By Natalie Rodriguez Law360 (June 30, 2020, 10:35 PM EDT) — Amid a recent push in the legal industry to commit to diversity and inclusion, experts on Tuesday said they worry momentum on the issue could slow down and urged legal leaders to make institutional changes, including tying money to diversity initiatives.
While the racial diversity and inclusion discourse spurred by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement marks an important moment for the industry, leaders need to move quickly to institute change in their operations before momentum on the issue dips, several diversity professionals said in a Tuesday webinar titled “Post COVID-19: Exploring the Business Case for Why Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Are Essential to Law Firm and Corporate Culture.”
“Leadership is key to making lasting and systemic change,” Bryan Parker, co-founder of recruiting firm Legal Innovators and host of the webinar, told Law360 by email after the discussion.
In recent weeks, law firms have been making strong statements on the importance of diversity. More than 125 firms have signed on to a Law Firm Antiracism Alliance charged with identifying and dismantling systemic racism in the legal industry and government.
“What we have are the seeds of new and different conversations,” Laura Maechtlen, partner and co-chair of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s national diversity and inclusion action team, said during the webinar. “A year from now, we’ll have to revisit whether all of these conversations led to something tangible or not.”
There is precedent for momentum around diversity in the industry petering out, especially amid an economic crisis. Evan Parker, founder of data firm Parker Analytics, noted Tuesday that while diversity had been growing in the years leading up to the Great Recession, diversity numbers quickly took a hit and some metrics — particularly those for Black attorneys — took a decade to recover to prerecession levels.
The economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the distractions that may come as businesses attempt to recover some normalcy threaten to pull attention away from the current momentum on diversity, according to experts.
“If people like me and others who are bias interrupters, if they don’t continue to press this issue … I fear that we’re going to go back to where we were,” said Paulette Brown, chief diversity officer at Locke Lord LLP.
To help create concrete change, law leaders should embrace and analyze internal data, several experts said. It is important for firms to assess where they stand on diversity and inclusion today in order to be able to set new goals and measure their progress, according to Parker of Parker Analytics.
Setting clear goals and being transparent about progress on those goals is key to getting buy-in from employees, Parker of Legal Innovators told Law360. “If you do not come back to the partnership or organization with progress, people will lose faith and focus,” he said.
One way firms could use data is to track their credit management systems to look for and root out any bias that may affect who is getting certain work, said experts. And while “carrots” for progress on diversity and inclusion initiatives can be helpful, leaders should also start to consider economically penalizing supervisors who don’t meet certain goals.
“Many are reluctant to use sticks in their approach, which has to change,” said Joel Stern, CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms.
Many law firm leaders tie economic incentives and disincentives to matters they consider a core value, such as business generation, and diversity and inclusion should be no different, said Locke Lord’s Brown.
“Firms have to exhibit leadership on this issue, not just financial issues,” Jon Greenblatt, co-founder of Legal Innovators, remarked during the webinar.
For firms that do succeed in driving change within their operations, however, there can be wider economic incentives. There is data that shows increased partner profits at more diverse firms, and those firms that don’t make progress on this front risk losing talent from a younger generation demanding diversity, experts noted.
While there are concerns about the current momentum on this issue being lost, Legal Innovators’ Parker told Law360 he was surprised — and heartened — by the sense of urgency from the speakers.
“It really felt like this could be a moment that sparks lasting change,” he said.
–Editing by Daniel King.