Diversifying Our Law Firms: Goal Achieved?

November 13 2019 | Committees

No, not quite. The most recent law firm demographic findings from the National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) make it clear that we have a long way to go. NALP Executive Director James Leipold (“Leipold”) stated, “the story of NALP’s 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms is a good news\bad news story.” Leipold further explained that the representation of women associates continues to rise, and the percentage of LGBT lawyers and associates has reached an all time high. However, representation of Black\African-American associates remains low and the representation of Black\African-American partners has barely changed over the last 10 years. Sad to say, minority women continue to be the most under represented group, with black\African-American women the most poorly represented.  NALP 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, January 2019. That is simply unacceptable.

Let’s face it, the issue of diversity and inclusion has been brought to the forefront of our profession and has remained there for years. Rarely do we receive legal publications that do not include an article on the issue of diversity and inclusion. Similarly, most continuing legal education seminars include at least one topic on the issue of diversity and inclusion. In fact, there have been professional seminars, locally and nationally, solely dedicated to the issue of diversity and inclusion. Because we have been bombarded with these well-intended efforts, the unfortunate reality is that the issue of diversity and inclusion is now oftentimes met with a sigh and rolled eyes. The desired effect – to raise awareness and to make a difference in diversifying our legal profession – has not been achieved. Instead, the unrelenting frequency of articles, CLEs, and seminars on this topic appears to have created a knee jerk rejection of the idea of furthering the discussion and developing meaningful solutions. We cannot ignore that the laudable efforts of the few - authors, speakers, and advocates for diversity and inclusion - have had only little effect on the prevalent problem of a lack of diversity in our legal profession, and specifically in our law firms. To induce change, we need the efforts of the many, including you. 

As lawyers, each one of us is arguably obligated to do more. As Voltaire (and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spider Man) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This price of power is embedded in the preamble of our Louisiana Code of Professionalism which states:

The legal profession is a learned calling.  As such, lawyers should act with honesty and integrity and be mindful of our responsibility to the judicial system, the public, our colleagues, and the rule of law.  We, as lawyers, should always aspire to the highest ideals of our profession.[1]

The “highest ideals of our profession” necessarily include a diverse and inclusive bar to represent our richly diverse community. Moreover, Rules 1.1 and 2.1 of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct suggest that we cannot ignore the need for diverse legal teams within our practices. Rules 1.1 and 2.1 provide, in pertinent part:

Rule 1.1.  Competence (a) a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.  Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Rule 2.1.  Advisor.  In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.  In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client’s situation.

Interpreting Rules 1.1 and 2.1 in pari materia suggests that to provide competent representation and advice to a client requires the lawyer to not only consider the law and learned skill, but also to thoroughly prepare for the representation, which may include consideration of moral, economic, social, and political factors. This begs the question: is a lawyer or a legal team competent to represent and to advise clients if diversity of thought and ideas concerning relevant moral, economic, social and political factors is lacking? These factors may be materially relevant to the client and to the jury. However, to determine or to identify the relevance of these factors necessarily requires diversity of thought, background, and experience. I suggest that if we, as lawyers, are not offering diversity of thought and ideas to our extremely diverse community of clients, we are not providing competent representation and advice. At a minimum, legal representation and advice from a diverse legal team should be one of the highest ideals of our profession to which we should aspire.

The statistics demonstrate the need for further diversity in our law firms and the principles and rules governing our profession direct us to take action. Therefore, we each need to step up and rise to the occasion. Managing and equity partners, you wield the most power and control. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to affect change. Now is the time to take a good look at your law firm. If your law firm does not paint a diverse picture from summer law clerks to equity partners, commit to making changes. Review your recruiting policies and target minority affiliations. Pair each associate with active mentors and follow up on each mentor-mentee relationship. Be transparent about expectations and what is required to achieve partnership.  Give feedback to your associates regarding each one’s progress towards that goal. Although many firms are successfully recruiting more diverse summer law clerks and associates, attrition remains a substantial issue. To reduce the level of attrition and to retain talented diverse attorneys, value and invest in them. Provide the support to enable them to grow and to develop their skills. Invite your diverse associates to client meetings – not simply to make an impression to your client regarding your firm’s diversity efforts, but to make your associate feel like a meaningful part of the team. Let the associate perform meaningful work on the client’s file and foster communication directly between the client and the associate. Importantly, if a book of business is a necessary component to making partner in your firm, empower the associate with the tools necessary to build his or her book. Recognize that all attorneys do not have the same ties or pre-existing relationships with potential clients in our community. One’s lack of personal connections should not bar progress or upward progression in your firm. Encourage involvement in various professional organizations and share networking tips with those attorneys. Maintain open lines of communication with all of your associates and welcome differences in thought and backgrounds. Create an environment in which all feel welcome and equally positioned for success.

Associates, your apparent lack of authority in a law firm does not alleviate you from your obligation to take action. Take an active part in diversifying your firm. Volunteer for firm committees and be forthcoming with your ideas and suggestions to firm management. Remain involved with diverse affiliations and your law schools. Mentor law school students, or volunteer to speak at local elementary and high schools. The pipeline to our profession begins at an early stage. We cannot ignore the impact we may have on young minds by making ourselves visible and present in the early stages of a child’s education. 

These are but a few illustrative examples of what we may each do to advance the efforts of diversifying our profession and our law firms – a goal necessary to ensure the quality of our profession and the services provided to our clients and community.

Let’s make it happen.

 

[1]Code of Professionalism.  https://www.lsba.org/Members/LegalLibrary.aspx.

 

Written by: Melanie C. Lockett
on behalf of NOBA's Minorities in the Profession Committee

Contact Information:
Lowe Stein Hoffman Allweis & Hauver LLP
701 Poydras Street, Suite 3600
New Orleans, LA 70139
(504) 581-2450
mlockett@lowestein.com
 

 



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