Wanted: More White Men for Diversity Efforts – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, June 2014

This month, the New York City Bar Association is celebrating thirty years of efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession. A series of forums assessing the state of diversity in the profession culminates on June 18th with a gala fundraiser honoring the 2014 Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award Winners: Michelle J. Anderson, Joseph M. Drayton, Natalia Martín, Karla G. Sanchez, and, posthumously, Thomas E. Heftler and Michael W. Oshima. The City Bar will also present its first Diversity Pipeline Champion Award to the Morgan Stanley Legal and Compliance Division.

It has been ten years since the City Bar began producing Diversity Benchmarking Reports based on data from many of the more than 130 law firms and corporations that have signed on to our Statement of Diversity Principles. This year’s benchmarking report, to be released on June 18th, takes a big-picture look at data gathered over the last decade.

Not surprisingly, given the historically homogenous makeup of the legal profession, the numbers show mixed results, with signs of progress alongside challenges that remain. Among the gains is the progress at the junior associate level; while attorneys of color made up about a fourth of junior associates in their second year in 2004, they were nearly a third of the group by 2013. And representation of openly LGBT attorneys has more than doubled, due to both better reporting and increased workplace acceptance.

On the other hand, minority and women attorneys are still not adequately represented at the most senior levels of law firm leadership. New, multi-tier partnership structures appear to have unintended negative consequences for minority and women attorneys. And there is higher turnover among attorneys of color and women attorneys than among white men.

That said, what the numbers don’t reflect is a shift in culture, a “new normal” where there is significant acceptance of the “business case” for diversity. This change in culture is noted by many of the leaders of the legal profession who were interviewed for the report:

“There is a much greater recognition that diversity is a given. Firms are moving forward and trying to redesign and adjust themselves to the ‘new normal’ and diversity is part of that conversation, even given various market realities. When firms are pulling back in a lot of ways, they are not pulling back on diversity.”

“Law firms are following their clients. There is a huge lag but multinational firms are increasingly reflecting diversity and I mean diversity on a global basis. If you still think we live in a 1950s America, we don’t believe you are going to be as successful going forward. That world is getting successively smaller all the time.”

The most interesting part of the report for me was the section on “unconscious bias,” a subtle and sensitive topic not explicitly raised by the interviewer but that was brought up by law firm and in-house leaders:

“People wonder why diversity is not working better and the answer is bias. It’s not about people being bigoted. It’s about not having the competency and awareness about their own biases. That’s really hard for smart people.”

“There is a narrow definition of merit and who is qualified. The problem is my definition of what constitutes a good lawyer is someone who mirrors my path . . . . You end up with a pool that looks like you. You have to work at being aware of unconscious bias.”

“This is not a mal-intentioned environment but we all come in with natural biases.”

That last point bears repeating and reflecting upon. To be human is to have unconscious biases and to have to work consistently at being aware of them and not letting them dictate conduct. As stated in the report, “Given its deep roots, tackling unconscious bias requires leadership and persistence. It is among the greatest challenges that diverse attorneys face.”

So how do we increase diversity in the profession over the next ten years? One key, according to the interviewees in the report, is enlisting more white men in the effort:

“If you were trying to foster change and lead an initiative and 60% of people feel like it has nothing todo with them, it’s not going to be successful.”

“If straight white men feel excluded, then we are failing. We need to create a culture, not a cult.”

Indeed, according to the report, “the biggest concern expressed was that the majority of white men fail to see the relevance of diversity to them.” What’s needed, the report suggests, is an environment where white men can comfortably discuss diversity, voicing their questions and deepening their understanding of the issues and their own mindsets. “Given the opportunity to become more involved in the dialogue, white males were described as becoming some of the biggest supporters of diversity,” the report states. These issues of unconscious bias and the need for more white men to engage in diversity efforts were addressed at recent City Bar-sponsored forums for managing partners, diversity directors and general counsel.

The report contains no “silver bullet” for achieving a diverse workforce from top to bottom. Rather, success depends on “multiple angles and layers of intervention” across the range of critical functions: recruitment, development, evaluation and compensation, assignments, and so on. “The most effective approach to diversity was described not as a cottage industry but as a lens to view the myriad systems and practices that define firm life.”

Despite the mere incremental gains in diversity seen from year to year, I think there is cause for optimism. With the change in culture and the “new normal” that is emerging, diversity is no longer relegated to a subcommittee but is increasingly everyone’s concern.