How technology can empower diversity in law firms
Becky Bloom explores how law firms can harness technology to boost diversity and foster an inclusive environment
It will shock absolutely no one to learn that diversity at law firms has a long way to go. According to a recent survey of diversity at UK law firms (and US law firms operating in the UK), only 2.2 per cent of lawyers and 1.05 per cent of partners are Black on average. Additionally, women made up only 27 per cent of the entire partnerships on average, while the average percentage of total LGBTQ+ lawyers was 5.1 per cent – a figure that dropped to 3.4 per cent at the partnership level.
Clearly, there's room for improvement here. But how best to go about it? While company-wide initiatives and process tweaks in everything from recruiting to retention play an important role, the spotlight is less often focused on tech and the role it can play in supporting diversity. When properly utilized, however, tech can play just as vital a role on this front, helping law firms create an environment where diversity can take root and flourish.
It's Smart Business
It's worth pausing here to clarify why seeking diversity is a good thing for law firms. Aside from simply being the right thing to do, it's good for business and ultimately produces better outcomes.
A diversity of backgrounds leads to a diversity of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives – and that's the best way to come up with novel solutions when approaching any legal problems. This diversity allows firms to do their very best work on behalf of their clients.
It also makes for a better employee experience. When people feel comfortable, included, and able to bring their whole selves to the organization, they're more likely to perform better. They're also more likely to stick around, which is no small thing in an industry only a short distance removed from the significant turnover of "the Great Resignation."
Make Onboarding Effortless, Not Onerous
So, where can tech help out with diversity and inclusion? As it turns out, at several key points in the employee lifecycle – starting with the onboarding process.
When you have a diverse new hire starting work at your firm – especially if it's a hybrid work situation, where they can't necessarily tap the shoulder of the person in the cubicle next to them to ask a question – having a painless, easy onboarding process with all the information they need to perform their duties is important.
Keep in mind, they are coming into an environment where – as per the dispiriting stats listed earlier – a large percentage of the partners and senior attorneys may not look like them. If they need a question answered, it's a little more intimidating to flag the managing partner and ask, "Where do I file this type of petition?" or "What form do I use?" than it might be for other employees.
This is where tech can lend a helping hand. Building out knowledge bases – especially ones that make it easy to search for and retrieve best practices, templates, and other knowledge assets – goes a long way toward smoothing this process. Likewise, checklist tools can provide guidance on how to complete a task most efficiently.
The point is that it's important to make knowledge easily available during those crucial early weeks and months, and you can't do this as a firm unless you have technology that helps you effectively capture and share that knowledge.
Going Beyond the "It's Who You Know" Mentality
Effective knowledge sharing doesn't just help onboard new diverse employees smoothly – it also helps set those diverse employees up for success by democratizing access to information.
Too often, success at a law firm is dependent upon being chummy with the partner, which gives access to high-priority assignments and types of knowledge that might not be available to those who don't have a shared bond with the partner, such as attending the same university, growing up in the same neighborhood, or enjoying the same sports.
Tech can circumvent this potential pitfall, helping to solve the problem of what knowledge is available to whom. People at any level of the firm should be able to use the systems in place to find valuable information without relying on individual relationships with certain people. Any time you have to rely on relationships, bias can creep in, and it often favors the existing makeup of the organization rather than making room for diversity.
Providing access to organizational knowledge – while still ensuring that matters and files are properly secured and governed – is a way to put bias in the back seat, leveling the playing field for all employees. When tech is doing its job right, it enables people to find knowledge and content while transcending "who you know."
Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
Tech that assists with knowledge sharing also functions as a mechanism for diverse members of the law firm to "get their name out there" within the firm, bolstering their reputation and thus their chances for promotion.
For example, picture a system that uses artificial intelligence to analyze activity around key systems like the document management system, the practice management system, and the billing system to identify where experts and expertise lie within the firm.
Maybe the most frequently downloaded share purchase agreement to be used by others as a template was originally drafted by a female junior associate. Now the rest of the firm knows that.
Alternatively, maybe the new LGBTQ+ lawyer who billed X number of hours working on Middle Eastern real estate transactions over the past two months will now be identified as the resident expert for that particular niche.
The bottom line? If people are engaged in building the knowledge base, the tech should provide a way for them to get their name out there and be seen by others. Having the right tech in place ensures that every person's voice is raised and elevated.
Don't Forget Other Kinds of Diversity
Note that many of the principles discussed above also benefit introverts, who – by their very nature – are typically not self-promoters or outgoing types. If law firms want to have a mix of extroverts and introverts in their offices – and really, every organization should – then the right tech can ensure an accommodating environment for a diversity of personality styles.
Diversity also extends to able-bodied and non-able-bodied legal professionals.
Law firms don't want to unintentionally discourage this latter group by not creating a supportive environment for them. Choosing tech that has enhanced 508 compliance can provide individuals with visual or hearing impairments access to the materials they need to do their jobs properly, allowing them to generate value for the firm and its clients.
The same applies to neurodiversity – often, those on the spectrum are brilliant in certain areas and can help fill a skill or knowledge gap. Technology can aid their integration into the organization, which otherwise might be harder for them due to, for example, limited communication skills.
When the firm is able to harness the intelligence of a diverse group of individuals, everyone wins.
Take a Thoughtful Approach
Nobody sets out to create a law firm that is uninviting, non-inclusive, or purposely lacking in diversity.
More often than not, one lawyer strikes out on their own, and before too long, they need to hire someone else – and they need to do it quickly. Then they need to hire someone else, and then another, and before they know it, they have a law firm.
There's seldom a good point to pause, take a deep breath, and say, "OK, I run a business now. How do I do it in a thoughtful way that supports diversity and best serves the people that I'm employing as well as the people I serve?"
That's the issue. It's not a failure of the individual firm; rather, it's the way we've structured the profession.
The truth is that law firms don't want to exclude diverse voices; they simply don't know how best to include them. By rethinking how we manage and share knowledge, and by using technology to bolster diverse voices and provide them with opportunities to shine, we can reshape what our law firms look like and, in the process, do a better job serving our clients.