It has become increasingly clear that diversity in the legal profession makes sense from purely a business perspective. Todd L. Pittinsky, a professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Different kinds of people will come up with different kinds of ideas, and the more variety, the better.”
Many research studies have consistently found that leaders can foster innovation by encouraging ideas from a diverse team. As Pittinsky has said: “If we can become more disciplined and precise in learning how to create and maintain [diversity]in the right ways, this will make for a more prosperous and productive economy in the future.”
One of the most frustrating challenges that I have encountered in my career has been the challenge of achieving diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Three years prior to my joining the leadership of the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, I served as a member of the ABA Diversity in the Education Pipeline Council. As we traveled throughout the country, we learned about many outstanding programs designed to facilitate diverse students becoming successful members of the profession, seeing them through from elementary school to law school. Yet, despite these efforts and the efforts of law firms and bar organizations, we are failing miserably in achieving diversity in the profession.
When it comes to law firm diversity, the standard narrative is that the pace of change is painfully slow. But according to a report from the National Association of Law Placement, even that narrative may be too rosy; in some respects, law firms are going backwards.
One report from the National Association for Law Placement found that, while women and minorities continue to make modest gains among the partnership ranks, the percentage of associates who are women has gone down over the past five years, and the number of African American associates has gone down every year since 2009.
Still, not all of the numbers are negative: in addition to modest gains at the partnership level, the report also found that the numbers of Asian and Hispanic associates rose modestly, and representation of women and minorities among all lawyers has also increased.
Throughout my service on the ABA Diversity in the Education Pipeline Council, I consistently noted an “opportunity for solution” between diverse attorneys and the profession that could be addressed in part by the ABA Law Practice Division. As many know, the Division has four core areas of practice concentration: law firm finance, management, marketing, and technology.
I recall a 1980’s PBS program, Tony Brown’s Journal, where the host advocated that “the color of freedom was neither black nor white, but green.” Brown tied the empowerment of diverse communities to strengthening their economic impact. I concur with Tony Brown’s wisdom and suggest that one road toward more diversity in the legal profession is too empower diverse attorneys within the profession.
Attorneys that understand the principles advocated by the ABA Law Practice Division in the business of practicing law—the administration of law firms: finance, management, marketing, and technology will not only enhance their position within their respective firms, but they will facilitate making themselves essential to the future prospects of their firm.
The ABA Law Practice Division has long argued the business case for diversity and inclusion within law firms. During a recent Division CLE: Counting the Costs: Ramifications of Dismissing the Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion and What to Do about It, Ken Imo, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the AmLaw 100 firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP, and a 2015 winner of the Division’s Wilkins Award, noted that the renowned civil rights lawyer and former dean of Howard University School of Law, Charles Hamilton Houston, once described lawyers as “having the ability to be social engineers—someone who understands the importance of using their skills to bring about positive, impactful change in society (and by extension, in the legal profession).” Those who are committed to advancing diversity in the legal profession are, in fact, social engineers, and are afforded the opportunity to make a difference in the profession.
“The approach to diversity is evolving,” Imo explained, “and the legal industry’s approach must evolve too. The traditional approach to diversity has focused almost exclusively on headcount issues at various levels within an organization. Now, the approach has expanded to include how to effectively use diversity. That is the future of diversity in the legal profession specifically and in business generally,” he concluded.
Over six years ago, ABA President Carolyn Lamm’s Diversity Initiative released its report, Diversity in the Legal Profession: The Next Steps. Included in the report were numerous recommendations for law firms to advance diversity and inclusion in the profession, including:
- Providing business development training for diverse attorneys.
- Focusing on mentoring of diverse attorneys to provide skill building and accountability mechanisms to foster an energetic mentoring culture.
- Partnering with law schools to create and implement third year “residencies” for law students to increase the likelihood of success and retention of diverse lawyers.
- Sponsorship and participation in externship and scholarship opportunities for diverse law students.
There were also recommendations for the organized bar including:
- Encouraging and supporting training programs with diverse affinity bar organizations.
- Utilization of emerging networking technologies to truly integrate and knit together the greater legal community with special outreach to diverse attorneys.
- Facilitate the use of “mentoring circles” to increase collaboration and sponsorship of diverse attorneys.
- Collaborate to develop national and regional leadership academies to identify, develop and place diverse attorneys in positions of leadership.
One new and very promising outreach effort was recently announced by the Division. Growing Lawyers, Growing Leaders: Progressive Business and Leadership Development is a dual-track leadership and business development curriculum developed by Division Chair Elect John Mitchell and ABA Young Lawyer Division Chair Elect Anna Romanskaya. The joint project utilizes funding from the ABA Enterprise Fund to deliver a new website, online educational materials, and in-person programs at YLD conferences over the coming year.
The ABA Law Practice Division has a vital role in promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession by reaching out to diverse attorneys to ensure their inclusion and success. Every aspect of the Division’s programs—whether in its publications such as Law Practice, Law Practice Today, Legal Technology Today, its books, its CLE, or its face-to-face programs—each provide an opportunity to diverse attorneys to advance their knowledge and expertise in the business of practicing law.
The ABA Law Practice Division is providing excellent programming that most assuredly has the potential to advance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. The Division can be the social engineers working to achieve the diversity within our law firms and legal organizations that we all desire, but the immediate challenge is connecting with diverse attorneys, bringing the message of the Division to them and having them embrace it to their benefit and that of the future of our legal profession. Together we can!
About the Author
Tom Bolt is the founder and managing attorney of BoltNagi PC in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and is the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division.