Moving the Needle on DE&I: 4 Best Practices From Top Firms

Diversity, equity and inclusion (“DE&I”) is fundamental to building a healthy firm culture. Yet, despite improvements in recent decades, deep disparities often remain. Many law firms have reinvigorated their efforts to improve DE&I in recent years. And, in an effort to meet skyrocketing demand the industry recently witnessed, they’ve also hired more laterals, giving an unexpected boost to diversity and underlining the business case for DE&I.

As your firm refines its approach to promoting diversity in the workplace, consider the following lessons learned from firms on the cutting edge of DE&I efforts.

Fresh evidence: The business case for DE&I

As lateral hiring gained speed during the pandemic, many BigLaw firms sought talent from previously untapped sources — like government agencies, academia and in-house corporate departments — that employ a greater percentage of diverse attorneys. They discovered a “large pool of really, really good attorneys,” according to Anthony Upshaw, the global head of diversity and inclusion for McDermott Will & Emery (view source).

Indeed, research reveals that increasing diversity yields better business results across the board (view source). Boston Consulting Group found that above-average diversity yielded 19% higher innovation revenues; diverse management boosted revenue at similar rates. Companies with diverse boards earn higher profits (view source), and diverse leadership teams make better decisions; one study found that such teams made better decisions 87% of the time (view source).

Improving DE&I: 4 critical best practices

1. Interrupt implicit bias in hiring practices

The impact of recruitment practices on the diversity of a firm’s talent pool is difficult to overstate. In particular, recruiting only from a limited pool of top-tier law schools — while not a deliberate attempt to limit diversity — is, in practice, a significant driver of racial and gender homogeneity in large law firms.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic spoke to this dynamic in the Harvard Business Review, reflecting that hiring based on culture-fit inevitably results in overlooking “individuals who can bring a different perspective, set of values and backgrounds.“ Firms, therefore, miss key opportunities for “augmenting cognitive diversity and expanding rather than consolidating [their] cultures” (view source).

Implicit bias is, by its nature, challenging to eliminate, and the best practices for doing so are evolving. Some firms have employed emerging technology to improve law school recruiting. For example, Willkie Farr & Gallagher partnered with Suited, an artificial intelligence recruiting platform that helps firms identify law students who are aligned with their firm culture, leveraging data science to root out bias (view source). While firms typically need a physical presence on campus to conduct recruitment, the Suited platform removes that barrier, giving firms a wider reach. Technologies like Suited can augment existing recruitment strategies, helping firms reduce the impact of implicit bias on hiring — supporting a healthier firm culture.

2. Level the playing field in workload and professional development

Recruiting improvements alone will not produce long-term DE&I benefits; retention is also key.  For example, firms with strong DE&I cultures actively manage individual attorneys’ workloads to ensure hours are apportioned evenly and that all attorneys have meaningful, equitable access to interesting, challenging work.

These firms also strive to make professional development opportunities equally available to all attorneys. In doing so, it is critically important to account for barriers that disproportionately impact marginalized communities and develop programs that address the ongoing inequities those groups experience. Ensuring that every firm member can reach their full professional potential benefits firms and clients — as well as employees, their families and their communities.

3. Take concrete action outside the firm

Leading firms make meaningful contributions to their communities. For example, Baker Botts recently entered a three-year partnership with official Black Wall Street; the firm will provide legal services to Black-owned businesses. Building community relationships through DE&I collaborations allows firms to demonstrate the depth and strength of their commitments to diversity (view source).

4. Strategize for every level

At successful firms, diversity committees, affinity groups and specific initiatives drive fulsome, fundamental exploration of structural change. Some are working toward concrete DE&I targets related to gender, race and sexual orientation — from staff to leadership.

Maja Hazell, White & Case’s global head of diversity and inclusion, emphasizes the critical importance of moving the needle on DE&I at all levels of leadership. This can include further development of leadership and management skills for partners and building their capacity to navigate uncomfortable conversations, including discussions about difficult topics like racism and gender bias.

Non-attorney employees — administrative professionals, paralegals and other professionals — have historically been left out of DE&I initiatives. According to Genhi Givings Bailey, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Perkins Coie, this represents a “missed opportunity”; “including law firm staff . . . in diversity initiatives so everyone is represented” is a natural evolution of DE&I efforts.

From learning to action

The business case for DE&I is clear: to remain competitive, firms must seek out and retain top performers and craft winning teams — and that requires making strides in DE&I.  Bringing your firm’s vision to fruition, however, requires engaged leadership and long-term commitment to the following goals:

  • Increasing diversity in leadership, new associates and lateral hires

  • Retaining diverse talent with robust workload management, professional development and DE&I initiatives

  • Giving diverse attorneys and staff a meaningful voice in the firm

Your DE&I efforts will set the tone for all attorneys and staff — demonstrating that the firm truly is a place where everyone receives equitable opportunities to shine.


Want more insights on how lessons from the pandemic can shape the future of work? This post is based on selections from Naomi Beard Nelson’s chapter “How Firms Can Successfully Build Culture Remotely” in, Accelerating Trends in Law Firms. Get your copy of the book here!