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Are Law Firms Failing at Diversity?

By Sophie Deering for Counsel

While diversity is something that all industries should be striving to achieve to ensure equality in the workforce, this is especially important in the legal industry. Due the sensitive nature of the work, it’s essential that the people being served by the sector are represented by those involved in their case, from the lawyers representing them in court to the judge deciding their legal fate.

So, does the legal industry fare well in terms of diversity or are there areas where it falls short?

Gender equality in law is a work-in-progress

Despite still being greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, the percentage of female lawyers working in the U.S. has slowly increased over the last decade. According to 2020 data from the American Bar, 37% of lawyers in the country were female – a figure that has risen from 31% in 2010 and a minuscule 3% between 1950 and 1970.

Pair this with college figures stating that 53.3% of law school students in 2019 were female and it’s evident that the gender gap is slowly, but surely, closing in the industry. What’s more, more women than ever before are leading law schools, with 41% of law school deans being women in 2020.

Things are looking brighter for women in the sector, but women are still less likely to be in senior leadership roles at firms than men. In 2019, only 21% of equity partners were female – a poor figure considering women constitute 50.8% the U.S. population. To close the gender gap in law, the next step is to break down the glass ceiling that is stunting women’s progression in the sector.

There’s still a long way to go to achieve racial equality in the legal sector

Alongside the gender gap, the last decade also indicates that the move towards achieving racial diversity in the law sector is painstakingly slow. In 2020, only 5% of U.S. lawyers were black, 5% were Hispanic and 2% were Asian, and collectively, the number of lawyers from minority ethnic backgrounds totaled just 14.1%. This is a rise of just 3% over the past 10 years. Compare this with the fact that 13.4% of the U.S. population is black, 18.5% is Hispanic and 5.9% are Asian, and it’s clear that these racial groups are being grossly underrepresented in the legal workforce, while white professionals are overrepresented.

This lags significantly behind the likes of the U.K., where, according to data by Bolt Burdon Kemp, more than 20% of lawyers were from an ethnic minority in 2019, compared with 13.8% of the overall U.K. population. If it’s possible for this to be achieved across the pond, it’s certainly attainable here, with the right level of commitment and foresight.

There’s been an increase in the number of openly LGBTQ+ individuals in law firms

The number of openly gay, bisexual and transgender lawyers in the U.S. is growing, though whether this is representative of an actual increase, or rather a change in culture that makes being open about sexual orientation more comfortable, is unclear. Either way, this is a positive step.

According to the American Bar data, law students are more likely to be openly LGBTQ+ than practicing lawyers, with 6.86% of summer associates identifying as LGBTQ+, compared with 2.99% of firm lawyers in 2019. This could be indicative of more acceptance among younger generations, but also signifies that law firms must ensure they are offering equal opportunities in the hiring process to continue this positive trend.

In January this year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that overturned a controversial ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military. While this doesn’t directly affect the law sector, it hopefully marks a brighter, more accepting future for the LGBTQ+ community across industries.

The number of lawyers with disabilities has doubled over 10 years, but remains low

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), one in every four U.S. adults live with a disability. In contrast, just a small number of lawyers in U.S. law firms report having a disability (1% in 2019). That said, there is some positive news: this has doubled over the last decade, as according to the American Bar. Roughly two thirds of that 1% work at very large firms, potentially indicating that these organizations are better equipped to accommodate employees with disabilities. This said, only 22 of the 100 largest U.S. firms explicitly include people with disabilities in their diversity statements – a pivotal first step to achieving inclusivity within a firm, and a sign that most firms are still lagging behind.

It appears that disability is an overlooked factor in efforts to achieve improved inclusivity. While a primary focus in the legal industry is placed on gender, race and sexual orientation, equal opportunities for people with disabilities is just as paramount.

How law firms can ensure diversity and inclusion within their workforce

While there have been some signs of improvement in the level of diversity in the legal workforce, to achieve genuine inclusivity, employers must take steps to create positive work environments that allow employees to be their authentic selves.

Law firms can solidify their commitment to diversity by offering their employees diversity and inclusivity training and ensuring that all premises are accessible to those with disabilities. By building diversity into the culture of the firm and ensuring that the workplace is not limiting to those with disabilities, it will create a more welcoming and accepting environment. Most importantly, it’s crucial that new employees are hired from a diverse pool of candidates, with no discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation or disability. While the industry has made great strides over the last decade, it’s crucial that this momentum is kept up to achieve true diversity and inclusivity in the U.S legal sector.