Minority Representation in the Legal Industry

Although lawyers routinely represent the victims of bias, racism and prejudice, most work for employers that don’t “practice what they preach” with respect to inclusion and diversity in the legal profession. In fact, minority representation in the legal industry, most notably at the highest levels, isn’t nearly on par with other professions.

For instance, the NALP’s 2019 Report on Diversity in US Law Firms revealed that a mere 7.6% of law firm equity partners were people of color. The remainder of this article will investigate the topic of diversity in law further, along with some ideas on how to reverse this ongoing trend.

Different Types of Diversity

In a perfect world the employee mix at every in-house legal department or prestigious law firm would reflect these different types of diversity:

  • Cultural diversity – This type of diversity refers to a person’s ethnicity and is typically shaped by the society they were raised in, along with family values.
  • Racial diversity – Race describes a person’s societal grouping based on physical traits. Examples of races include Caucasian, Latino, Asian and African.
  • Religious diversity – This type of diversity refers to the presence of multiple religions and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, in the workplace.
  • Age diversity – Age diversity is all about working with people of various ages and generations. For example, in a typical workplace Baby Boomers, Millennials, GenXers and GenZers may be asked to coexist.
  • Disability – Disabilities and chronic medical conditions can affect an employee’s mental or physical health. Companies often make reasonable accommodations to help those with disabilities integrate into the workplace, like offering mental health support or installing wheelchair ramps.
  • Sex/Gender/Sexual Orientation – Sex and gender can be used in the traditional sense of male and female employees. However, as gender continues to be redefined, the term “gender diversity” is now being used in the workplace to accommodate variations in gender and sexual orientation.

Role of Minorities in the Legal Profession

In an age when diversity and inclusion are reshaping cultural norms, historical problems like the underrepresentation of minorities and lack of diversity are still prevalent in the legal profession. According to the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey, as of 2017 only 35% of those employed in the legal profession were women.

With respect to gender diversity in law firms, the ABA’s survey found that only 20% of partners and 18% of equity partners were female, figures that mirrored those contained within a 2015 National Association of Women’s Lawyers (NAWL) report entitled Current Status of Women in Law.

When it comes to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal industry, the numbers paint an even bleaker picture. According to the ABA’s 2017 National Lawyer Population Survey only 5% of active attorneys identified as African American during a time when that minority group accounted for over 13% of the US population.

In that same study a mere 5% of active attorneys identified as Hispanic or Latino, while those individuals represented nearly 18% of the US population. Surprisingly, only two percent of active attorneys identified as Asian, and a paltry one percent as Native Americans.

According to a 2017 report titled A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law, although Asian Americans represent the largest minority at law firms they have the highest attrition rate and lowest associate-to-partner ratio of any diversity law group.

Importance of Diversity in the Legal Profession

The underutilization of minorities in the legal profession cannot be overstated. Employers that value in-house legal department or law firm diversity typically reap these benefits as a result:

Helps attract new business

Law firms that embrace diversity have a greater likelihood to bring in a larger pool of clients. For example, bilingual attorneys give firms an advantage by attracting and acquiring clients from other cultures and countries. In most cases, a larger client base spurs revenue growth and economic gain.

Breeds a culture of success

Recruiting and sustaining a diverse legal workforce starts with expanding your scope of qualified candidates. Doing so as an employer allows you to feel confident that you are hiring the most talented individuals for open positions, which ultimately drives worker productivity and ensures successful legal outcomes.

Promotes innovation

When your legal team is made up of individuals from diverse backgrounds it brings unique perspectives and improved problem-solving skills to the workplace. Having a company culture that embraces diversity encourages openly shared critical thinking and advocacy skills that could result in new and innovative legal strategies.

Increases retention rates

Lawyers at firms that value diversity and inclusion report being happier in the workplace. Legal professionals that identify with various minority groups are less likely to feel isolated, leading to a greater sense of solidarity with colleagues. In addition to improving performance, a content employee is less likely to leave.

How to Build More Inclusive and Diverse Law Firms

Although a “one size fits all” diversity and inclusion approach won’t always work, these law firm diversity initiatives are a great place to start:

Diversify your recruiting practices

Implementing diversity-centric recruiting practices will dramatically contribute to creating a more diverse culture at your firm. However, diversity-focused recruiting isn’t just about pursuing minority candidates from the same prestigious law schools, it also means recruiting qualified individuals from non-ranked law programs that may have been ignored in the past.

Invest in diverse attorneys

Promoting diversity takes more than just recruiting and hiring minority attorneys from less prestigious law schools. You will also need to invest in those professionals by giving them the same training, client-facing opportunities, levels of responsibility, and accessibility to key decision-makers as everyone else at your firm.

Recognize and celebrate differences

In addition to benefits like increased creativity and productivity, workplace diversity and inclusion also allow you to access a wider range of talent. As an employer, it’s important for you to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing and drawing from the characteristics and experiences that make them unique.

How Legal Recruiters Help Foster Diversity

Building a workforce that’s diverse and inclusive improves team morale, productivity, retention rates and profits. Working with legal headhunters that share your same cultural beliefs and values helps ensure a more successful hiring and placement process. Additionally, a recruiter can help expand the candidate pool and help compensate for blind spots that job sites frequently have.

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