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Experts Expect Greater Push for Legal Diversity and Inclusion in 2021

By Dan Clark for Counsel

The events of 2020 have led in-house experts to believe that there will be a greater push for diversity and inclusion in legal departments and their outside counsel in 2021.

While a Democratic-led Congress may provide additional inspiration for diversity and inclusion efforts, pressure from shareholders and lessons learned about working remotely during the pandemic and identifying gaps in those efforts that have been overlooked in the past will move the needle forward in 2021.

Anecdotally, Sonya Olds Som, a legal recruiter and partner at Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago, said general counsel have been getting more support for diversity and inclusion efforts since the killing of George Floyd last summer.

“What we have seen in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is diversity and inclusion moving to the top of the priority list, where maybe it had been put on the backburner behind other crucial agenda items,” Som said.

In fact, according to the 2021 Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Chief Legal Officers survey, slated to be released later this week, 72.7% of general counsel and chief legal officers expect diversity and inclusion to accelerate in 2021. A spokesperson for the ACC said that is up by five points from the 2020 survey.

However, having a narrow Democratic majority in Congress will not necessarily be the catalyst for sweeping corporate change in diversity and inclusion. Rather corporations and their shareholders will continue to move the needle in that regard, Som said.

“The shift in terms of the presidency and the legislature gives additional prioritization to a lot of efforts that were already going on,” Som said. “But it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t, significantly change how they thought about [diversity and inclusion] and how they perceive [diversity and inclusion].”

Where a Democrat-led government can help is by reversing an executive order President Donald Trump issued last year banning diversity training, Jean Lee, president and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association in Washington, D.C., said. She said president-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse that executive order. However, corporations and their legal departments will continue to push for diversity and inclusion without government pressure, Lee explained.

“I don’t think it matters which side is in office,” Lee said. “I think corporations have now woken up and have felt that if they don’t do something it is going to impact their business.”

With that in mind, Lee said she hopes to see more legal departments collect and utilize data to identify gaps for diversity and inclusion purposes. She also said it will be important for legal departments to be more transparent with that data.

One of the gaps in diversity and inclusion efforts that Richardson said she would like to see addressed is creating more inclusive programs for disabled attorneys.

“I don’t see many people with disabilities populating our law firms, our law departments or our associations,” she explained. “I think we all need to think about how we utilize talent and extend our reach to communities that have been ignored.”

And while there have been challenges in learning to work with COVID-19, Richardson said that telecommuting could provide the solution to having disabled employees work when they may not have been able to commute five days a week before.

“A year ago, none of us would have believed that it would have been possible to have 100% of the workforce telecommuting and still getting the job done,” Richardson said.

Corporations and law firms that have claimed to have struggled to find qualified diverse attorneys in certain areas of the country no longer have that excuse, she explained.

“People can do their work from a variety of different locations and that you don’t need to be clustered in or around a metropolis in order to contribute at a professional level,” Richardson said.