“Diversity” in the Law: Savvy Business, Self-Motivation, or Both?

“Diversity” is a term to qualify something diverse, which the American Heritage dictionary defines as “made up of distinct characteristics, qualities, or elements.” Diversity in the work environment of law firms, agencies, in-house counsels, and non-profits usually relates to the genetic makeup of the employees’ gender, race, national origin, and sexual orientation, but for purposes of brevity and, frankly, your time, this post focuses solely on race.

In 2007, per the ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, the racial demographic of the attorney population consisted of 77.6% Caucasian/White, 3.2% African American, 3.1% Hispanic and even lower numbers for the other categories of races and ethnicities. Not surprisingly, this disparity has not made much progress in the past decade which is displayed in the 2017 percentages that show attorneys consisting of 66.8% Caucasian/White, 4.1% African American, and 3.9% Hispanic. Accordingly, these statistics create more questions than answers, such as: Why is there such a low presence of minorities in the law? Is this disparity due to a systemic problem in the American education system or attributed to employers’ implicit bias? Do schools/employers care about these statistics? If not, should they? This post hardly answers any of these questions nor is it intended to but there is certainly still room for discussion.

As Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives begin to appear higher on the priority list for employers and law schools, a lot of independent opinions surround this D&I movement. Regardless of where you stand on D&I, the fact is that the results impact real people, and more specifically, the wave of law school graduates entering the work force next year. Why? Because D&I has been the latest push in the market for all different types of employers, from big law firms to in-house counsels, it is no surprise when employees and students encounter these D&I initiatives. Again, why does this matter? Because although these initiatives have been around for at least more than 20 years, the D&I wave is growing so much that it is seriously impacting the internal organizations of employer businesses, including the recruiting and hiring process. This wave can be witnessed through actual evidence of D&I clerkships and strategic methods formulated by third party consulting groups or through circumstantial evidence when new employees or interns have a statistically higher percentage of minorities in comparison to previous intern classes.

Evident or not, this begs the question of why employers that are historically and predominantly run by white males pushing to bring in diverse employees? Some employers might reply that D&I initiatives are holistic approaches that fundamentally improve work culture, encourage unique perspectives, and empower underrepresented people to seek high-level positions. Not to say that this reason isn’t true but, in my opinion, that answer makes for a better mission statement than a logistical business explanation. Like many legal issues, the answer depends on the facts, and from anecdotal evidence, there is a possibility that a hidden agenda exists behind diversifying the work environment.

Without tangible evidence, and based mostly on speculation, it’s not impossible to think there are underlying strategic moves motivated by self-interest (employer-interest). That interest can be one of many things, such as showing the target audience (consumers) that they are a “diverse” work-environment that doesn’t discriminate, and, therefore, consumers should be happy about giving this business their money. Additionally, there may also be an interest of hitting their yearly quotas to avoid or rebut discrimination claims. Whether there is or isn’t a secret force driving the D&I initiatives isn’t the point, but what is the point is whether the effect of D&I will hinder or help you in the application process.

These words may come from a place of pride and cynicism (thank law school for that) but these statements and declarations don’t come from an anti-capitalism belief. For instance, I agree that business planning involves strategic decision-making that furthers the firm’s or company’s success but there are mixed feelings and views when a person that is applying for that dream job is either rejected/accepted because they aren’t/are the poster child that the employer is looking for to promote diversity. So, although there are no concrete answers to the foregoing questions, there are some considerations that students should keep in mind when applying for future jobs such as what type of culture is the law firm or company intending to foster. Nonetheless, whether an employer is giving more weight to the G.P.A. or if one of the “non-white” boxes is checked on an application, at the end of the day a job offer looks the same no matter which way it was determined.

Unfortunately, we will never know the exact reason for why D&I is implemented because every company is unique and different but what is true is that there will be a generation full of CEOs, partners, and executive officers that will represent the environment and community they serve locally and globally – whether it’s intentional or not. And although this is a matter of when, and not if, this change may still take at least three or four generations. Nonetheless, a genuine gesture that would positively disrupt the traditional corporate culture is diversifying the employees from top to bottom, not the other way around.

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