Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is at the forefront of strategy for a significant number of law firms and corporate departments. Yet, those with an inside understanding of the industry know that meaningful progress is not being made.
While there are varied approaches to implementing initiatives and measuring their outcomes, most efforts are not moving the needle. The common denominator of failure or stagnancy is a passive mindset. The way forward lies in shifting the perception of DEI from an amorphous theoretical pursuit tacked onto business strategy to a core value integrated into everyday business operations.
DEI is Here to Stay
DEI was still a relatively unknown concept just 10 years ago. Today, nearly every law firm and corporate law department is addressing it in some way. Ignoring it altogether is playing with fire. The 2020 Law360 Diversity Snapshot indicates that more than half of firms have gone so far as to appoint a diversity leader. For the most part, companies and law firms are happy to talk about DEI programs, and many can point with pride to diversity-related initiatives within their organizations. However, the actual efficacy of these programs and initiatives is dubious at best.
Since 2011, the representation of women in the industry increased just 3.4%, and women of color increased a mere 0.65%. The pandemic has only complicated the situation; according to an American Bar Association report, 37% of women are considering quitting altogether, and attorneys of color have alarmingly higher instances of struggling with mental health than their white peers. With the threat of a diversity exodus looming, it’s imperative to transform how we think about and practice DEI.
Building a Case Beyond the Bottom Line
It is now common knowledge that greater diversity has concrete business benefits. Diverse teams are more innovative, and their organizations generate more revenue. Leaders in the legal space realize that diverse law firms get better results for their clients. Attorneys are also better engaged in their matters and can develop better relationships with a wider range of clients. According to Gartner, 75% of organizations with decision-making teams that reflect diversity and inclusion will exceed financial goals through 2022.
Additionally, mounting ESG requirements are increasing the expectation of transparency. To bring in individual clients and win bids for corporate matters, collecting DEI data is now more of a must than a nice-to-have.
Despite the business case being stronger than ever, DEI programs are producing lackluster results due to a dangerous mindset.
The Performative Mindset That’s Preventing Progress
The core of the issue is that DEI is siloed. It’s not being centered as a key piece of strategy and operations. Even though more than 94% of firms with 400+ employees have a diversity committee that includes senior partners, they don’t have the quality and quantity of information needed to increase and sustain better diversity. As a result, attempts at improving DEI are half-hearted and poorly executed. Too many firms and corporations are treating diversity efforts as an add-on for optics through “feel-good” stories about initiatives.
Frequently, diversity initiatives are only implemented to keep up with competitors or respond to new requirements by clients or corporate departments. However, these initiatives should be part of an overall strategy to grow the business, fulfill core values and operate ethically overall. These non-strategic approaches typically steer DEI efforts into dead ends, resulting in “diversity fatigue” — a form of paralyzing complacency born of repeated failure to create meaningful progress.
READ: CDOs on the Run: Why 2021 Has Been a Tough Year in DEI
Although metrics are key to flipping the switch from passive to active DEI engagement, “vanity metrics” hold the industry back. Vanity metrics with shallow and contextless data contribute to the passive, performative mindset by discouraging deeper data analysis. A firm may hire multiple lawyers of color in a quarter, so the numbers in hiring and current employment for people of color look good, and the firm can pat itself on the back before resting on its laurels.
The problem is those numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, half of those lawyers may leave in just a couple of years’ time, compared to their white peers, who typically stay on for twice as long. Data from the 2020 Vault survey indicates that while women of color represent less than 10% of attorneys, they account for more than 13% of attorneys who left their firms. Additionally, even though law firms are hiring and promoting more women of color, that progress disappears as you go up the leadership ladder, where 75% of law firm partners are male, and 89% are white.
Having access to specific and results-oriented data is highly empowering when developing DEI strategy.
Better Data Galvanizes Meaningful Action
We need to move forward by seeking out results-based data that can be parsed through a variety of different lenses, which then reveals a collection of actionable insights. A greater scope of data, including tools that make it possible to visualize it in multiple ways, illuminates areas of improvement so DEI initiatives can be strategically planned rather than created based on what looks good on the surface.
The future of DEI is pivoting from vanity metrics to results-oriented scorecards with high specificity. How is your firm doing on diverse attorneys by matter? How does your attrition rate for attorneys of color stack up to your competitors? And, most importantly, what do you need to change to be a leader in these areas?
When you have both the data and the tools to put everything in context and make it actionable, DEI stops being a mystery and becomes another area of business strategy with clear steps to be taken to drive true progress.
Omar Sweiss is the founder and CEO of Justice Bid, a minority-owned legal sourcing technology and diversity analytics company transforming how corporate legal departments source outside counsel, and embed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into their business operations through data intelligence and transparency tools.