To change diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the legal industry, we must start by understanding the industry’s current landscape.
The overall diversity of American firms is too low, and the growth curve remains too flat. According to the 2019 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), representation of women, people of color, and women of color at major firms reached “historic highs across the board” in 2019. But in 10 years, representation of women increased just 3.4 percent (to 36.33 percent), representation of lawyers of color increased only 0.9 percent (to 16.98 percent), and women of color increased a paltry 0.65 percent (to 8.73 percent).
Not surprisingly, the problem is worse at the top. According to the 2019 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity survey of more than 230 law firms, representing more than the 90 percent of American Lawyer’s 100 top-grossing firms, Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) make up 17 percent of all attorneys. The numbers are higher among newer lawyers (26 percent of associates and 33 percent of summer associates), but in the leadership ranks, representation of BIPOC attorneys is unacceptably low, with diverse attorneys representing just 16 percent of partners promoted in 2018, 11 percent of all non-equity partners, and a mere 9 percent of equity partners.
With these obstacles come opportunities. We, as individual lawyers and as a legal community, can do better. As DEI becomes a focal point across all industries, on a national and global scale, it is incumbent on us as fierce advocates to promote inclusivity and to eliminate gender, racial, cultural, and other inequality.
The legal field’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts must be intentional. Diverse people need diverse lawyers. Additionally, corporate clients are expecting diversity in their representation, and in some cases demanding it. So should we.
In my current role as a practicing member at Bush Seyferth — a women-owned, Michigan-based law firm — it is a firmwide belief that differences help foster creativity and innovation and allow us to provide an unmatched level of service to our clients. To convert our beliefs into action, our firm requires that company leadership consider at least 30 percent of candidates for any position to be diverse (i.e., women, persons of color, LGBTQ+ persons, and persons with disabilities).
My fellow colleagues and I are also active members in many professional networks and organizations that promote DEI initiatives, including the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, National Association of Women’s Business Owners, The Appellate Project, Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan, Michigan Muslim Bar Association, and Women Lawyers Association of Michigan.
Though there is much to be done to create a diverse and inclusive legal community, there is also growing support, and I am hopeful. We must build on the momentum sparked by the events of 2020. Only through sustained devotion to this cause — creating actionable plans, following through, and holding ourselves accountable — will we achieve change and eradicate systemic inequality.
At each opportunity, I express my dedication to DEI to my colleagues, fellow industry professionals, and people throughout all walks of life. I will continue to serve as an unrelenting advocate for change, and I hope others are inspired to do the same.
Stephanie Douglas is a member at Bush Seyferth and co-leads the appellate, class action and complex briefing teams. She is a sustaining member of the Woman Lawyers Association of Michigan and is a Lawyers for Civil Justice Fellow.
Check out DBusiness’ coverage of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at local companies in our March/April print issue, on newsstands now and available here.