Too many firms leave nearly half of their employees out of diversity and inclusion efforts, only partially delivering on the full commitment that clients expect.
The evidence is overwhelming. Time and again, research proves that diverse, inclusive teams perform better, resulting in a more engaged client base and a more profitable business.
Law firms are starting to recognize and respond to this fundamental truth. Kudos to the scores of firms who are already, or in the process of being, Mansfield Rule 2.0 Certified. This is a meaningful step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, most of these firms are focusing only on their lawyer population, leaving a major component of the diversity and inclusion (D&I) equation without consideration: the contributions of law firms’ business services professionals. These are professionals who are working within the business of a law firm that are not fee earners.
This is no small issue. Among larger firms, it is quite common for so-called “nonlawyers” to comprise as much as 50% of total head count. These business services professionals—members of legal operations, human resources, finance, information technology, marketing and administration functions—are critical to a law firm’s success, but far too often are not treated as valuable members of the larger team.
A recent Calibrate poll showed that only 55% of law firms include business services professionals in their programming for affinity/resource groups (e.g., women/working mothers/LGBTQ+), and only 26% include them in their alumni communities.
By failing to address the need for enterprisewide D&I—or, as I call it, “universal inclusion”—law firms are only partially delivering on the full commitment that clients want and expect. D&I must encompass all of the talent inside the walls of a law firm—not just the lawyers.
Take a look at the clients of law firms to see if you can find any that only focus on D&I for part of their employee base. Based on my conversations, in-house counsel are starting to take notice of this exclusion, particularly as it relates to the C-suite, who they view as vital parts of a law firm’s business.
The Roots of Non-Inclusiveness
Why do law firms seem to undervalue the contributions of their business professionals? The answer can be found in history. In their book “The Future of the Professions,” authors Richard and Daniel Susskind describe the “grand bargain” under which the professions, including law, became the gatekeepers of specialized knowledge in modern society.
Under this bargain, lawyers and other professionals gained outsize influence, monetary rewards and prestige in society as a whole, as well as the right to self-regulation and self-licensing. Understandably, the practice of law was restricted to those with specialized legal training. But as law firms evolved, this came to apply to the business of law as well. And so, the business of running a law firm became a monoculture in which lawyers have vast influence.
Consider that the majority of lawyers who are currently practicing in law firms hold undergraduate degrees in political science, English, history and criminal justice—not business. As such, the curriculum they pursued did not encompass many, if any, business topics such as accounting, marketing, IT, and management theory and practice.
Following their undergrad education, most proceeded straight into law school, and those who chose the law firm path entered into a hyper-competitive environment where technical skills are valued above everything else. After seven to 10 years, they may have worked hard enough to earn the option to buy into the partnership—and they were then charged with feeding themselves with business, as well as others. They become business owners with zero training.
A Two-Class Structure
What’s the result? Today, the management committees of most major law firms are run by lawyer-partners with little decision-making input from even the most senior business services professionals. While this may seem like a red flag, many of these law firms have to date been wildly successful (financially speaking) despite lawyers’ lack of formal business training. So, until recently, there has been scant incentive for firms to change their approach.
In many law firms today, there is a clear delineation between lawyers and staff, with no additional layers for business services leaders or middle management, resulting in all staff being denied certain benefits lawyers receive. Here are some situations I have encountered in working with law firms over the past 20 years:
- A 25-year legal secretary/assistant has far less paid time off than a brand-new first-year associate with zero work experience.
- A female HR manager is not allowed to attend a “working mothers resource group” because she isn’t a lawyer.
- A firm promotes its D&I efforts on a standalone website page but only reports stats related to its lawyer population.
- The C-suite leadership team isn’t listed on a law firm’s management page because they’re not lawyers.
- A coordinator in accounting eats lunch in a cafeteria on a different floor from the lawyers.
- A marketing director struggles to find a strong digital marketing professional because the firm does not invest in onboarding, training and development of staff.
- A paralegal leaves the firm on good terms but is not allowed to be a member of the firm’s alumni network because it’s reserved for lawyers.
- Multiple people and programs are dedicated to the professional development of lawyers, but zero resources are dedicated to staff.
What the Future Holds
Treating business services professionals as second-class citizens is not a sustainable strategy for law firms. These professionals are already sensitive to their positioning as outsiders within their firms and are becoming even more aware of this as time marches on. If things do not change, they will vote with their feet and opt to work somewhere they are valued and included.
In fact, law firms lose this talent to other industries often for this very reason. As law firm operations increasingly require sophisticated talent such as business intelligence analysts, pricing directors, marketing operations professionals and tech-savvy financial officers, the necessity of an inclusive culture becomes apparent in order to attract and retain capable leaders to run the business.
Significantly, a non-inclusive culture will inevitably lead to brand and reputation damage. A website highlighting your firm’s D&I policies (again, most of the law firms today only focus these pages on the lawyers) is not enough. As Diana O’Brien, Deloitte’s chief marketing officer, put it,
“Culture and brand are mirror images of each other. If your culture does not reflect what your brand stands for, what is inside will eventually turn outside and effect your brand.”
I predict that clients will begin to ask their vendors (yes, law firms!) about “universal inclusion” across their complete workforce in the near future. Will your firm be poised to respond? Or will you be playing a game of catch-up?
Getting Started on the Journey
Law firms that want to achieve universal inclusion should be prepared for a long play. There’s no quick fix. I estimate that at least two to three years will be needed to create a one-team culture where the diverse contributions of all members will be valued. I challenge law firms to embark on the journey. Here are some actions to help you get started.
Over time, treating your business services professionals as valued team members will help your firm to attract and retain the most talented people, thereby improving innovation, performance and business resilience. All in all, achieving the goal of universal inclusion will be worth the effort.