The Value of Diversity and Inclusion for Our Legal Community

by Lisa Goodheart

President’s Page

I recently attended a conference on diversity and inclusion and the future of Boston law firms in a global economy.  The event, which was ably organized by Macey Russell, Co-Chair of the BBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Section, was well-attended, and the discussion was lively and constructive, with a panel of impressive and thoughtful speakers and active participation by an engaged audience.  But the issue of diversity and inclusion within the Boston legal community remains a problematic one, and progress has been painfully slow.

Recent statistics reflect a disappointing reality.  For example, NALP recently reported that among all firms and offices listed in its nationwide 2011-2012 NALP Directory of Legal Employers, just 6.56% of partners were racial or ethnic minorities, and just 2.04% of partners were minority women.  About 29% of the firms or offices reported no minority partners at all, and 57% reported no minority women partners.  The reported numbers for associates were not much better – over 17% of the firms or offices reported no minority associates, and over 27% of offices reported no minority women associates.  NALP’s numbers for openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender lawyers also remain relatively low, with 1.44% of partners and 2.43% of associates at the reporting firms and offices being openly LGBT lawyers, as of 2011.

Looking to Boston-specific numbers does not provide a more comforting perspective.  As reported by NALP, the percentages of diverse partners and associates remain lower in Boston than in many other major cities.  For the 2011-2012 reporting cycle, just 3.21% of partners were minorities, and just 1.01% were minority women.  Over 48% of the reporting Boston firms and offices had no minority partners, and over 74% had no minority women partners.  Over 11% had no minority associates and nearly 23% had no minority women associates.  (City-specific statistics for LGBT lawyers are not included in the available NALP reports.)

How should we respond to this state of affairs?  One refrain that is frequently heard is the need for better education about the “business case” for diversity and inclusion.  In a nutshell, the business case for diversity rests on the premise that as our economy becomes more global in nature, significant corporate clients are themselves becoming more diverse and inclusive, as they serve an increasingly diverse customer base and answer to an increasingly diverse shareholder base.  It follows that the law firms best positioned to serve these increasingly diverse corporate clients will be those that are able to offer correspondingly diverse teams of legal talent.  Law firms should therefore pursue diversity within their ranks to gain a competitive edge.

Certainly, it’s logical to think that appealing to the self‑interest of law firms and other law offices might be the most persuasive way to get them to make a more serious, intense and sustained commitment to the recruitment, development, support and retention of more diverse lawyers.  But does the business case for diversity really provide the most productive way for us to think about this issue?  It is by now a familiar argument, and it has not succeeded to date in producing a true sea change in law firm demographics.  The status quo has proven to be a remarkably stubborn thing.

At the BBA’s Law Day dinner in May, Harvard professor Michael Sandel spoke to us about what he calls the moral limits of markets, and what money can’t buy.  Professor Sandel highlighted the degree to which economic analysis has permeated virtually all spheres of modern life, with sometimes pernicious and counter intuitive effects.  Sometimes, he suggested, things have a non-monetizable value, and the relentless drive to convert our values into marketplace terms can have a corrupting effect that paradoxically undermines that value.  In terms of diversity within our profession, perhaps we need to acknowledge that a robustly diverse and inclusive Boston legal community is one of the inherently valuable things that are worth pursuing for reasons that are not rooted in concerns about market share or enhancing profitability.

At the BBA, the investment in fostering a more diverse and inclusive legal profession is manifested in many ways.  It is embodied in our partnerships with various affinity bar associations, in the annual BBA Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion, and in the establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion Section for our members.  It is reflected in initiatives such as the Mentoring Program, the BMC Internship Program, other pipeline and recruitment work with area law schools and the Boston public schools, and events like the above-mentioned conference.  What lies behind this investment of effort?  No doubt, these programs and initiatives are pursued in part because they are attractive to the BBA’s members, potential members and sponsor organizations.  In that respect, they are part of the BBA’s own “business case.”  But the driving impulse behind theBBA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is something much more fundamental.

The true motivation for the BBA’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion, in my view, is – and should be – that we are inspired to build the kind of legal community that we want to be a part of and are proud to claim as our own.  The BBA is an organization of members who choose to come together, not only for reasons of professional self-interest, but also to advance the causes and promote the values we collectively care about, and to find the professional fulfillment and personal satisfaction that comes from doing so.  Those values include justice, equality and opportunity.  A profession with a homogeneous and exclusionary demographic profile is simply not consistent with those values.

Achieving a substantially greater degree of diversity and inclusion is hard, subtle, time‑consuming work.  Of course, if it were easy, it would have already been accomplished by now.  But lawyers relish hard problems and are relentless in pursuing solutions.  And I am confident that we will collectively muster the resourcefulness and creativity to do much better.  Ultimately, the reward for doing so will be the greater strength, energy and richness of a legal community that all of us fully claim as our own.



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