And Why They Need To

“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” — John F. Kennedy

Law is a hyper-specialized profession. In an age where information brokerage is no longer the exclusive purview of the experts, law still retains its authority as a calling.

That also means law firms—in most cases—feel justified in hiring and building out their teams based on rigid meritocracy. Considering what’s at stake in many cases, few could blame them for sticking to such a system.

Unfortunately, they also use it to rationalize a lack of diversity, only paying lip service to it in mission statements and web copy. The reality is that diverse perspectives and experiences would make their firm stronger.

Statistics from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) indicate a need for robust and aggressive diversity initiatives across the industry. Despite graduation rates among men and women being a near 50/50 split, the representation of female associates as of 2015 was 44.68 percent, the lowest level since 2006. The higher up the ladder we move, the more skewed the numbers get. Only 21.6 percent of women are partners at major law firms, and just 17.4 percent are equity partners.

Though improved of late, the statistics among minorities are even more discouraging. Per the NALP, even though minorities represented 27 percent of the graduating class in 2014, only 13.97 percent went onto become lawyers at large firms. What’s more, minorities were less likely to be hired full-time than non-minorities, and African Americans were less likely to enter into private practice than any other minority group. Only 22 percent of minorities become associates at large firms, while just 7.52 percent advance to become partners. Most tellingly, only 2.5 percent of partners at larger firms were minority women (infographic: minority statistics; infographic: women statistics).

Striking, right? Surely, there are extenuating circumstances that can explain some of the disparity, but not close to all if it. Additionally, I’m not putting other law firms on trial here for conscious discrimination. I don’t believe that there’s been any malicious intent for the far majority. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be self-critical and strive to improve as unconscious bias, institutional racism and lack of commitment to effective action run rampant. I’m constantly seeking feedback and making efforts to improve myself; it shouldn’t be a radical notion to expect the same of my industry.

My personal commitment to diversity reached an even deeper level after spending time in villages in Ghana, Uganda, and India in the late 90s and early 2000s. The perspectives of the people from these places astounded me. They taught me so much. These were people with so little but who had so much joy, and sense of connection. From then on, I redefined myself as a world citizen connected to all of humanity. It’s why I connect to the quote above. Our differences will never end, but we can always seek understanding. Creating safe spaces for diversity should be a priority for every profession, especially the legal industry.

Many firms will make much of their diversity policy, but ultimately it requires urgent action. As an industry there needs to be an ethic of “practice what you preach.” At Kupfer & Associates, we’ve made diversity a priority and it’s proven invaluable to our firm and business. I’ve learned so much from my team over the years, and our diversity has helped us approach deals with fresh perspectives and fearless creativity.

Diversity and authenticity are inextricable to me. If you’re living an authentic life and have accessed your inner truth, embracing diversity isn’t a choice so much as a by-product of realizing that we’re all part of one human family. The differences we perceive are conceptions of fear and rooted in attitudes of scarcity. Overcoming our biases is not only crucial to living a full life, but also to Authentic Negotiating success. Are you ready to transform your life and business? Download free materials, from the Authentic Conversations About Race project, that will get you started on fostering constructive dialogue around diversity.

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