A Conversation with Diversity Lab: How Can Law Firms and Legal Departments Prevent Backsliding in Diversity & Inclusion Programs During the Current Crisis?

The 2008 recession wiped out decades of work on diversity and inclusion in the blink of an eye. The pay gap in law widened.

Women - who represented less than 16% of all equity partners at the time - accounted for 50% of the equity partner layoffs. And the African American population in law firms did not rebound to pre-recession numbers until last year. Now we face another recession and, with it, the very real possibility that the incremental progress the legal industry has made towards D&I will be reversed.

We recently spoke with Diversity Lab’s Lisa Kirby, Chief Inclusion + Equity Officer, and Leila Hock, Chief Growth Officer, to discuss the potential negative impact of the current pandemic and economic crisis on the progress of diversity initiatives in the legal industry.

Here are some excerpts from this important conversation:

Aurelia Spivey: What are the parallels and differences that you are seeing between the 2008 recession and what is happening in the current crisis?

Lisa Kirby:  A key difference is that firms now are much more cognizant of diversity and inclusion as an overall part of their mission and strategy. It is no longer considered nice to have. And that is partly due to the encouragement from so many enlightened clients and General Counsel who keep turning up the volume on their call for diversity. Recessions and economic crises tend to exacerbate inequalities across the board. But it does seem like there is much more attention being given to minimizing the impact on diversity this time around.

Leila Hock: Clients are certainly, keeping diversity top of mind for their law firms right now. And we have seen over the past years Legal Department have made very concrete, specific requests of their firms. We have spoken with several legal departments in the past few weeks that are doubling down in driving their law firms to increase diversity. This is very encouraging to see that clients are reminding firms that diversity and inclusion is essential and will be considered when evaluating outside counsel.

Lisa Kirby:  We are talking with firms about how to double down on their diversity initiatives. One thing to address is work allocation, as diverse associates become literally less visible. Research shows that diverse associates spend less time out of work with partners, who are members of the majority. This means diverse associates tend to spend less time in social activities with partners. During this crisis, there is a risk of them falling even further through the cracks. Having some structure around work allocation is particularly important.

Aurelia Spivey: Do you have any other examples of best practices in terms of what law firms and clients are doing right now to keep diversity front of mind?

Lisa Kirby: Again, I would come back to work allocation. Firms should pay attention to who is and is not getting work. You can nominate a partner in each practice group can monitor work allocation specifically to ensure everyone is getting their fair share. There is a lot of new cutting-edge work that came out of COVID 19 and that is the kind of high visibility, interesting and challenging work that can really push someone's career forward. I am also a big fan of pulse surveys to frequently check in and see how people are doing both personally and professionally and what kind of support they need. You can design surveys that are searchable by gender and demographic identity. Identify areas where people are not getting the support that they need. That is another example of data that can really inform decision-making.

Leila Hock: When we look at it holistically thinking about the legal industry as a whole, you should look not only at who is performing your work, although that's important, and you should absolutely ask for that. But do not forget to be asking the firm about their overall numbers at a high level to look at the leadership of the firm. Look at the equity partners in the firm, and then you can see how that compares to the information on who is working on your individual matters because that is an interesting comparison. What we do not want to see is a firm using all their diverse associates and partners with the clients who are asking for diversity, but not actually seeing growth and change in the industry or the firm as a whole. In short, focus on leadership. We are also seeing clients being more deliberate in what they as e.g. who is getting the origination credit on my matters? Are the associates that I work with getting credit for this work? Clients need to ask the hard questions that we know help people advance in their law firms and advocate for them on their behalf. And the most important thing to do, when you ask for all this data is to follow up on it!

BigHand is committed to increasing diversity across the legal industry with a focus on providing actionable insights from legal billing data that enable law firms and legal departments to ensure that diverse attorneys are doing career-advancing work.

Diversity Lab is an incubator for innovative ideas and solutions that boost diversity and inclusion in law. Experimental ideas are created through our Hackathons and piloted in collaboration with more than 150 top law firms and legal departments across the country. Diversity Lab leverages data, behavioral science, design thinking, and technology to further develop and test the ideas, measure the results, and share the lessons learned.

About BigHand Resource Management

BigHand Resource Management is a legal work allocation tool that allows law firms to identify resources, forecast utilisation, manage workloads and add structure to career development for lawyers. The solution delivers real-time visibility of team availability, improved profitability on matters and supports DEI goals and equitable allocation of work.

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