“Diversity makes the firm and the general practice of law that much more resilient, relatable, and successful.”
Asserting that diversity has made significant strides within today’s legal profession would, unfortunately, not be a winning case. And while it’s a hot topic today, the true importance of diversity, equity and inclusion seems to be overlooked. The fact of the matter is, embracing diversity is just good business.
The practice of law is advanced by a diverse team. With diversity comes quality legal innovation. We need to manage conscious and unconscious bias to be open to people from all demographics, ethnicities, genders, orientations, educations, perspectives and backgrounds. Instead of a homogenous group of professionals with a singular approach, with a diverse team you gain the benefit of differential skillsets, outlooks, approaches and ways of processing that make a team stronger, bringing varied insights to cultures, systems, procedures and policies.
When you exclude alternative points of view, you are not getting the full picture of all the available options and the best possible solution to resolve an issue or matter. Additionally, clients and leadership do not just come from one particular group, they come from diverse groups and circumstances. By having legal counsel that is also diverse, you are better able to relate to a client. Diversity makes the firm and the general practice of law that much more resilient, relatable, and successful.
The Numbers Remain Disappointing
But according to a 2019 report by the American Bar Association (Lawyer Demographics, Earnings, Tech Choices, and More), 64% of lawyers are men and 36% are women, a number that has remained stagnant for years. Even more eye-opening are the statistics regarding minority lawyers among our ranks. According to the 2019 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey on overall law firm demographics, 82% of all lawyers and 89% of all partners are Caucasian. Less than 2% of all partners are African-American, under 3% are Hispanic and under 4% are Asian. None of the statistics regarding specific minority percentages have changed over the past decade, despite the fact that those populations in the United States have increased during the same timeframe.
As the child of a single mother in a low-income household and the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, I understand the obstacles someone with my background needs to overcome to be successful in this profession.
Contributing Factors and Solutions
One key factor in under-served communities is the lack of awareness. Many individuals are unaware of the opportunities in the field of IP and unaware of anyone like them who has pursued an education or successfully advanced into a career in this field. I personally did not grow up even thinking about the possibility of a career in law, let alone in intellectual property law. Other individuals in my neighborhood were not even thinking about higher education, period. They were told time and again that they weren’t going anywhere, amounting to anything. That they were staying in that neighborhood. It’s a vicious, endless cycle of deprivation and discouragement.
Furthermore, much of the legal/justice system hasn’t been fair or favorable to people in those communities—the type of community I come from. So, perhaps there’s a level of disdain for the law and for a career in law. The only solution is to advance more people from these under-represented communities into those professions so that we can effect positive change and become role models for the individuals who desperately need them.
So, what can you do? Every practitioner, client and firm can strive to be part of the solution by supporting under-represented groups and encouraging diverse individuals in their pursuit of success. First of all, hiring practices should follow the Rooney Rule 2.0, a policy in which the firm is committed to interviewing a female or minority candidate for every male, non-minority candidate interviewed for a position at the firm.
Be aware of unconscious bias, which leads to a negative impact on recruitment decisions and often results in hiring a homogenous team—an outcome that not only impairs diversity but hampers employee development and increases attrition. Have your team take Implicit Association Tests. Your upbringing, cultural conditioning and media depictions all contribute to the implicit stereotypes we form about members of other social groups—whether you’re aware of it or not. Look for the cultural add, not the cultural fit. Involve more than one person—hopefully from diverse backgrounds—in the recruitment and decision-making process. Add in aspects of blind hiring by conducting anonymized tests based on the requirements of the position. This will ensure all candidates are assessed on their skills rather than their physical appearance and any implicit bias that may be associated with the information deduced from a resume.
Additionally, a big emphasis should be placed on mentoring. Our youth needs to see people who look like them in professional careers, people who are role models and leaders. Utilize your firm’s resources to reach out to the community, to teach kids about the opportunities they have and demonstrate to them that their dreams are both realistic and attainable. Providing tutoring in STEM fields can show students that they are capable and encourage them to go to college, to look at STEM careers or to get some kind of vocational training. Talk to them about the field of law and all of the opportunities for advancement. Challenge them to be role models in their communities, to provide for their families, and to encourage other youths follow in their footsteps. Just by starting the conversation, you can start planting the seeds of encouragement to inspire these children’s futures.
And mentoring doesn’t just stop at graduation. Be a mentor to diverse individuals in your field. Help them address challenges, provide skills training and just be a shoulder to lean on for those traversing the many obstacles of being a minority in law.
Promoting Diversity is Our Job
No matter what your specialized area of law, being a lawyer is about helping people, whether it’s obtaining a patent, navigating the judicial system, family law, real estate transactions or a host of other needs. Promoting diversity, equality and inclusion is something we can—and must—all do together.
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