Will Millennials Solve Legal's Diversity & Inclusion Problem?

As clients increase pressure on legal service providers to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I), law firms have been taking up the challenge by instituting D&I initiatives as both a values-centered mission and a business imperative. Firms have come a long way since D&I programs began to surface in the early 2000s. However, progress has been slow. Fortunately for the legal industry, a demographic of new lawyers is entering the profession, a generation arguably better prepared to lead the way on D&I than their predecessors – Millennials.

Law firms have spent years developing women and minority mentoring programs, instituting diversity training and even appointing D&I directors. In 2017, firms also began signing onto the Mansfield Rule, which requires firms to consider at least 30 percent of their candidates for leadership positions, equity partner promotions and lateral hires to be minorities and women. Yet the industry still has a long way to go. The National Association for Law Placement's (NALP) 2017 Report on Diversity points to modest growth in representation among women and minority lawyers. In some cases, we've even seen a reversal of momentum. "Women and Black/African-Americans made small gains in representation at major U.S. law firms in 2017 compared with 2016," according to NALP. The report also notes that representation of both these groups remains below 2009 levels. Similarly, the American Bar Association's report, "A Current Glance at Women in the Law – January 2018," revealed that the disparity grew between men and women lawyers' weekly salaries between 2015 and 2016.

The key to supercharging diversity and inclusion in law firms will likely be found in changing demographics. As Millennials rise to leadership positions, they bring with them a particular set of characteristics and experiences ideally suited to shift the composition of the industry.

Millennials themselves comprise a diverse demographic, with 44 percent identifying as racial or ethnic minorities. As more young people of color bring their own lived experiences to law firms, some of the traditional biases that have been deeply rooted in a predominantly white, predominately male industry will likely gradually dislodge.

Historical and cultural context also matters. Born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, Millennials came of age at a time in which attitudes toward sexuality and gender identity began to shift, in which bigotry became less socially acceptable and equality of every kind became a staple of the national conversation. These notions are the very reflection of the inclusiveness we wish to foster in the legal industry. Millennials have been socialized to not only accept them, but expect them.

Shifting cultural values were not the only cultural change into which Millennials were born. By the time the youngest Millennials had arrived, the digital age had too. Millions of households were equipped with access to the Internet and its seemingly bottomless reservoir of information and ideas. Technology was enabling unprecedented opportunity for connection between nearly every population, culture and demographic around the globe. Given the expansive interconnectedness with which this generation was raised, it is unsurprising then that 88 percent of Millennials report that they prefer a collaborative work culture. It is this tendency toward collaboration that will further foster inclusiveness.

As with any generation, Millennials are not a monolith. There are certainly many who do not fit within the broad brush strokes painted by demographic research. There are probably more than a few who hold the very same biases passed down from earlier generations, and it's inevitable that all will have formed their own intractable biases forged from their own social and economic circumstances.

The demographic composition of this generation, however, combined with the cultural shifts of the last few decades, make it well positioned to dramatically diversify the workforce. Millennials may not be a sure thing in propelling diversity and inclusiveness in the legal industry, but they certainly give us reason to hope.

By Gina Eliadis, Content Manager, Baker Donelson, for the Third Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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