Diversity and inclusion are top of mind for law firm marketing departments these days. For Biglaw firms, expressing a commitment to boosting diversity in the profession is expected. But when it comes to executing on that commitment, the results have been uneven.
How are firms doing on diversity?
In a recent episode of Movers, Shakers & Rainmakers, hosts Zach Sandberg and David Lat reviewed the landscape. Citing data from Leopard Solutions, David noted that in 2021, 17% of lawyers in top 200 firms were ethnically diverse, a percentage that was unchanged from 2020. However, at the partnership level the representation of minority lawyers grew from 10% to 11%. As David pointed out, that increase is significant in percentage terms, representing 10% year-over-year growth. But at the same time, it is still far from representative of the broader U.S. population.
Some firms are doing considerably better than most. The ALM Intelligence 2021 Diversity Scorecard lists White & Case as featuring 21.9% minority partners, making it the only AmLaw 50 partnership with greater than 20% ethnically diverse representation. On the other hand, some of the most prestigious and financially secure Biglaw firms are notable laggards: minority representation in the Wachtell and Sullivan & Cromwell partnerships stands at 8.9% and 9%, respectively.
Is there reason for optimism?
As we discussed on the podcast, it’s easy to be cynical about calls for increased diversity in the legal profession. Every year discussion of the problem grows more prominent, but the rate of actual change has been glacial. Nevertheless, we point to the Mansfield Rule as one cause for optimism. Modeled after the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview diverse candidates as part of the head coach hiring process, the Mansfield Rule “measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30 percent women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions.” Firms that commit to that standard can become Mansfield Certified.
As David noted, an advantage of the Mansfield approach is that it ensures diverse candidates gain interview opportunities without establishing a quota for hiring decisions. That should make it palatable even to some firm leaders who may be skeptical of more aggressive campaigns to increase diversity. Indeed, the number of participating major law firms has grown to exceed 100.
Even so, it is notable how many top firms have not yet chosen to participate. Let’s take Gibson Dunn as a case study. The firm’s diversity performance is mediocre — not the worst in its peer group, but not exactly cause for celebration. Gibson’s partnership features 12.1% minority representation (as reported in the 2021 Diversity Scorecard). For comparison, fellow California-headquartered firm Wilson Sonsini is at 19.2%. Interestingly, Wilson Sonsini is Mansfield Certified, whereas Gibson is not.
Who should take responsibility for increasing diversity?
On another recent Movers, Shakers & Rainmakers episode, guest Monique Burt Williams, CEO of Cadence Counsel, addressed the growing number of law firms and companies hiring Chief Diversity Officers. Creating a position exclusively focused on diversity and inclusion can be an important positive step, but it carries risk that senior management will delegate the whole problem to the new hire. As Monique likes to say, “your Chief Diversity Officer should be your CEO.” In other words, unless law firm leaders are personally committed and engaged in efforts to make meaningful progress, we cannot expect a substantial increase in representation of diverse lawyers in Biglaw. The challenge is too important to be delegated.