In December 2018, prominent law firm Paul, Weiss drew criticism for a lack of diversity in its mostly white and male 2019 partner class. Contrary to statements made by the firm’s chair, this is not an isolated incident for either Paul, Weiss or the legal profession. Historically and systemically, law firms have failed to represent the diversity of the legal community, their clients and their communities.

But why is this so?

By Sarah Prellwitz

Practicing Diversity but Not Inclusion

From the outside, law firms look like they are making an effort to bring in the numbers gender-wise, though not so much race. At the associate level, the ratio of female to male employees is closer than many other industries. However, the gap between white men and white women and people of color widens as rank increases, reaching canyon-sized proportions for women and men of color.

The 2018 National Association of Women Lawyers survey found that while women make up about half of law school graduates and almost 50% of associates, only 19.8% become non-equity and equity partners. When these numbers are presented by race, women of color lawyers are more endangered than their white colleagues, making up only 24% of associates and 2.5% of partnerships. Attorneys of color of all genders face a real glass ceiling within law firms, with only 7.5% reaching non-equity and equity partnership, and 20% leave their firms or are pushed out without making partnership.

True diversity is about more than bringing in the numbers. It requires the full inclusion and contribution of all employees at all levels. But this level of diversity does not occur in big law firms for attorneys of color or white women attorneys. Law school graduates find themselves in a “sink or swim” environment where progression hangs largely on the perceived merit of the individual.

Law firm culture has determined that equity partners who have the largest books of business are the ones who choose which associates work on their matters, meaning that exposure, assignments and mentoring occur individually instead of systemically and prevent a culture of inclusion. When the majority of equity partners consist of a singular race and gender, the mindset of what makes a great lawyer can become narrowed to the point that non-white, non-male associates find themselves passed over for mentorship and promotions.

The Effect of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias occurs everywhere, and the legal sector is no exception. Attorneys who are white women and people of color have reported experiencing racial and gender bias at all levels.

The New York Times reported that while diversity mentors have claimed to not see color and promise to mentor women at the same levels of men, white male attorneys continue to make up almost 70% of new partners despite being only 40% of the associate pool. Women of color and white women often find themselves tasked with “administrative” duties such as taking notes in meetings, and men and women of color need to perform at superstar levels in order to be considered alongside their white colleagues for a partnership position.

Programs intended to further non-white and non-male associates typically have disproportionate results, with white women being the main beneficiaries and many other groups receiving little to no recognition. The very term “people of color” is commonly used synonymously with “black men” without acknowledging the plethora of ethnicities that fall under the category. Consequently, the limited focus and resources to promote “people of color” extend largely to black male associates and exclude other groups. Asian Americans make up the largest percentage of associates of color but have the lowest conversion rate from associate to partner, possibly due to the long-held assumption that Asian American associates make good workers but not good leaders.

A Necessary Mindset Shift

Law firms, like US society, were founded on and continue to emulate values of white male culture such as rank over connection, action over reflection and individuality over group identity. These values are neither inherently negative nor harmful, but they leave little room for white women and people of color to flourish within their own identities, nor do they reflect the mindsets of an increasingly diversified society.

Fostering a culture of full inclusion, where associates and partners can come to work as their full selves, requires a shift in mindset around the attributes of a successful lawyer and leader. It requires a shift in mindset about diversity in general. Leaders must be willing to examine their assumptions and interactions with others and be curious about one another and their associates.

Peggy Nagae, a former attorney and the COO of White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP), is familiar with the barriers that attorneys of color and white women attorneys face in the law profession, and she works with organizations to involve leadership in shifting the culture of law firms.

She says, “It is imperative that lawyers understand the value of diversity and inclusion for themselves, at the individual level, for inclusion to become a reality in law firms, government, nonprofit and other legal organizations. This is especially true for white men, who must be part of the solution, being leaders and allies in collaboration with people of color and white women.”

Taking Internal Accountability

Leaders of organizations hold the lion’s share of responsibility to speak up and out, to provide space and balance for those under their leadership and to welcome ambiguity as they ask difficult questions and venture into conversations.

Paul, Weiss, like many law firms, has programs in place to address unconscious bias and advance white women attorneys and attorneys of color, but the results from these trainings depend directly on the emotional and physical response of the partners involved. Partners who connect the value of diversity to their own responsibility as a leader are able to provide the mentorship that is so scarcely available to white female associates and associates of color.

“Real progress in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion requires that leaders take personal responsibility for deepening their understanding and value of the principles of equity and inclusion, and personally commit to the journey that is this work,” says Helen Hierschbiel, CEO of the Oregon State Bar, who attended a diversity and inclusion session hosted by WMFDP last year. “Being a leader means a commitment to walking the talk. I knew that it was IMPERATIVE for me to start learning, to jump in with both feet and start swimming.”

When leaders take full responsibility — not just from their heads, but also from their hearts — the result is that non-equity and equity partners lead their firms with the insight, skills and understanding to spark change starting at the leadership level, shifting the foundations of their organizations’ cultures to create space for all associates to fully contribute and grow with the firm.

White Men as Full Diversity Partners is a leadership development consulting firm working with US and international organizations to build courageous leaders and inclusive company cultures. Learn more. Sarah Prellwitz is the business development coordinator for WMFDP.  In addition to writing, she manages content development and social media.