Transforming A Dinosaur: How the Legal Field Is Embracing the Diversity Challenge

When one thinks of the legal industry, diversity isn't a word that usually comes to mind. And perhaps rightfully so, as the legal profession is one of the few remaining industries to yet undergo a diversity revolution.
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Credit: Nixon Peabody

When one thinks of the legal industry, diversity isn't a word that usually comes to mind. And perhaps rightfully so, as the legal profession is one of the few remaining industries to yet undergo a diversity revolution. According to the National Association of Women Lawyers annual survey, women make up about 18% of equity partners, an increase of 2% since 2006. Not great news for female lawyers who can expect to achieve gender parity by the year 2176 at the current rate of progress.

One might attribute this slow uptick due to a pipeline issue, which in fact might be a contributing factor, as only 37% of graduating lawyers were women in 2004, compared to 62% of men. And even if a woman does become an equity partner, she is still only going to make 80% of what a male lawyer makes, a figure that has decreased from 84% a decade ago. Lawyers of color make only 8% of partners and the LGBT community is represented at only 2%. Needless to say, there is a diversity crisis in the legal profession, but luckily one that is not going unnoticed by forward-thinking firms.

One of the first steps is to look at systemic issues that minorities in the legal profession can sometimes face. In speaking with a number of women and minority attorneys, my hope was that an honest peek into the challenges they face by an objective outsider (in this case, me) might be useful in surfacing an open and honest conversation to tackle the very real gender and racial bias that exists within the legal profession.

A female partner at DLA Piper who has been practicing for more than 15 years, explained some of the challenges women at her firm were facing. She was a participant in DLA Piper's Women Emerging Leaders Program designed to follow four high-potential women at the 3-4 year mark to understand why women weren't making it past the 4-5 year mark in seniority. They were given peer reviews, interviews with C-suite partners, and went through extensive analysis by a third party whose job it was to understand what underlying issues were preventing advancement.

Through this process, a few things became clear, particularly that women weren't building strong enough internal networks and channels to develop their practices over time. DLA used this small-group program to create new networks and access points for women partners and is now utilizing the lessons learned to expand the concepts across all young partners. As one of the largest law firms in the world and also one of the youngest, DLA's mission is to build a brand around entrepreneurship. They view this as an opportunity to create a platform where women and diverse attorneys, who have typically struggled within the traditional law firm model, can find a path to success within the firm.

She went on to point out other hurdles. For instance, because of the time frame it takes to make partner, on average about 8-10 years, women are faced with the difficult choice of starting a family and or advancing in their career. Since childbearing years fall straight in the middle of the road to partnership, motherhood can become a hurdle for many women who cannot reconcile the demands of long hours, required travel, and lack of flexibility, leading to burn out or leaving the profession.

It's clear that addressing gender bias and the needs of working mothers is essential to closing the gender gap. To drive real change in the legal profession, law firms must find ways to allow parenthood and partnership to co-exist. For instance, firms that tout "flexible work schedules" or "part-time" roles need to make sure flexible scheduling doesn't hurt a woman's reputation or career progression. Some women are taking an entrepreneurial approach to their law careers by bringing in their own clients and putting clear boundaries in place in terms of travel and out of office time in an effort to achieve better work/life balance. But clearly, in order for women to thrive in an industry designed for men, by men, fundamental structural changes are needed to create a new normal. This is not unique to law; other male-dominated industries, such as tech, face similar problems, and systemic fixes like equal pay, paid maternity leave, and mandatory paternity leave can help create a more equal playing field.

Another challenge facing many industries, but particularly law, is the influx of Millennials, who now make up the majority of the workforce. They are looking for flexible work schedules, mentorship, and opportunities to learn and advance at a rate that surpasses the traditional model of progression in the legal profession. In an effort to address the changing workforce, global law firm, Nixon Peabody is rethinking everything from office design and layout to mentoring opportunities as part of its recent rebranding effort. This firm has decided its diversity initiatives will reflect the new direction it wants to take.

"Our brand focus is on forward thinking, and with that comes a recognition that becoming a more inclusive workplace is not only good for business but our employees and the firm as a whole," says Rekha Chiruvolu, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Nixon Peabody. "If you improve business development opportunities for diverse attorneys, you'll improve retention and promotion, which in turn leads to increased recruitment of diverse attorneys. To achieve this, we're committed to diversity and inclusion and we look for ways to expand existing client relationships based on mutual commitments to diversity and inclusion, assess the composition of our attorney/client teams, highlight our diverse talent, and hold unconscious bias workshops as a collaborative learning opportunity."

Speaking with Jade Turner-Bond, an African-American female associate at Nixon Peabody, Jade noted that having role models and mentors who look like you can be so important, especially when you're first starting out. "Clients are used to seeing white men in partner positions, but it was important to me that I could pursue my dream of practicing in the private sector, regardless," she says. "I wasn't going to be deterred because I was a black woman. I had worked with Nixon Peabody attorneys before joining the firm, and I knew the team was a great group of people and very diverse. Travis Gibbs, an African American male partner in the firm's public finance practice who helped launch our Los Angeles office asked me to come on board. It was great to see someone in a senior position who looked like me, and having his sponsorship and guidance has been really helpful in my success so far at the firm."

Touring the Los Angeles office of Nixon Peabody, it's clear that pushing the needle is part of its DNA. Think chic boutique hotel meets tech space rather than a stodgy law firm. I was curious if the open spaces, bright colors, white walls, and glass doors were deliberate. Speaking to Seth Levy, Managing Partner of Nixon Peabody's Los Angeles office, it was clear that a great deal of thought went into the unique office design. Seth says the office space, which features open collaborative spaces, is a way for "associates and senior partners to exchange ideas and learn from one another." An open kitchen, a Zen chill out room, and a beautiful rooftop balcony with expansive views of Los Angeles make the firm's downtown office a Millennial's dream workspace.

Firms are also being asked by clients to provide more diverse attorneys to work on their matters. "Our clients are asking us to provide diverse attorney teams," Seth says, "and we are proud that more than 50% of the personnel in our L.A. office are people of color, and 41% of Los Angeles attorneys are women." Forward thinking companies like Microsoft now offer incentives to law firms that increase diversity on their teams. It's one of the ways that the industry is trying to address this issue, much like how Europe is doing with its quota system to encourage women on boards and leadership positions.

Although change does not happen overnight, it's encouraging to see the industry making strides toward closing the gender and racial gap. Even though there isn't a magic bullet, law firms that understand the challenges, have support from top leadership, tie them to strategic business objectives, and take active strides to put programs in place are leading the effort to transform the legal industry.

What are the best practices you've seen in the legal industry to address diversity issues? Share them in the comments below.

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