Law firm policies and procedures regarding diversity

March 6, 2014

Business ProfessionalsDiversity has been a major issue for larger law firms in recent years and it is now standard for those firms to have formal diversity programs and an infrastructure of resources and practices focused on increasing diversity within the attorney pool and recruiting and retaining women and minorities.  Clients have also taken a proactive role in this area by creating incentive for law firms to support diversity efforts including bonuses based on whether law firms achieve concrete diversity results.

A number of organizations, such as National Association of Law Placement (“NALP”) and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, regularly analyze and release statistics regarding diversity among large law firms along with a menu of recommendations to law firms to improve their diversity profile.  They generally begin by identifying and explain reasons why law firm diversity programs have failed including lack of commitment at the top; failure to assess the firm’s environment when creating and implementing diversity initiatives; over emphasis on recruitment and hiring and failure to focus on retention and development; failure to include diversity objectives in the firm’s strategic plan; lack of understanding of diversity phases and the need to view creation of a diverse organizational as a developmental process; ignoring the importance of training and development; and “cultural incompetence”, including fostering an a work environment that continues to place a high value on “sameness”.   In order to overcome these problems law firms need to have strong and demonstrated commitment from firm management to diversity as a core value of the organization and overriding policies that incorporate communication, resources, involvement of leadership in day-to-day diversity work, representation of diverse lawyers at all leadership levels, training and accountability.  In addition, law firms need to consider and implement a variety of suggestions for creating and maintaining a firm culture that values and pursues diversity and inclusiveness including the following recommendations that have been made over the years by the NALP:

  • Analyze existing systems and policies for unintended and/or historic bias, including the firm’s work allocation system, the process for inclusion at firm events, the internal training programs, and the committee appointment process;
  • Require annual reports by practice area leaders on goals and efforts to diversify practice groups and make all firm leaders accountable for meeting diversity goals, including achievement of diversity goals as a factor in the compensation process;
  • Encourage all firm members to participate in women’s and minority bar associations and minority counsel programs;
  • Count diversity-related activities toward “firm commitment” or other qualified billable hours;
  • Promote work/life balance through equity/non-equity partnership options, on-site day care and free emergency child care, a sabbatical program, and part-time/flex-time options that maintain partnership eligibility.
  • Institute “reverse mentoring”, whereby senior attorneys are paired with junior diverse attorneys to open channels of communication and potentially learn about the challenges these attorneys face;
  • Create a diversity statement embodying the firm’s commitment and disseminate both internally and externally;
  • Develop and implement a firm-wide diversity strategic plan and incorporate measurable benchmarking goals;
  • Develop a Diversity Committee composed of a staff diversity director, attorneys, and staff across all offices, with access to/participation from the Management Committee and key decision makers, to identify key internal issues and to propose solutions, diversity events, and diversity training;
  • Provide annual diversity training for all lawyers and staff, and management training for supervisors, including hiring attorneys, management, and practice area leaders;
  • Develop a firm webpage focused solely on diversity;
  • Establish ongoing relationships with law school affinity groups and support activities, conferences, job fairs, and other events organized by the groups; and
  • Provide domestic partner benefits and a salary gross-up to make whole and associates who are taxed differently for those benefits and include gender identity in the firm’s EEO statement and provide health insurance benefits related to transgender needs/status.

Effective diversity programs also emphasize professional development activities that are flexible, fully supported by adequate resources and monitored to ensure accountability and attainment of the desired goals and objectives for the firm as a whole and for each of the individual attorneys involved in the program.

For an example of a law firm diversity statement, see Business Transactions Solution § 30:149.