The legal industry has a diversity problem. In our second annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, Big Law Business reviews the current state of diversity and inclusion in Big Law.

Our reporting throughout 2017 has shown that the industry may be at a turning point, but that there is much progress to be made in order to make the legal profession an equitable and welcoming place for all lawyers regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability status.

Law firms have enacted specific programs designed to hold themselves accountable to their diversity goals.

Law firms also began to hold themselves accountable in 2017, through initiatives such as the Mansfield Rule, a spin on the National Football League’s Rooney rule, which requires football teams to interview minority candidates for senior leadership positions.

A group of 30 law firms partnered with Diversity Lab to pilot a program that requires them to consider women and minority attorneys for at least 30 percent of their candidate pools for leadership roles, equity partner promotions and outside hires.

One firm, Robins Kaplan, reported that it quadrupled the percentage of attorneys of color it hired for lateral associate positions in just one year by implementing its own version of the rule.

Diversity & Inclusion emerged as its own professional field as law firms have recognized that diversity is not a stand-alone issue.

Over the past five years, Big Law diversity and inclusion efforts have expanded beyond affinity groups to span the full life-cycle of attorney professional development, a recognition that diverse attorneys face professional barriers even after they are hired.

At many law firms, professional development and diversity and inclusion are housed under the same roof, Big Law Business reported. The number of director-level positions for diversity and inclusion has increased within Big Law, with new firms hiring for these kinds of positions every month.

As women make some progress in law firm leadership, barriers remain. Many women leave Big Law even after making partner, a trend the ABA has set out to investigate in 2018.

As Big Law Business reported this year, many women are making partner and then leaving their firms to start their own practices.

  • In interviews with more than 20 such women, Big Law Business found that the women who left Big Law to start their own firms all shared a frustration with unequal pay, implicit sexism, and structural barriers embedded in the culture of Big Law itself.
  • Many women-led law firms have scrapped the billable hour or share origination credit widely, policies they believe provide an antidote to the rigid and discriminatory structures of Big Law.

The American Bar Association, under the leadership of President Hilarie Bass, is investigating one piece of this phenomenon.

  • Specifically, the ABA hopes to find out why so many women leave law firms after the age of 50, a time when they might otherwise be assuming leadership roles.
  • The investigation, which is primarily being funded by law firms, kicked off this fall and will run throughout 2018.

Hilarie Bass, Co-President, Greenberg Traurig and President, American Bar Association

What are you hearing from legal industry leaders about the ABA’s research project?

There are a lot of assumptions about why women choose to leave, and I think there’s a recognition that real change will not occur until there’s data to support those assumptions. The best evidence of the fact that many in the profession perceive this to be a real issue is that we’ve now raised over $400,000 in support of this project, which is almost all from law firms.

Is the ABA study incorporating an analysis of race in its look at why women leave the law?

It is a part of our study, it’s not likely to be in our first cut, although we are asking some questions about those issues. It’s be unclear whether we’ll have sufficient data to come to any conclusions on that in our first cohort of questions.

Looking Ahead to 2018

Big Law Business will continue to track these trends in 2018, and we’ll be on the look-out for promising stories and innovative solutions taking aim at the barriers to advancement for minority attorneys and women in Big Law. We’ll be paying particularly close attention to the unique struggles that minority women, LGBTQ lawyers, and disabled lawyers face in the legal industry, as well as the cultural and structural forces that cause women to leave the profession in their 50s and beyond. On the corporate front, we expect to see more in-house counsel holding their law firms accountable to strict diversity metrics, and within law firms, we’ll be following the progress of this year’s diversity initiatives to see whether and how they’re making an impact.