To Advance Diversity in Law Firms, Stop Bemoaning And Start Owning

Earlier this month, the ABA Commission on racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession released the ABA’s first ever Report ever on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. After presumably thousands of dollars and hours, the Report reached the unshocking and obvious conclusion that…big law is overwhelming white and male. Imagine that! Yes, known to everyone but the clueless ABA, the Report white lawyers comprise 84 percent to 93 percent of equity and non-equity partners, the attrition rate for minority racial groups was two to three times higher than for white lawyers, and slightly higher for women than men. This is so even with the majority of law firms reporting that they have a policy on diversity, equity and inclusion in place.

What’s utterly laughable about the ABA Report including its restatement of the obvious is that as it turns out, the ABA lacks the moral authority to make pronouncements about diversity in the profession.  Just last week, the Biden Administration announced that it would not restore the ABA’s role in vetting judicial nominees due to its subjective criteria and past practice of disproportionately finding women and minority candidates unqualified.

Diversity may be lacking at biglaw. But that doesn’t mean it’s lacking from other parts of the legal profession. This past September, my colleague Jeena Belil and I co-hosted the first Lawyer + Mom + Owner Summit, where an diverse and all-female cast of women law firm owners delivered one inspiring talk after the next of how they built their enterprises – from solo lawyers just starting out to women lawyers heading seven-figure law firms ranging in size from a half dozen to to fifty attorneys and team members. Firms like these have the potential to overtake biglaw entirely.

Reports like the ABA’s most recent project are window dressing, nothing more. We all know that the problem exists, and the reports merely delay any action to bring change. Indeed, many times, the reports operate as a substitute for change; an assurance that something is being done about the problem when it’s not.  Instead of bemoaning the exclusivity of white male dominated law firms, let’s start encouraging women and lawyers of color to start owning firms instead. The ABA could put its money where its mouth is on diversity and fund an incubator to support women and minorities who seek to start law firms, particularly law firms that will compete with biglaw. The ABA could encourage or require in-house counsel to send work to women and minority owned firms and bypass biglaw entirely. And most of all, the ABA could publicly acknowledge the status of women and minority lawyers as partners and owners of their own firms on the same level as partners at biglaw – instead of looking past us and treating us as invisible women.

And now, in the words of our first woman of color and lawyer Vice President, let’s get to work!