Lawyers Suck At Diversity and We Don’t Want to Talk About It

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It’s time for some real talk about how terrible our profession is at ensuring diversity. We talk the talk, with BigLaw firms hiring “diversity coordinators” and law schools attempting to make efforts to recruit students of color, but we’re failing, and we’re failing hard.

[A]ccording to Bureau of Labor statistics, law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation. Eighty-eight percent of lawyers are white. Other careers do better — 81 percent of architects and engineers are white; 78 percent of accountants are white; and 72 percent of physicians and surgeons are white.

One of the biggest problems in addressing this is that we don’t actually think we have a problem. Look what happened when Sam Glover tried to discuss whether there was a diversity problem in solosmall firms. This is true at the BigLaw level as well, where diversity — both in terms of people of color and in terms of advancing the role of women in a profession where they are far less likely to end up at the top — seems to be framed simultaneously as incredibly important but also impossible.

I recently surveyed managing partners of the 100 largest law firms and general counsel of Fortune 100 companies. Virtually all of the 53 participants in the study said diversity was a high priority. But they attributed the under-representation of minorities to the lack of candidates in the pool. And they explained the “woman problem” by citing women’s different choices and disproportionate family responsibilities in the context of a 24/7 workplace. As one managing partner put it, “You have to be realistic. It’s a demanding profession. . . . I don’t claim we’ve figure it out.”

No, you really don’t have it figured out. It’s impossible to overstate the avalanche of statistics that show how much we suck:

  • Women account for a third of the profession, but only a fifth of law firm partners and are far less likely to make partner.
  • People of color constitute a fifth of the population of law school graduates, but make up less than seven percent of law partners.
  • If you give law firm partners a legal memo and tell them a white man wrote it, they will rank it uniformly higher than if they are told a black man wrote it.

We can do better. We have to do better, or we cement ourselves as a profession that has no idea how to serve an increasingly diverse population and, worse still, a profession that, at root, just doesn’t care.

Featured image: “Standing out from the crowd” from Shutterstock.

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  • AOM

    This post is a good start, but what’s missing is what we can do to do better. Disrupting culture is almost impossible, what do you recommend we do to “do better” that hasn’t already been tried and failed?

    Here are the things that will need to change before there is any increase in diversity in the legal profession:

    1. People need to stop assuming that white men make the best lawyers. The first step is admitting that we do it, but I think there are a LOT of people who walk around with that assumption and would justify it if asked. There are plenty of people in “the pool” but our standards for them are way higher than our standards are for white men, and our assumptions about their abilities are much lower than our assumptions about white men. It’s subconscious, and I think most of us don’t even know that we do it. But when you do open your eyes and see it, it’s stark.

    2. Men need to be allowed to take on more responsibilities at home. Why do people thing that women can do a full-time job AND take care of the household without burning out or becoming miserable? Until men are expected to take the kids to the doctor, pick them up from day care if they are sick, and so on, the numbers for women will remain low. And that expectation needs to come from the wife, too. I can’t tell you the number of women (including the so-called progressive, go-get-em types) who do most things themselves because they don’t want to bother their husbands at work. That’s bad.

    3. We need to stop making diversity about “diversity” and more about the understanding that we tend to be drawn to people that we view as culturally similar to us, and that is not good for the business or the bottom line. As long as people think diversity is a “helping those poor brown people and lady folk who can’t help themselves,” nothing will change.

  • David K. Hiscock

    Thanks for the post.
    Timely, having just attended a “diversity workshop” that, on review of my notes and conversation w/ others who were there, was more like an opportunity for the presenters to deliver 4 hrs of (not so)micro-agression and rake off a tidy (confidential) sum for bringing their POV to our attention.
    Frankly, I’ve found NPR’s Code Switch blog and episodes of Key & Peele much more effective at identifying unconscious blind-spots about privilege and victimhood.

    All respect – David K. Hiscock