How Misuse of “Diverse” Impedes Progress on Inclusion Goals

May 8, 2023

Take a quick glance through most law firm websites and you will see copy touting a “diverse” partner’s latest achievement, a summer program that helped the firm recruit a superstar “diverse” associate, or a new firm flexible-work policy crafted to improve retention of “diverse” team members.

While the intentions behind each of these marketing initiatives are likely good — firms should promote their efforts to hire, retain and celebrate attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds — the (mis)use of “diverse” in these and other contexts is like nails on a chalkboard to people who care about both making authentic strides toward greater inclusion and the beloved English language.

We’ll start with the straightforward problem first: “Diverse” is an adjective used to describe a group composed of distinct elements. To describe an individual as diverse is nonsensical. An individual can be Black or LGBTQ+ or a veteran or a woman (and can be two or more of those things at the same time!), but that person cannot, alone, be “diverse.” Picture your beleaguered high school English teacher begging you to stop using the word this way.

But the problems with the misuse of “diverse” in the legal industry go much further. As Dan Sharpe & Alexis Robertson of Foley & Lardner point out in their excellent recent article on this topic, “diversity has become a euphemism.” Here’s why that’s counterproductive at best, and likely enabling bad firm behavior:

“Diverse” is unclear. Most of the time, this word is being used as shorthand for “member of an underrepresented group,” a cumbersome phrase that hardly rolls off the tongue. It’s also an attempt to define people by what they are not — not straight, not white, not a man, etc. Most of the population fits into the “not” category in some way, which means “diverse” is actually a majority identity. But a word that can mean someone who is Puerto Rican or Muslim or a person who uses a wheelchair or a gay man is a word that doesn’t tell you much at all. There are far better ways to be precise when describing identity.

“Diverse” is an “un-actionable call to action.” Sharpe and Robertson quote DEI expert Lily Zheng from their book DEI Deconstructed, making the point that when programs are “cryptic and unspecific in wording,” they make it harder to achieve their goals. When you say you are targeting “diverse” lawyers, how can you make a plan to reach them? If your actual goal is to recruit more Black lawyers (a great goal!), then say that plainly.

“Diverse” masks the need for customized outreach and programs. Leaning on “diverse” allows firms to persist in the fiction that a single “diversity program” or page can foster progress across many different groups, each with a unique history of exclusion from access to opportunities. What works to improve women’s access is not the same thing that might work for a Black man or a person with a disability or a lawyer who is trans. To act in 2023 as if it is possible to address the multifaceted experiences of these individuals with a one-size-fits-all approach is willful ignorance. Being honest about this, however, will require you to make choices about where you direct your efforts, and you won’t be able to focus on all cohorts at the same time.

“Diverse” is a cop-out. Talking about systemic bias and its impact on who gets access to opportunity in your firm is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. That’s understandable. And that discomfort is an invitation to call on the skills you so often put to work in serving clients — your ability to tolerate ambiguity, your persistence in the face of setbacks, your commitment to a set of principles and to making progress on worthy goals — to push through the discomfort to more authentic language and accountability.

Find better ways to describe and celebrate the value of difference — and help your firm live up to its stated goals on inclusion.