On Workplace Diversity, Do Law Firms Practice What They Preach?

Workplace Diversity

On Workplace Diversity, Do Law Firms Practice What They Preach?

Workplace diversity is more than just a buzzword — it’s imperative. Employers have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that members of protected classes — gender, race, religion, and other characteristics — don’t face discrimination or unfair treatment at work due to their background or beliefs.

Just as importantly, employers have a duty to ensure that diverse viewpoints, which often arise out of differences in upbringing and worldview, are adequately represented at every level of their organizational hierarchy. Failure to do so, many argue, weakens firms by reducing employee morale, alienating customers, and allowing more inclusive and responsive competitors — whose boardrooms might have more in common with the diverse customers they serve — to gain market share and momentum.

Diversity in the Legal Workplace

As the primary arbiters of the rules and regulations that govern workplace diversity and non-discrimination practices, law firms have a special responsibility to “practice what they preach.” According to the National Association of Legal Placement, the number of women (both minority and non-minority) associates, partners, and interns increased slightly from 2013 to 2014 after several years of stagnation, possibly due to the recession. While this is certainly cause for limited celebration, it’s equally true that women, people of color, and members of other protected classes continue to be underrepresented in the ranks of senior associates and partners.

Toward a More Inclusive Legal Industry

To its credit, the American Bar Association recognizes the extent of the problem. “Eliminating bias and enhancing diversity” is one of the organization’s four principal goals. The ABA frames its objective thusly:

“Promote full and equal participation in the association, our profession, and the justice system by all persons… [and] eliminate bias in the legal profession and the justice system.”

In the service of this objective, the ABA released four detailed reports on the subject, each of which detailed the legal industry’s relationship with members of a different protected class: individuals with disabilities, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Of course, reports can only do so much to effect lasting change. Ultimately, it’s up to farsighted law firms with the gall and ambition to step up and fight for what’s right. California-based securities law firm Robbins Geller, for example, has one of the most inclusive workplace diversity policies in the profession.

According to Robbins Geller’s website, the firm’s diversity policy “applies to all terms and conditions of employment, including, but not limited to, recruitment, selection, hiring, placement, transfer, promotion, training, compensation, benefits, discipline and termination.”

The policy adds that “[a]ll decisions regarding terms and conditions of employment must be based on the individual’s qualifications, performance, and/or his or her ability to meet the requirements of the position.” What’s surprising about this policy isn’t its comprehensiveness — it was written by lawyers, after all. Rather, it’s interesting and a bit disturbing that more firms don’t adhere to the same rigid diversity and anti-discrimination policies. Much progress has been made, to be sure, but much clearly needs to be done before the legal profession truly practices what it preaches.

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