Diversity and inclusion have been trending for several years and have exploded recently. More than ever, the spotlight is on what law firms are doing to advance diversity and inclusion in the profession.
Diversity refers to the people, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and other innate characteristics, that have opportunities to be a part of or interact with the profession. Law firms traditionally have a poor image in this regard. We have all heard about the lack of diversity at the partnership level, and that alone can be a deterring factor for potential employees or clients.
Inclusion is the behaviour of embracing and advancing diversity. Without this piece, we are just practising diversity for diversity's sake and not fixing the underlying mechanisms that stifle it.
It is generally accepted that advancing diversity and inclusion is an important thing for lawyers to do. The value proposition for small firms is more about developing new skills and networks than opportunities for innovation and new ideas. Furthermore, there is a visible shift in who is living in our communities, where they come from and the values they bring. Failure to adopt a diversity and inclusion mindset will leave firms ill equipped to serve the changing population, rendering them a legal service provider of last resort.
A common comment from smaller firms is that they do not know how to implement diversity and inclusion because their size precludes the opportunity for diversity. This mindset distills diversity down to simply a hiring practice. It is much more than that. For small firms, the focus can be on the inclusion piece of the equation.
The starting point is to develop a foundation for inclusive behaviour. Make embracing diversity and inclusion a core principle of your firm. Take it a step further and make it part of a public value statement on your website or in your lobby. This will make you accountable to the initiative.
There are ample opportunities to incorporate diversity and inclusion in how you practise. Taking time to develop cultural competency in approaches to, and resolutions of, legal issues will go a long way to better serving people from diverse backgrounds. Some actions that can be taken include:
- In litigation, retain experts from diverse backgrounds;
- In the family law context, learn about cultural views on family dynamics to help navigate hidden nuances in issues;
- In the wills and estates context, learn how different populations view death, illness and incapacity, to better understand how to protect and promote their values with proper planning;
- In the corporate/business context, learn how different cultures approach negotiation and agreements to better equip you to protect interests.
There are many great examples from larger firms on how to embrace and promote diversity and inclusion. While small firms cannot hire a diversity and inclusion officer, we can incorporate elements of what some larger firms do into our practice:
- Work with community partners in efforts to advance diversity and inclusion;
- Engage with diverse communities and events celebrating diversity;
- Offer mentorship to licensees from traditionally marginalized groups;
- Offer pro bono services to communities facing barriers as a result of exclusion mentality;
- Join associations or networks that promote diversity and inclusion, such as the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.
There many actions that small firms can take to advance diversity and inclusion. It is more than just hiring practices. It is participating in reshaping our relationship with an increasingly diverse population. Rather than sitting back and waiting for this population to filter itself into their historical relationships with legal services, small firms can start to integrate themselves with the population they serve.