As the new guidelines for outside legal teams issued by Coca Cola Co. general counsel Bradley Gayton in January demonstrate, law firms and their clients can work together in the effort to make the legal profession more diverse.
But even as many law firm leaders have welcomed these benchmarks, they should be careful not to cede responsibility for reform to their clients. That’s because while law firms and corporations can act as partners in the fight for D&I, they are also competitors for the resource most critical to achieving true representation: recruits.
Law firm clients like Coca Cola are getting involved in the push for more effective law firm diversity, equity, and inclusion because the firms themselves are largely failing at it.
That’s not to say that firms aren’t recruiting top-tier diverse talent. They are. According to the most recent Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms by the National Association for Law Placement, 25% of law firm associates are persons of color. But at each level above the associate class, representation gets smaller and smaller: just 7.6% of equity partners come from underrepresented groups. And the cohort of BIPOC managing partners is vanishingly small.
Law firms say they’re working on this, but if the best a law firm can do to advance its DEI performance is to lean on client guidance, they’re sending a signal that they’ve essentially given up on their own efforts. How long before that message reaches today’s college and law school students and they decide not to pursue careers in an industry that simply doesn’t get it?
Gen Z Is Breaking the Mold in More Ways Than One
A decade or more ago, nervous law firm leaders worried about how to appeal to the top Millennial law grads. While that cohort, the oldest of whom will turn 40 in 2021, has certainly prompted some firms to adopt a more relaxed culture and reconsider norms around scheduling and leave policies, the incremental change Millennials advocated for is not going to cut it with Gen Z recruits.
Law students preparing for graduation and interviewing for jobs now are coming of age in a volatile period. Alongside the cataclysm of the pandemic and, depending on their background, a new or deepening awareness of systemic injustice in the legal system, they know climate change will be the issue of their lifetimes. The rise of social media has allowed them to organize within and across groups in ways we’ve never seen, and some of them are no longer willing to accept the status quo.
Law schools are changing their curricula to explicitly teach antiracism. Some portion of Gen Z law grads are willing to forego traditional rewards in order to make change, such as by pledging to boycott large firms like Jones Day, Baker Botts, Statecraft, Snell & Wilmer and others with ties to the Trump campaign to overturn the presidential election.
People’s Parity Project co-founder Molly Coleman described the network of law students and new attorneys in the New York Times: “When you’re organizing within the legal community, there’s a lot of fear. There’s fear of not being able to find a job, a fear of not being able to pay off debt, and there’s a fear of being ostracized by the profession because the people who have “succeeded” are those who played by the rules and who might not look kindly on those who push back against the system. One thing we’ve found to be so important is to create community, to say, ‘You’re not alone in this.’”
While it’s tempting to dismiss this fervor as a fast-fading trapping of youth, it’s clear that this cohort may be less beholden to a conventional career path. Will the best and brightest of these women and minority grads choose to work for law firms where they see almost no one in a position of power who looks like them? How long before even the one area where firms had made progress—recruiting—begins to fall behind other industries?
Diverse Talent Will Go Where They Can Build a Long-Term Career
Even if Gen-Z lawyers ultimately bow to self-interest, just as the generations of lawyers who came before, the most accomplished among them have a choice about where to build their careers. Large corporations and companies in the tech sector have made far more progress, not just on the demographic makeup of their leadership, but also with issues like return-to-work following parental leave and a more holistic approach to evaluation and compensation.
Silicon Valley companies now offer child care, financial planning assistance, mandatory time off and mental health care. Even the CIA has taken steps to revamp its image and its approach to recruiting Gen Z graduates who may be skeptical of its past actions and current mission. They aren’t doing so just because it’s good PR. They understand that a failure to get buy-in from the next generation truly poses an existential threat.
The mostly White and male status quo at law firms is untenable not only because it compromises relationships with clients demanding progress on DEI (and is therefore bad for business), but because the current leadership is comprised of mortal beings who will someday, probably sooner than they believe, need to pass on the firms they have worked so hard to build.
Will top Gen Z lawyers—including talented women and minority lawyers—be there to take the reins, or will they be leading in industries that prioritized reform?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Debra Pickett is the founder and principal of Page 2 Communications and publisher of De Novo, a publication for law firm leaders.