, even when it’s difficult?