Creating Diverse and Inclusive Environments in Law Firms
– Jacquie Champagne

This year the Human Rights Campaign Fund awarded eighty-nine law firms perfect scores for workplace treatment of LGBT individuals. On first blush, this looks like quite an achievement. Law firms are the most represented industry among participants receiving a perfect score. The survey benchmarks important employer benefits and protections for LGBT employees as well as demonstrated commitment to LGBT equality. It rates law firms on their policies and practices with regard to providing equal employment benefits and a demonstrated competency and commitment to equality.

But what relation does the HRC score have to actual diversity and inclusion achievements on the ground at law firms? Diversity can be measured easily by the numbers targeted and hired in law firms. Likewise, the existence of policies that are inclusive serve as a way to check the box when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives. What’s more difficult to gauge is whether an environment is truly inclusive and will lead to retention and promotion of LGBT and other minority lawyers.

When one looks at industry views on diversity achievements in law, a high score on the HRC index can mean little. The vast majority of lawyers are white (88% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and when you look at women and minority lawyers who are equity partners or have major client relationship roles, the numbers are staggeringly low.  Law tends to be a bastion of tradition. We don’t favor difference in general, and the way we think and analyze legal issues tends to make us marginalize difference on many levels.  In law firms, one result has been an overwhelmingly homogenous group of people at executive levels. Firms may talk the talk, but on some issues it’s just that.

LGBT diversity has only recently been a true focus of many law firms, magnified by the fact that clients have been pushing harder for their firms and lawyer teams to be more diverse overall.  Hiring diverse attorneys has been the primary goal, but retaining and promoting LGBT attorneys, as with other minority groups, is a challenge that firms need to address.

Law firms’ retention and advancement efforts must focus on inclusiveness.  Creating a more inclusive environment is a process which begins with awareness and openness to discussions about difference, perspective and identity. Dialogue about “touchy feely” things like perception and bias is anathema to a law firm environment. This makes it all the more vital that these efforts be robust, begin at the highest levels of management, and be led by example. While inclusiveness initiatives must start with leadership, another key is for law firms to engage Millennials since this is the group most likely to be of a mindset more open to discussing and exploring differences. Intergenerational teams should be developed to explore issues of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation as part of an overall diversity and inclusiveness program.

Acknowledging bias and pre-conceived notions is not a cure-all for creating an inclusive environment, but it’s a good start to examining what prevents law firms from becoming more inclusive and from ultimately retaining and advancing diverse attorneys over the long term. Building awareness, acknowledging discomfort and providing tools to assist people in examining their biases is part of creating a more inclusive, open environment. Law firms will be better prepared to institute successful diversity and inclusion programs if they confront these initial barriers and have a structured plan for engaging in and fostering these on-going discussions.