Forging a New Standard for Diversity in the Legal Industry
By Axiom Law
The legal industry may be at a turning point in the way it approaches diversity and inclusion. This September, five major law firms and 26 general counsel from prominent corporations announced the creation of the Move the Needle Fund, a $5 million fund to study and incubate strategies for building a more inclusive industry. While this could signal long-overdue recognition of the challenges the legal industry faces to recruit and retain diverse talent, to truly change the culture of law, firms and in-house counsel must look at the structure of the industry more deeply.
At Axiom, we believe it’s time for the legal industry to adopt a new standard for diversity and break through the power of inertia and tradition. While diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams, the legal industry still has a long way to go in order to make inclusion a reality.
These headlines reflect the realities of the industry as a whole: The American Bar Association reports that 15% of lawyers in the United States, across the profession as a whole, identify as racial and ethnic minorities, and 36% identify as women. Those numbers are fairly consistent with law firm diversity: As per NALP, 16% of lawyers in US law firms identify as racial and ethnic minorities, and 35% identify as women.
Earlier in 2019, 200 general counsel and corporate legal officers signed an open letter calling for greater diversity in the legal profession. They committed to investing more heavily in diversity and inclusion initiatives within their respective businesses, and gave an ultimatum to law firms to follow suit.
The open letter on diversity emphasizes the practical, tactical steps and investments the industry must take to be truly diverse: It states, “The reality is that you must consciously and personally invest in diversity and inclusion and interview, hire, mentor, support, sponsor, and promote talented attorneys who don’t always look like you or share your background.”
“The only way you can flesh out an idea is with diversity of opinion, and that needs to be reflected in the diversity of people giving us the opinion,” said Kristin Sverchek, Lyft General Counsel and one of the GCs who signed the open letter, in The American Lawyer.
While efforts like this letter and the Move the Needle Fund are valuable, cultivating diversity must go deeper than incubators, recruitment campaigns, or empowerment programs. To truly build a more diverse and inclusive world of law, firms and companies must look at how their businesses are structured, how legal work gets done, and how lawyers are recognized and promoted for their work.
The nature of the billable hour excludes people who want or need a balanced life, or have family and community responsibilities outside of work. While flexible work options have been shown to increase retention and corporate diversity, only 42% of workers, and 34% of women, in white-collar professions have access to the flexibility they need. Without a pathway and a structure for recruiting and retaining diverse lawyers, including offering them greater flexibility, law firms will continue to exclude lawyers with diverse perspectives and experiences, and miss out on innovative legal outcomes.
To create a truly diverse and inclusive legal industry, we need a new model for practicing law. Since Axiom’s founding 20 years ago, we’ve oﬀered lawyers a unique approach to building their careers based on empowerment, ﬂexibility, choice, and access to some of the most exciting client work in the world. The very nature of our model, and our firm commitment to an inclusive work environment, have helped us attract and engage a diverse team of lawyers and business leaders who are passionate about the work we do and the opportunities that diversity brings to our clients. This diverse bench, in turn, provides clients with multiple perspectives, leading to more innovative solutions and, ultimately, better legal outcomes.
Our 2019 diversity report reflects our commitment to supporting and building a diverse legal industry. It presents data about our US-based lawyers and corporate employees, and shows that our lawyers are far more diverse than industry standards. Of Axiom’s US-based lawyers, 31 % identify as racial and ethnic minorities, which is almost double the 15% measured by the ABA. In addition, 53% of Axiom lawyers identify as women compared to the ABA’s industry standard of 36% and of those 31% identify as minority women. In 2018, 55% of new hires were women and 32% racial and ethical minorities – statistics well above industry standards.
We know that diverse talent, opinions, and ways of working are, and will continue to be, a crucial element of legal and business success as the legal industry evolves. We understand that we still have much work ahead of us to build a diverse world of law, but we hope in sharing this report we can open the conversation around not just who does legal work, but how the work gets done. Exploring new models for legal work is one step in working together to create a more diverse world of law — the future of our industry depends upon it.