Achieving Diversity in the Legal Profession


Most of us know intuitively that diversity in the workplace is important. We hear repeatedly about companies striving for gender, ethnic, racial, and LGBT diversity in their hiring practices. Endless numbers of task forces and committees have been formed for years to address the issue.

But social justice and the desire to foster inclusivity are not the only reasons to broaden the ethnic and cultural composition of a company or firm. Research has shown that businesses of all types in the top quartile for diversity are more likely to outperform their competitors.1

Diversity, it turns out, is good for the bottom line.

So, if we know workplace diversity is a laudable goal (for a number of reasons), and we are committed to creating it, why is it so hard to achieve – particularly in law firms, and especially in the upper echelons of the legal profession?

While things have improved in the past few decades, they are not changing as quickly as they could be – especially at the top.

Nationwide, nearly 65% of active attorneys are men and 85% of active attorneys are white.2 And the National Association for Legal Placement’s annual report, issued in January, indicates that the percentages of minority partners and women partners each grew less than 1 point from 2017 to 2018.3

The good news is that your firm can make meaningful change. Below are some ideas to help you work toward a more diverse workplace at every level.

* Think Outside the Recruitment Box. Are you focused on the ostensibly limited pool of diverse candidates and not your recruitment process? Shift that focus.

o The pool is less limited than you think. The ABA concluded that nearly 20% of law school students in the past twenty years have identified as minorities, and that the percentage has recently increased to 30%.4

* In fact, many top-tier law schools, including Harvard, have recently reported that minority students comprise over 40% of their incoming classes (the Harvard Law School class of 2021 is 49% women and 44% students of color).5

o Really look at unconscious biases in your firm that may be creating barriers. Where are partners meeting clients and/or potential recruits? If they are socializing or golfing solely at exclusive clubs with a low minority presence, that must change.

o Who is part of the recruitment decision-making process? They should reflect the diversity you are hoping to achieve in hiring.

o Are you in a law school rut? Broaden the law schools from which you recruit. Law degrees from big-name schools are impressive, but you should take care not to confuse a candidate’s potentially privileged background with their real abilities. Star students at smaller schools can be hidden gems.

* Recruit with an Eye to Retain. Recruiting a diverse group of associates is only the beginning. Retaining them and keeping them on the road to partnership is equally important, otherwise those minority percentages we looked at above will never change.

o Let new hires know that you will accommodate cultural and religious holidays and office-appropriate, ethnically-based clothing choices.

o Develop mentoring programs for new associates that specifically focus on making new hires comfortable and aware of opportunities for advancement.

o Work with local cultural institutions to help new hires who’ve moved to the area make community connections that will deepen their ties to the region.

o Ensure your firm fosters acceptance and genuinely values employing a variety of people. Avoid quotas and avoid being accused of using minority lawyers as “diversity props”6 – i.e., hiring them to trot them out at meetings and in front of clients, but not mentoring and developing them into senior attorneys and partners.

o Think long-term. Focus on diversity in all employment matters, not only when you’re filling a position.

o Does your firm meaningfully acknowledge events like Black History Month or International Women’s Day? Think of ways to celebrate or recognize a variety of holidays or cultural touchstones,

* Be Willing to Invest. Invest time and money in sincerely training partners and associates as to the value of diversity in the workplace. Avoid if possible those sometimes excruciating on-line ‘classes’ offering awkward office scenarios and then requiring employees to pick the ‘best’ answer. By investing in face-to-face, mind-expanding programs, you will expose all members of the firm to points of view not ordinarily seen by them.

Above are just some of the things your firm can do to attract and retain a diverse group of talented colleagues. Achieving real diversity in your firm will require playing the long game.

We welcome your ideas and success stories!


1 Hunt, Vivian, Yee, Lareina, Prince, Sara, and Dixon-Fyle, Sundiatu, Delivering Through Diversity (January 2018), 2 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey 10-Year Trend in Lawyer Demographics, (2018),

3 Flaherty, Scott, Law Firms Took Steps Forward in Diversity in 2018, Not Leaps: Report, (January 9, 2019), 4 Various Statistics on ABA Approved Law Schools,

4 Various Statistics on ABA Approved Law Schools,

5 HLS Profile and Facts, 6 Flaherty, Scott, Ex-Associate Alleges North Carolina Firm Used Her as 'Diversity Prop', (March 6, 2019),