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Mar 8, 2022

Leading Legal Ops Priority: Diversity and Inclusion in Law Firms

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) have taken center stage at corporations in recent years. Making D&I a priority isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good business sense. It’s been consistently shown that greater diversity leads to stronger work quality and helps businesses remain competitive.

Nonetheless, the idea of corporate legal departments pushing for diversity among their full-time employees and in their outside law firms is still relatively new. Only 11.5% of GCs at Fortune 1000 companies in 2020 were racial or ethnic minorities, a 2% decrease from the prior year.

Efforts in this area are improving, however. Pursuing D&I initiatives in law firms is one of the top trends for corporate legal operations in 2022. Advancing D&I requires legal ops professionals to look at their internal staff and practices and make an honest assessment of the outside vendors they work with to determine where they can help spur change.

Internal Diversity and Inclusion in Law Firms

Today, many legal departments and law firms are looking to increase headcount by attracting and retaining a diverse talent pool. Legal operations professionals are a crucial part of this movement and are prioritizing diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs as companies start the process of emerging from the pandemic.

Improving D&I involves both process and data, according to Bloomberg’s 2021 Legal Operations Survey. Legal operations staff have discovered three key processes that can help enhance D&I among their ranks: internal diversity training, increasing remote work opportunities and changing recruiting patterns. On the data front, the same survey showed that 71% of legal ops teams plan to track diversity metrics going forward to push D&I even further.

Another frequently overlooked area is the pipeline from law school to law firm promotion structures to in-house legal department employment. Many would argue that disparities in the legal profession begin with law school admissions. Though overall law school admission rates have been down for all groups since 2014, the number of Black and Hispanic applicants has declined more than the number of white applicants in recent years. Focusing on D&I in recruiting can help address these disparities before they worsen.

Focusing D&I Efforts Outside

While the efforts highlighted above will go a long way toward creating a more diverse workplace, what else can legal ops do to promote diversity and inclusion (D&l)?

One crucial action is for legal departments and legal ops professionals to hold their external vendors to the same D&I standards they’ve set for themselves. Chances are, your legal ops team already uses a number of metrics to formally evaluate vendor performance before making vendor hiring decisions, and D&I should be one of those metrics.

The focus on outside vendor D&I should start as early as possible. The RFP process is a great starting point for considering whether your vendors and potential vendors share your commitment to D&I before you’ve brought them on board. Another great way to assess your vendors in the area of D&I is to have them complete the ABA Model Diversity Survey as part of the vetting and hiring process.

A Cultural Shift

Creating a diverse workforce requires efforts on multiple fronts. Legal departments concerned with D&I need to be looking in every corner to find additional opportunities to eliminate disparities. As calls for corporate legal departments to drive D&I are becoming more and more common, in-house lawyers and legal ops professionals need to pay more attention to the diversity of their own internal ranks and the staffing of their outside counsel and other vendors.

Going forward, legal operations professionals will continue prioritizing D&I programs, and in-house legal departments will increasingly be seen as a driver to improve diversity issues in the greater legal industry through outside counsel hiring. Organizations such as the ABA and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association are encouraging corporate legal departments to ensure their teams are reflecting diversity, but the real heavy lifting rests on the shoulders of the lawyers and legal operations departments.

To read more about D&I, as well as the other top trends for legal ops, download “Six Leading Corporate Legal Operations Trends for 2022.”

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