Since my college days 20 some years ago, I have talked with colleagues and friends one of the most discussed topics in America: diversity. I’m still talking about it today, albeit with different colleagues and friends. We talk about diversity and politics. We talk about diversity and religion. We talk about diversity and business.
Discussions seem to get more heated when we talk about diversity and its sibling, or some would say, evil sister, affirmative action. The controversial comments of the late Justice Scalia in Fisher v. University of Texas are an example of how debates can quickly turn into passionate arguments when we talk about diversity and affirmative action. Justice Scalia did not say anything novel, however. It’s how bluntly and even casually at times, he made his remarks that seemed to have made them more controversial.
Although my views on diversity remain largely unchanged, I went through different periods questioning what it means. Yes, I believed and continue to believe diversity is good for our society. That has not changed. What did change is my appreciation for diversity, especially its practical impact in the legal profession.
Diversity as a Benefit to the Legal Profession
On a theoretical level, diversity is about social harmony. It is about ideas and philosophies. Discussion about diversity on a theoretical level is not what this article is about, however. That would take many more pages to fully discuss. Instead, I share my views on a more practical level. What are the practical benefits of diversity to the legal professional?
Diversity represents reality.
We live in a time and place where we are connected to just about anyone in the world. People are used to seeing others from different regions, different cultures, and different walks of life every day through television, social media and the Internet. What was once foreign or exotic is no longer so different. Now more than ever, constant engagement with diverse populations is considered the norm for many of us.
It logically follows that many individuals will expect to see a variety of people in law firms they are considering hiring. People from all walks of life require legal assistance in some capacity. When dealing with matters serious enough to warrant counsel, potential clients want someone who they feel comfortable with and can relate to.
If a law firm is demographically representative of the general population, more people will feel comfortable with that firm, and the firm will attract a wider range of clientele. Finding the “right” lawyer for their serious legal needs can be very stressful for clients, and anything that helps to put the clients at ease is worth trying. Some firms still try to hold onto the old school way of practicing law, where all or a super majority of their lawyers are middle-aged white men who run in the same social circles and maintain the same lifestyle. But that is no longer realistic or practical, given the direction that our society has taken. The law ultimately shifts to accommodate the changes in our demographic makeup. Those who represent the law must shift as well.
Diversity breeds innovation.
We live in an age where creativity is lauded as the key to any business’ success. Presenting an idea to a diverse group of people typically will result in a greater discussion than presenting the same idea to a homogeneous group of people. People from different backgrounds have different opinions on certain topics based on their own personal experiences. These opinions can result in disagreements among lawyers about how best to proceed with their case. Disagreements or conflicts are the foundation for innovative thought. Lawyers who need to convince others that their course of action is the best will need to think about their positions more closely than they would if their opinions were unopposed. The discussions that occur as a result of these disagreements can lead to advancements that improve the firm as a whole. Without conflict, lawyers can become too comfortable at their firms and cease to progress. Some of the best advancements result from intellectual debate regarding differences in opinions. Having a diverse group of intellectuals working together will surely result in differences of opinion which will lead to innovation.
Diversity allows you to attract top talent.
Young, highly skilled individuals are attracted to firms with high diversity statistics. Large tech companies like Google and Amazon are examples of organizations that pride themselves on having a very diverse workforce. This is not because they specifically look to hire minorities. Rather, it is because when race is removed from the equation and the best candidates are chosen for a specific position, the diversity statistics will increase naturally. With the exception of a few people who still follow the old-school model mentioned above, ambitious graduates from advanced-degree programs do not want to work in an environment where everyone looks the same and where opinions that deviate from the norm are not appreciated. Having a diverse work force shows talented candidates that your business values different perspectives and chooses the best talent. In turn, firms can decrease turnover rates and increase employee satisfaction.
Diversity allows you to gain clients.
On a purely practical level, having a diverse group of attorneys will bring in more clients. Simply being able to communicate in multiple languages opens a firm up to a larger client base that would be impossible to reach otherwise. It is also beneficial to have attorneys who run in different networking circles and participate in different activities. The wider variety of people that members of a firm are in contact with, the greater number of potential clients that can be brought in. If a firm is made up of all middle-aged white men who frequent the same country club and networking events, they will be limited in the type of clients they can attract. But when you have members of your firm from many backgrounds, they will likely have different interests and participate in separate networking circles which will increase exposure to the firm, bringing in more clients.
As an added bonus, diversity could help firms immediately gain certain clients as many corporate or government clients these days have a policy of hiring only diverse law firms.
Diversity leads to economic growth.
All of these benefits ultimately contribute to the inescapable conclusion that diversity is economically beneficial for our nation. Research has shown that the more people enter the work force who identify as minority by their race, gender or sexuality, the greater the human capital in our country. Being more innovative, employing better talent and attracting more clients all significantly contribute to an increase in revenues for firms and, an increase in GDP.
ABA statistics show that in the 2013-2014 academic year, 28.5% of JD-enrolled students were of a minority race and 47.8% were female. While these statistics are encouraging, most firms, especially large national firms, are still dominated by middle-aged white men. We, as lawyers, still have a lot of work to do as the legal profession currently remains one of the least diverse professions. As outlined throughout this article, increasing diversity brings many benefits to the legal profession. But this can only be achieved through a steadfast commitment to diversifying the profession. Leaders in the legal field must recognize the value of having individuals from a variety of backgrounds contribute to their practice. From there, they must put those realizations into action and actually take the necessary steps to see improvement. Additionally, people seeking legal counsel need a variety of advocates with different lived experiences. It is in the best interest of legal professionals and everyday citizens, to make the legal world a more diverse place.