Diversity in Law Firms: A Practical Guide

March 4, 2020

There is no doubt diversity within the legal industry has been an on-again, off-again topic for the past several years, but what does diversity really mean?

Does it mean a staff of people with diversity in nationality? In gender or sexual orientation?

Or should it mean a diversity in life’s experiences and culture, regardless of race, nationality or gender, in order to provide a broader perspective on the law and on society, in order to better represent more people equally?

All the most prominent law industry publications like Big LawThe American Lawyer, and the American Bar Association’s Law Practice and ABA Journal have opened the door to questioning the lack of diversity in the legal profession. They discuss the difficulty and, in some cases, the discomfort of openly discussing diversity in the legal workplace. Others discuss ways of punishing non-diverse law firms by threatening them with “losing business” as a result.

But is outwardly promoting diversity as a marketing strategy or marketing tool effective, or does it come across as genuine? Can putting a lot of pictures of diverse attorneys all over your website and in your sales literature prove to customers you are a diverse law firm? The answer is, not likely.

Discussions about race, sex and ethnicity make a lot of people uncomfortable but for a law firm to find its sweet spot in terms of living diversity, and not just promoting it, it is imperative for leadership to allow discussions and to talk about it openly in the workplace. Otherwise you may be giving more to lip service and optics than actual diversity in your law firm.

For U.S. firms, America has become such a melting pot of interracial and internationally mixed people and families that diversity based purely on physical characteristics can be deceiving.

An interesting flaw in relying solely on the racial or ethnic aspects of diversity was brought to the forefront by attorney Sara Inman in an article recently published in the ABA Journal entitled, 14 ways to discuss diversity in your law firm”.

“I am a female attorney who checks the ‘diverse’ box,” she writes. “Specifically, my mom is South Korean. She is short, has tan skin and sleek black hair. I inherited none of these physical traits. I’m 5 feet, 9 inches, and I have pale skin, and most people have no idea that I am half-Asian …. Because my ethnicity is not obvious, the only way a person can learn about my background is to have a discussion with me ….”

She points out that because she is not outwardly diverse “looking”, it leaves many people to ask the awkward question, “So … what are you?”

The reason diversity is so important, Inman believes, is because people with different experiences and backgrounds can introduce new perspectives and fresh approaches to their profession.

“There is more to diversity than someone’s appearance,” she said. “When a law firm focuses exclusively on skin color so they can check their diversity boxes, it oversimplifies diversity and misses the point of why diversity is important.”

Our own Intelliteach (now known as Frontline Managed Services) Chief Executive Officer, Seelin Naidoo was recently asked by Industry Tech Outlook (ITO) magazine about diversity at his legal technology company.

“I have worked to build a diverse and forward-thinking leadership team during my tenure at Intelliteach,” he said. “I have made it a point of building a multi-cultural and internationally diverse team with entrepreneurial accountability and the autonomy to make decisions.

We have tons of diversity at Intelliteach. These folks are are hired for their ability and we continue to strive to bring in talent and opportunity from all areas in order to create a collaborative environment that focuses on the same goal: “Customer First.”

At Intelliteach, we believe there are some things you can do, and some things you should not do, to promote and live diversity in equal measure within your law firm.

  1. Promote and support open discussions about diversity.
  2. If you are promoting diversity in the workplace, have those people involved in meaningful work within your firm where their perspective can positively affect outcomes.
  3. Let people know they have offended someone with their words and give them the opportunity to clarify or apologize for their remarks so they can learn.
  4. Do not engage in culturally, ethically, sexually or racially charged jokes or remarks about anyone in the workplace or in a place where employees are gathered.