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How can law firms and in-house departments move the needle on diversity?

I recently attended the Hispanic National Bar Association’s 42nd Annual Convention which took place from Sept. 6 – Sept. 9 in Kansas City. This convention did not disappoint, as it was an incredible opportunity to network with law students, community representatives, government officials and legal professionals from the Hispanic and the diversity community from across the U.S. (plus myself and a few colleagues from Latin America). It was made very clear throughout the convention that, despite good intentions and a valiant effort, diversity and inclusiveness within the legal profession remain elusive and the needle has, if at all, only barely moved. 

Not only are the numbers of Latino lawyers not generally improving or keeping pace with the growth of the Hispanic community in the U.S., but also, where these lawyers are able to land a role, they often find themselves exiting or their careers stalling before reaching partnership levels. As it was noted, “diversity means being invited to the ball, while inclusiveness is being asked to dance.” For many, while attendance has improved, the dance cards are empty. So what lessons can we do to move the needle in the U.S. and Canada?

I had the pleasure and honour of speaking in a plenary panel on the topic of “Putting Your Money Where Your Diversity Is: How Corporations Can Drive Diversity in the Legal Profession.” Our panel of senior GCs shared what, in our opinion, has and has not worked. For the sake of remaining positive, I will focus here on what law firms and in-house departments can and should do to achieve both diversity and inclusiveness. Like always, this advice also applies to other diverse groups and even other professions. Here are some of the points:

1.  In order to address a problem, we need to be able to understand and measure it. The panel concurred with the argument that keeping and sharing diversity metrics internally and externally, through organizations like the law societies and bar associations, is critical. Then, and only then, can we adequately conclude what is working and what is not working.

2.   While the panel generally agreed that there are as many cons as pros with regard to implementing a quota system for hiring diverse students or lawyers at all levels of the law firm and in-house legal departments, it is essential that employers look at actively recruiting from universities and law schools with a heavier Hispanic, African American or other ethnic populations. This can include participating in career fairs, providing internships, etc.

3. We need to focus on sponsorship, not mentorship. Sponsorship involves more active involvement and support for minority lawyers and their careers. The panel also felt that while there are benefits of having members of the same community sponsor or mentor diverse candidates, the most effective practice would be to have senior non-diverse counsels do this. To ensure it is done right, the partners should have some skin in the game, via having their successes rewarded and penalizing any lack of support or interest. This reinforces the importance of identifying and counting on the support of allies, regardless of whether the focus is on the advancement of minorities, LGBT, or female lawyers.

4.  In some circumstances, the lead lawyer in a file or the relationship partner may be a non-diverse counsel. They are the best person for the job, so there is too much risk in not engaging this person, especially when dealing with important litigation or legal matters. That being said, it is important that in-house counsel, in seeking to advance diversity, become involved in the succession planning process with regard to who would be trained up to take on the file at a later point in time. Law firms must be prepared to involve the client in selecting and grooming a successor, which then may be a minority or female counsel. This will help diverse counsel obtain the necessary experience and build the relationship necessary to take over when needed and able to.

5.  Finally, law firms and in-house counsel should be encouraged to volunteer and work within associations such as the HNBA, to ensure that they become part of the solution and gain the trust and a unique insight into the challenges faced by particular groups. This can also help identify and recruit talented individuals from within the communities which have the potential of becoming future all-stars, but may not always fall within the radar of major law firms or in-house departments.

There is no one size fits all solution, but by talking about the barriers faced by communities like the Latino community in the U.S. and Canada, by discussing best practices and what works and what does not work, and by becoming a part of the solution, we can all help move the needle and ensure that everyone dances and enjoys the fruits of working within our wonderful profession. 

  • Move the needle by giving credit where it is due

    Anne V
    It may have been passively noted: "As it was noted, 'diversity means being invited to the ball, while inclusiveness is being asked to dance'", but it wouldn't have been noted if someone didn't first say it. Vernā Myers, ex-lawer, now diversity trainer, TED Talk deliverer and activist first came up with that pithy and comprehensible quote. Include her name when you use it, because writing people of colour out of our own stories is one of the ways you can guarantee the profession will not become more diverse. Oh, and by the way? She wasn't talking about being invited to the ball... that's for princesses, and other hoity toity folk. Her actual words: "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." [From her website: ]