And Why They Need To
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein
We’ve identified that there is a diversity problem in law firms. It’s been a conversation for a long time, and many firms—with the best intentions—have tried to make diversity a serious aspect of their culture and business plan. However, the numbers are still lagging seriously behind other industries.
I have some ideas for how we can improve as an industry, but before we go into solutions, I think it’s important to discuss some of the things that are keeping law firms across the country from fully embracing diversity.
When we’re surrounded by our in-group, we inevitably perceive those like us more favorably. For the most part it’s an evolutionary remnant—a survival instinct for when venturing outside our tribe could mean death. The stakes aren’t quite so high nowadays. Instead, women and minorities get unintentionally left on the periphery of informal networks that build out a firm. Furthermore, in a profession that aims to be meritocratic, white male partners might favor the work of white male associates without intending to, even if you control for quality. After a while, those instances add up, and when it’s time to give promotions, guess who’s getting picked?
Fear of Change
A big reason law firms are lagging behind is a cultural issue. Corporations are more responsive to diversity initiatives not just because they can offer positions that capture a wider range of talents, but also because the cultures of larger corporations are often more malleable. At large law firms, conformity is key to efficiency. Consequently, leaders fear that diversity can lead to instability. The hours and work are supremely demanding. There is the assumption that people all the way up the ladder have all done their time, put in the hours, and will continue doing so as needed. Their fear of change stems from an unwillingness to compromise on any aspect of the status quo. Unfortunately, this fear is inauthentic, based on the snowball fallacy that if exceptions are ever made for any one person or group, where does it end? It overlooks the exceptions given every day.
Sometimes, it really is about who you know. On average, white lawyers have an easier time switching law firms and are more likely to transfer with a friend or colleague. African American lawyers on the other hand have a more difficult time changing firms and are more likely to do so on their own. This trend perpetuates the naturally occurring selection systems and ad hoc filters that help people advance their careers. As these networks grow, the results become exponential. Partners are more likely to hire friends or people that trusted colleagues have vouched for. When women and minorities are underrepresented, so are their opinions and those for whom they would advocate. This is part of how lack of diversity becomes self-perpetuating.
It seems counter-intuitive. Diversity is the idealistic notion we’re discussing, but that’s not how many lawyers think. Their idealism about the law actually obscures their perception of diversity. Lady Justice is blindfolded for a reason. Race or gender simply aren’t relevant factors for the practice. It sounds great. We’ve moved past white law and black law and women’s laws and men’s laws. The simple fact that those distinctions in the law ever existed at all dictates the necessity for diverse voices and experiences in firms of all sizes. In a perfect society, the law would be an objective concept, but the truth is that—even today—the law affects certain people and groups differently than others.
In the next entry, we’re going to unpack how law firms can overcome these entrenched behaviors and discuss some of the solutions I think would be most impactful for the future of diversity in the industry.
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.