A Tale of Two Narratives: How You Frame D&I Efforts Matters Almost as Much as What You Do

May 10, 2019

When it comes to law firm diversity efforts, it may seem fairly obvious that the most important indicator of progress is the hard numbers: Are firms building more diverse teams, and is that diversity present throughout the hierarchy, from the managing partner level down through the associates? Of course it’s true that we can look to the stats to gauge success. The proof is (or, more accurately, will or will not be) in the pudding.

But on this (long, long) road, another more nuanced factor affects how we think about a firm’s success or lack thereof: the way the firm talks about its efforts to embrace greater diversity and inclusion. A recent American Lawyer piece about diversity in hypercompetitive M&A law perhaps unintentionally illustrates this “tale of two narratives” on diversity and inclusion efforts. Not only do these opposing outlooks tell us a great deal about the level of optimism of those with the power to make changes, they also frame the challenge itself and arguably dictate which solutions are even possible.

We won’t name names (though a click through to the article above will reveal them), but on the one hand we have a presiding partner describing her firm’s “talent-driven” effort to bring in the “best people,” specifically through its internship program with a historically black college. This leader wants her firm to be fully reflective of the law school population, and while she knows they have a long way to go she believes the program is getting them closer. More importantly, she talks about the value of this more inclusive workplace for the firm. Inclusion isn’t something the firm is embracing out of social correctness or benevolence; rather, building a team of diverse lawyers will improve the way the firm does its work. Diversity benefits the firm and the firm’s clients.

The other leader quoted in this piece, however, talks about diversity in a different way. This leader is also taking concrete steps to make his teams more inclusive—in this case, of women attorneys. His firm may have won the business on a $40 billion deal because they added a woman to the team that pitched the work. The firm is helping women reintegrate from maternity leave by easing the need to be on call 24-7, and overstaffing projects so that there is someone to cover meetings missed due to childcare duties. All this sounds good, if a little vague, but even as he sings the praises of these efforts he clings to the old saw about high-stakes corporate law. The jobs are just inherently demanding and unpredictable, he says, and it’s tough for someone with childcare responsibilities to fully participate. “It’s really hard,” this leader says. In other words, inclusion is something we should do (and eventually might even be forced by litigation to do), but it’s not really possible to imagine a different approach to this work that could open it to people who aren’t men. And while he seems genuinely to believe that a lack of women in power is a loss for those women, he does not articulate an understanding that the firm is worse off without the unique contributions those women would make to the work.

Two narratives: one hopeful, one discouraging. One sees greater diversity as an opportunity and the other sees it as an obligation. Both leaders are taking action on D&I, but we have to wonder which one will have more success.