Blog/Podcast: What Small Law Firms Are Getting Right About Diversity and Inclusion
Cultural changes have impacted law firms significantly over the last few decades, shaping practice areas, billing systems and the business of law. Another area that has had significant implications for law firms and their clients in recent years: diversity and inclusion.
Valerie Fontaine, partner at legal consulting firm SeltzerFontaine, has been placing lawyers at leading law firms for more than three decades, and she’s seen firsthand the evolution of diversity and inclusion in the legal field. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to take a deep dive into what diversity and inclusion means today, why clients are demanding it and why small firms are leading the way when it comes to fostering it.
Diversity and Inclusion Support One Another
When Valerie started her career as a recruiter in the 80s, diversity was a new topic she had to introduce to her law firm clients. Although diversity was something she and her fellow recruiters were passionate about, many law firms didn’t yet see the value in having diverse teams, and at the time, the definition of diversity was limited to women and people of color.
Since then, diversity has expanded to include LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, veterans and other marginalized groups. Mental health is now an emerging part of the conversation, and there’s a greater emphasis on diversity of thought. And now it’s not just diversity that firms care about, but also inclusion.
Diversity is simply looking at the metrics and meeting a quota of women, people of color and other marginalized lawyers who work at the firm. Inclusion, on the other hand, is making those people feel truly welcome and supporting their success. They aren’t just there so the firm can check a box; they’re there to play a real role, become an integral part of the organization and advance in the firm. Today, it’s not enough to hire a few people from underrepresented groups. Clients want to know their firms are actively including, listening to and promoting these lawyers, and they want to see the proof.
Diversity Is Not Optional
Since 2004, in-house counsel and other clients have been making a point to ask their law firms to have diverse teams not only in their numbers, but also actually participating in matters. This change was initiated by a group of corporations that created a call to action for their law firms to increase diversity. This movement was solidified in 2017, when the American Bar Association passed Resolution 113 and developed diversity metrics that allow corporations to compare law firms based on their diversity. One such metric is the Mansfield Rule, which requires that 30 percent of candidates for significant leadership roles be people from communities of color or other underrepresented groups. Many law firms signed onto this rule voluntarily.
All of this is to say that diversity and inclusion is not something that’s optional for law firms. It is a major requirement for a large percentage of clients, and it will only become more important going forward. For example, Intel has announced that as of January 2021, it will only retain outside law firms where at least 21 percent of equity partners are women and at least 10 percent are non-white, LGBTQ, former military or disabled. Quite simply, law firms will not get work from major clients such as Intel unless they diversify.
Small and Nimble Firms Are in the Best Position to Foster Diversity
Diversity and inclusion isn’t just a hot topic for Big Law. Small and regional firms need to care about diversity as well, and the good news is that the firms can be particularly attractive to minority talent. Even though boutiques and regionals may not be able to compete with large firms in terms of compensation, they can offer something just as valuable: opportunity.
Like any other lawyer, minority lawyers are looking for ways to expand their skills through hands-on experience and mentorship. Though the deals may be smaller at regional firms, there’s more opportunity for lawyers to take on client responsibility, lead teams, manage matters or even try cases—all things that are more difficult to do as an early- or mid-career lawyer in a large firm. This is why small firms are often in a better position to compete for in-demand minority candidates, and why general counsel are increasingly looking at small firms to meet their diversity and inclusion goals.
Small firms also tend to be less strict about hiring candidates only from certain law schools or class rankings. A number of studies have shown that pedigree is not necessarily correlated to success in the practice of law. One study even found that lawyers from lower-ranked law schools perform better in their careers because they’re naturally “hungrier.” Firms willing to expand their criteria may be able to hire a wider variety of lawyers, and therefore, they can compete for business that larger or less nimble firms might be losing out on.