Diversity in law firms is often only for appearance


Henry Ibe

The legal community is bogged down with the constant problem of resolving the issue of diversity or the lack thereof in law firms. However, is diversity and inclusion truly a goal or is it a topic that allows law firms to pay lip service to the notion while still maintaining the status quo?

Touting a commitment to diversity has become an increasingly popular practice for law firms. However, what we see in reality is tokenism, wherein firms symbolically recruit a small number of people from underrepresented groups to give the appearance of a diverse workforce. It is a shame that firms still try to sell the image of diversity by consciously selecting a few minority associates/partners to be placed on firm brochures. Whereas, these firms fail to genuinely foster an environment that encourages, supports and cherishes the exchange of diverse ideas, and the equal treatment of attorneys.

There are those in the legal community that have opined that to remedy the problem with diversity, the decision must be made at the top. This is true in part, as a firm's management would have to be receptive to the idea of diversity but being receptive and actually buying into the idea are two different things. There are those that simply want diverse candidates because like icing on a cake, the optics are appealing to the outside audience even though devoid of any substance.

On the other hand, you have those attorneys that understand that their community comprises people from different backgrounds, race, culture, and geography. They appreciate that to adequately serve their clients and provide a wealth of different perspectives, the firm must be able to create a workforce that thinks like and is representative of the clientele which it serves. Accomplishing such a diverse workforce is truly difficult because true diversity would require acceptance of people that are different from the status quo. I dare say it would force management to confront the biases and underlying prejudices that exist within firms.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) released its 2018 report on diversity in law firms; it showed that despite small increases in the past three years, representation of Black/African American associates remains just below the pre-recession level of 4.66% (now at 4.48%). Minority women continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level and, specifically, representation of Black/African-Americans among partners has barely increased since the recession, with the number currently at 1.83%.

These figures lead to the relevant questions: How are Black/African-American associates being perceived and treated at these firms? Have these firms' management and employees alike been trained to check their implicit biases toward minority attorneys? Are minority attorneys paired with mentors that are willing to invest in their growth as attorneys? Is there a clear path toward partnership or management? Are they treated as valued members of the firm? Are they afforded the same treatment as the majority attorneys within the firm; are their actions judged in the same way? Is the firm taking proactive measures to hold itself accountable to these ideals?

The aforementioned questions are building blocks that firms should first consider in trying to implement a diverse and inclusive culture. Unfortunately, firms are not immune to the social ills and prejudices that exist in society. Consciously or unconsciously, these prejudices play out within their walls as well. Some in management would rather believe that these issues are nonexistent and would give the majority within their firms the benefit of doubt.

However, the same benefit of doubt is not afforded to a Black/African-American attorney. They constantly must prove that they are educated enough, that they earned their bar licenses, and that they belong. I contend that no other group within the legal profession is pre-judged more based on race despite their effort, hard work, character, accomplishments, and accolades. Justifiably, I am led to ask whether a huge part of the problem with diversity in the legal community is being Black. Furthermore, do most law firms truly want Black/African-American attorneys as part of their firms at all, and do they genuinely encourage their success?

Indeed, diversity is good for business. Nonetheless, it cannot be achieved if the people that are supposed to champion the cause - those directly affected - are put down by prevailing stereotypes and actions that run counterintuitive to that end. We need to stay aware and try to create a conducive environment for diversity and inclusion to thrive. If the minority attorneys or, specifically, the Black/African-American attorneys within a firm are happy, valued and satisfied with their positions, they will speak positively about diversity and be roused to serve as mentors and champions for the firms in recruitment activities.

There has been a sentiment expressed that the lack of diversity can also be attributed to fewer diverse candidates applying for associate job openings. This is somewhat true as the number of racially diverse candidates, specifically the number of Black/African-American candidates in law schools, has dwindled. But it is no coincidence that the firms that use this as their main excuse are the least diverse firms. Instead of shifting blame to the candidate pool, firms should reexamine their hiring practices, culture/structure, retention and promotion of their diverse associates/partners, and credit distributions/bonuses.

The legal community is a small one; over time we get to know people in each other's circles. Black/African-American attorneys make up an even smaller subset of the legal community. Not surprisingly, they share their plights and frustrations, especially if the firms are not treating them well or fostering their growth and development. When it comes to diversity in the law, appearances matter but the mistake made by firms is thinking that representation equals satisfaction.

Change does not come easy. The struggle toward achieving the goal of diversity and inclusion in the legal community is a process but one that we all must be invested in. Certainly, this is not a plea for special treatment but for fair and equal treatment of inority attorneys in law firms and the legal community in general.

This piece is not intended to ascribe blame; rather, the purpose is to express the frustration that is shared by many minority attorneys. It is intended to force us to not only talk, but act, regarding "the elephant in the room."
How are the Black/African-American attorneys being treated at our firms? How are minority attorneys being treated at our firms? We can entertain this unpopular viewpoint or ignore it as the angry rambling of a disgruntled Black attorney. The choice is ours.


Henry E. Ibe is the founder and principal attorney at H.I. LEGAL PLLC in Southfielld.