Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has become ever more important for law firms, especially given external pressures. In addition to the need to disclose performance against specific targets for gender and ethnic diversity, there is growing communication around the importance of diversity and inclusion and the implication on both risk and the way firms reflect and serve communities. Change is patchy however: according to the American Bar Association, change remains slow with the percentage of lawyers who are men and women of color growing less than 3% in the past 10 years.
Clients are also demanding faster change. Firms (69% of NA, 52% of UK) are reporting increasing client pressure to resource matters with diversity in mind in the last 12 months. This reflects the calls from high profile companies such as Facebook, HP, and Novartis for law firms to improve racial and gender diversity.
In addition, a number of companies have signed up to the Mindful Business Charter and, as a result, expect their suppliers and business partners to demonstrate a clear commitment to change. Law firms are also reporting that clients do not want their lawyers working ridiculous hours – and firms are beginning to take note.
Yet despite both overwhelming evidence for the power of diversity to change and improve business culture, as well as the expectations of clients, only 24% of NA and 27% of UK firms confirm DEI is a top three priority when staffing matters which has dropped from 50% of NA, 42% of UK in 2021, underlining again the disconnect between corporate objectives and operational deliverables. Why is this still not a priority – especially when we reported last year that 46% of NA, 40% UK were actively reviewing equity, diversity & inclusion policies and initiatives?
Firms cannot prioritize DEI without embracing notable changes in behavior, such as avoiding unconscious bias and ensuring equitable career development through inclusive allocation of work and access to opportunities. The barriers to change are not only cultural. How can firms confidently assert a commitment to DEI without access to accurate and up to date data around current work allocation and the opportunities presented to diverse lawyers?
Understanding Current DEI Experience
With so many firms still following traditional resource allocation models, it is hard to see how DEI goals can be attained. Two fifths (41% of NA and 40% of UK) of respondents raise concerns regarding the lack of resource allocation/matter staffing focused on diversity requirements, as well as partners picking resources based on personal preference (36% of NA, 45% of UK). Worryingly, this figure indicates little has changed in the last year, when respondents reported that reviewing how efficiently work is allocated from partners to associates was a priority for 45% of NA and 44% of UK firms.
The status quo will not improve if firms do not improve transparency, actively work to build a good baseline understanding of the current DEI experience and use information to create an impartial resource allocation process.
The challenge facing firms, however, is the lack of access to the relevant data. Half (49% of NA and of 52% UK) of firms have no data or only partial data relating to how matters are resourced/staffed based on equity, diversity & inclusion considerations – making it impossible to enforce, track or assess the impact of any DEI policies.
In addition, 47% of NA and 56% of UK firms have no data or only partial data relating to the opportunities available for diverse lawyers to access career enhancing work and 55% of NA, 53% of UK have no data or only partial data relating to the type of work (such as document review versus court appearances) based on equity, diversity and inclusion. The reality for the legal sector today is a largely theoretical commitment to DEI supported by inadequate information and an inability to support top level strategy.
It is positive to discover that 55% of NA and 48% of UK firms say that reviewing equity, diversity & inclusion policies and initiatives is an operational priority for the next 24 months. However, lasting, effective, strategic change cannot be achieved without the operational support provided by excellent resource management information, robust processes and continuous monitoring. Firms that actively introduce the resourcing models and technology required to provide transparency and enable DEI-led resourcing will not only be a strong position to attract and retain talent but will be far more likely to achieve the uplift in business performance that is increasingly linked to a diverse workforce.
This was an excerpt from the report 'Legal Resource Management - The Present and Future Impact on Law Firms'. Access the full report to dive deeper into the findings from over 800 legal management professionals:
A view into the strategic and operational challenges law firms are facing as employee expectations are rising: findings from over 800 Operations, HR, Resource Management and Practice Group Leaders.