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Your Diversity Effort Is a Dud. Now What?

Vivia Chen

November 28, 2018


It’s like finding out you’ve been seeing the wrong shrink for most of your life. All that investment of time, money and emoting—but what do you have to show for it? Nada. You’re still the same pathetic, clueless, ineffective wreck you were when you started the process.

That kind of describes the legal profession’s efforts to promote gender equality and diversity over the last three decades. To put it simply: They’ve been largely useless and a waste of time.

That’s one of the news flashes from the study by the American Bar Association’s commission on women and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. I wrote about the study in my last post, focusing on how female lawyers of color in particular are disadvantaged. (For example, almost 70 percent of women of color—compared to 60 percent of white women—say they were paid less than their colleagues with similar experience and seniority, while only 36 percent of white men report the same.)

“The core tool has been bias training, and that’s not enough,” says University of California, Hastings College of the Law professor Joan Williams, who worked on the study. “The problem is that bias training gets into cognitive behavior discussions, which are interesting but not helpful. We need to get away from those deep soul-searching conversations.”

What? No more group therapy sessions at the firm about hidden biases and micro-aggressions, moderated by an expensive diversity expert with all the answers?

And those ubiquitous women’s and diversity initiatives aren’t helpful either. “Teaching them about building their capacity, negotiation, setting up employee resource groups are all good things, but they don’t address the real issues,” explains Williams. “If you have problems with diversity or gender imbalance, it’s because the bias is in the business system.”

Instead, what the study proposes is something much more cut-and-dried. The three major components are keeping metrics, being vigilant about biases and nipping them, and, finally, working on the problem until you see improvements. The report goes into great detail about how those three things need to be implemented every step of the way—from hiring, performance reviews, mentoring, assignments, networking opportunities, pay and promotion.

If the proposed fixes sound tedious and mechanical, that’s because they are. They are a lot like studying for a big, painful exam over and over again until you finally get a decent score.

The exercises don’t sound fun, but they do seem to make sense. For instance, the report lists all sorts of rules for hiring, such as using set interview questions, removing extracurricular activities from resumes and appointing HR professionals with special training to spot bias in the hiring process.

There’s no doubt in my mind that firms and corporations need to take many more careful measures of how women and minorities are hired, retained and promoted—and there’s frankly nothing sexy about those exercises.

But here’s my question: Will the legal profession actually gather the data, educate itself about bias and actively correct it?

Williams says she’s optimistic. She says the steps outlined in the study aren’t that complicated. “These are technicalities—which can be implemented by HR. And learning about bias interrupters involve simple tweaks to your existing system.”

While the proposals might not be that daunting, I’m not so convinced that the legal profession is in any hurry to do anything different or remotely imaginative in addressing these issues. As I’ve stated many times, I’m still not entirely sure that firms put such a premium on diversity and women.

That said, I hope Williams proves me wrong.



Twitter: @lawcareerist.


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Question: "But here’s my question: Will the legal profession actually gather the data, educate itself about bias and actively correct it?"

Answer: Don't bet on it. Talk is cheap.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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