The Future of the Law Firm Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement

November 30, 2020

For years, many law firms have featured a statement on their website pledging commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. And the intensifying racial justice movement last summer seems to have prompted the remaining holdouts to abandon illusions of neutrality and post some version a statement like this: “Our firm is committed to recruiting, developing, retaining and promoting lawyers from diverse backgrounds.”

DEI statements have always been an important tool for building credibility with clients and recruits, but they tended to be seen as an end unto themselves — publish the statement and you have fulfilled your obligation to use your power and influence for good. It should come as no surprise in a year of unprecedented protest and renewed focus on equity that this approach is no longer good enough. Law firms that want to be taken seriously, particularly by millennial and gen Z clients and recruits, must now be a lot more thoughtful in communicating about the issues. Where do DEI statements go from here?

They should be drafted by multiple voices with credibility on the topic. Unless you are one of a handful of firms with a truly diverse leadership class, your executive committee is mostly straight, white, able-bodied men. Try as they might, it may be difficult for them to draft a statement that reads as authentic and accountable, even with the help of the marketing department. That doesn’t mean you should burden the few attorneys of color at your firm with the task. Instead, treat this project with the gravity it deserves. Create a committee with representation from across the firm, and pay for outside help from experts in law firm DEI who can guide you through best practices. Yes, it’s only a few paragraphs, but the statement is an external-facing representation of what should be a comprehensive firm-wide plan to drive change.   

And a “statement” should be a multimedia initiative: communicate about the firm’s demographics through thoughtful data visualization. Create a testimonial video that features attorneys from your firm speaking about how the commitment to DEI plays out day to day (and let them speak for themselves!). Talk about DEI strategies and resources across recruiting, mentorship, bar association memberships, conferences, diversity in vendors and more.

They should include benchmarks. A toothless statement is sometimes worse than no statement at all. Back in June, many firms spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and vowed to make change. Five months later, how is that going? Firms used to be able to hide behind vague feel-good language, but now industry watchers like Diversity Lab are creating initiatives to hold firms accountable to their promises. A diversity statement is only as good as the specific commitments it makes. For instance, if your firm is serious about elevating lawyers of color to positions of power, say so, and publish the details about how you plan to make it happen. Then empower the key players with support and resources to make that plan a reality.

They should be concrete, but broadly inclusive. The latest wave of law firm DEI statements may have been inspired by the specific events of last summer. And we are all for law firm leaders waking up to the impact of systemic racism on the legal industry! But race is only one aspect of identity, and any DEI statement you make needs to have staying power beyond the news cycle. What has your firm done to become more inclusive of lawyers with disabilities? How does gender identity and sexual orientation fit in? What about religious background or economic status? A DEI statement can’t be all things to all people, but you can think more deeply about the common thread connecting your answers to all these questions. Don’t just respond to what is happening in the news. Make your statement about who you are as a firm.

The future of the DEI statement is viewing it as the beginning of a broader plan to follow through on its promises.