DEI for Law Firms: Example Strategies | Martindale-Avvo

Professional & Personal Development Series: DEI for Law Firms

DEI for law firms is about expanding the culture of a practice to include those whose voices have traditionally not been heard in the legal industry. There are a number of ways legal practices implement DEI and several potential benefits of doing so. 

What is DEI?

Diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) is a general term for initiatives and programs that intend to make an organization’s demographics more closely match that of society. In some cases, it can also mean actively trying to increase representation of groups of people who have traditionally been excluded from the organization’s industry.

DEI aims to diversify representation across a broad spectrum of background factors such as:

  • Race or ethnicity
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Sexual orientation or identification
  • Disability status
  • Age
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Military status

This list is not exhaustive. Some examples of one law firm’s “affinity groups” led by firm members include:

  • Internationally trained lawyers
  • Firm members who are first in their families to receive post-secondary education
  • Firm members who are parents or caregivers

Statistics show that there is underrepresentation in the legal industry as a whole of many different groups. An American Bar Association (ABA) study in 2019 surveyed 1,000 offices of major law firms. The survey found:

  • 35.41% of lawyers were women
  • 16.1% of lawyers were racially or ethnically diverse
  • 2.86% of lawyers were LGBTQ
  • 0.53% of lawyers were people with disabilities

This is in stark contrast to the 2023 US Census, which states that 50.4% of Americans are female and 58.9% are White alone (not Hispanic or Latino). 

What Role Does DEI Have in Law Firms?

The ABA defines diversity as falling into one of two categories: 1) majority-owned firms that employ attorneys with diverse characteristics or backgrounds, or 2) minority-owned firms, including solo practitioners. Minority-owned firms are those owned by women, racial or ethnic minorities, or LGBTQ persons. 

DEI might particularly apply to majority-owned firms that want to reap the advantages of DEI. Those advantages include:

  • Higher quality legal services
  • Improved law firm reputation
  • Potential for lower overhead costs
  • Support for external DEI initiatives

DEI can increase a firm’s cultural competency, thereby increasing the value of its legal services to a wider potential client base. Firm members from diverse backgrounds can also bring new perspectives on essential issues, leading to better informed decision-making.

The internal DEI initiatives can also work seamlessly with DEI initiatives in a firm’s community, allowing for a firm to demonstrate its commitment to the issue. This consistency can reflect well on the firm, improving its reputation.

The ABA notes that DEI can lead to lower overhead costs, in particular when in-house legal departments choose to partner with outside minority-owned firms. As minority-owned firms are typically smaller, the overhead costs for working with them might be less. Since lawyers in smaller firms might have more hands-on experience on all aspects of legal practice, the quality of this legal work might be greater than that offered by less experienced associates in larger, majority-owned law firms. 

Is There a Downside to DEI?

Law firms have to perform due diligence to ensure that their DEI initiatives do not come at the expense of qualified legal professional service. Firms have to perform the same level of diligence in researching the qualifications and experience of minority-owned firms and diverse hires as they do for majority-owned firms or majority hires.

What Are Some Strategies to Implement DEI?

There are many different steps you can take to improve DEI in your practice. Consider some of the following strategies:

Make DEI a central focus of your operating principles. If your firm has a mission statement, try to include language that reflects your commitment to upholding and promoting DEI. This mission statement won’t just be seen by colleagues, but by potential clients, so it’s one good way to demonstrate that your practice is safe and welcoming to all who might need your services. 

Establish policies, procedures, and practices that support DEI. You can support the goals of your mission statement with actionable initiatives for DEI. This can include encouraging people of all backgrounds to apply when you have a new associate or staff person available. 

Welcome those for whom English is not their first language by creating a multilingual website and hiring staff with extensive linguistic capabilities. This allows you to reach community members who need legal assistance but might face barriers discussing their legal issue with a lawyer who does not speak their language.  

Ask yourself if your office is fully accessible to those with different physical abilities and sensory capabilities and what barriers you can remove to make them feel welcome. Including accessibility information on your website, like whether your office is wheelchair friendly, gives people the information they need without having to ask.

Work with others whose focus is DEI. You might consider working with your local bar association to identify diverse firms or bar members with whom you can work. You can also hire an outside DEI consultant, demonstrating to your team members and colleagues that DEI is a priority for you. By hiring an outside consultant, you also make someone accountable for the successful implementation of DEI initiatives.

There are some general areas that you can focus on to implement DEI:

  • Lawyers and non-lawyer team members
  • Service and supply contracts
  • Client service and support

Remember also that DEI can have broad meaning and broad application. Your firm’s diversity might include hiring qualified veterans or partnering with lawyers who practice part-time and are also full-time parents or caregivers. If it holds meaning for you, you might want to implement your own brand of DEI in your firm.

Grow Your Practice With Tools From Martindale-Avvo

As you consider the role of DEI in your practice, take some time to consider the future of your legal business. Do you want to scale and grow? If you’re looking for a partner to help market your firm to new clients and potential colleagues alike, talk to Martindale-Avvo today.

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