Year in Review: Diversity & Inclusion in the Legal Industry

The legal industry has a diversity problem. In our 2nd 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.

For decades, law schools have churned out diverse graduates and yet the profession remains dominated by white men. And yet, 2017 was a year of optimism. While women and minorities still face uphill battles in Big Law, legal industry diversity and inclusion experts told Big Law Business they believe the profession may finally be reaching a turning point.

One of the driving factors, they said, is the industry’s newfound commitment to accountability.

“There’s been in a shift in the conversation from aspirational to actionable.”

– Gabrielle Brown, New York City Bar Association

On the in-house front, general counsel across various industries took a step beyond asking law firms to field diverse teams by threatening to withhold business if the diversity goals aren’t met. On the law firm side, firms began holding themselves accountable in their hiring decisions, professional development programs, and leadership training. Diversity and inclusion efforts, once sidelined as a niche operation within law firms, are now being integrated across all departments.

“I think we are on the cusp of seeing some real change for the better for the profession,” National Association of Women Lawyers president Angela Beranek Brandt told Big Law Business in August.

Of course, the state of diversity and inclusion in Big Law is far from perfect.

  • Women and minority attorneys remain underrepresented in the leadership ranks of law firms, with women of color, LGBT attorneys, and disabled attorneys even more so.
  • As a Big Law Business special report revealed in September, many women choose to leave big firms even after making partner, citing frustrations with what they see as the lingering remains of the Big Law boys’ club.

Gabrielle Brown, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, New York City Bar Association

Gabrielle Brown leads Bloomberg Law’s 2017 Diversity Symposium in Washington, DC.

What is the state of Big Law diversity and inclusion in 2017?

There’s been in a shift in the conversation from aspirational to actionable. We used to say we have to do better. Now, we’re saying, this is how we’re going to do better. I often make the comparison to training for a marathon. Regardless of how athletic you are, you can’t wake up tomorrow and run 26.2 miles. But you can wake up tomorrow and run three. And then do it a few more times. And then run four. A lot is going to have to change in that. Your diet is going to have to change, your sleep patterns. I think of us now in a marathon, and we’re approaching half-marathon status.

What is the biggest barrier to progress?

There’s still a lack of transparency. We need to present information [to law firms] that is palatable and actionable, and I think we need to tell people what to do. We live in a society that puts enormous demands on our attention, so if you think about mentoring or sponsoring somebody else, that falls very low on the priority list for Big Law attorneys. If we are going to add something to their plate, we’ve got to give them a blueprint for how to do that most efficiently.

Up Next: Legal departments set a new standard.