As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, and amid broader conversations on the issue of diversity, law firms should understand the gulf that Hispanic attorneys face in the industry. At 18.3% of the U.S. population, Hispanic Americans are currently the largest ethnic or racial minority in the country according to U.S. Census data. Yet, according to the 2019 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey, Hispanics and Latinx make up a mere 4.08% of all attorneys in law firms.
The increase in representation of Hispanic attorneys over time, while an improvement, is a modest 1% increase from 2007, when they made up approximately 3% of law firm attorneys. Representation is strongest at the earliest stage of the talent pipeline, with 7.55% of 2L summer associates identifying as Hispanic or Latinx. Though at the other end of the pipeline, representation is significantly grimmer, with Hispanic/Latinx representation dropping 4.93% among firm equity partnership class at only 2.62%. These realities demonstrate the very real obstacles facing Hispanic attorneys.
The path to firm ownership for Hispanic associates and law students appears so rare it borders on mythical. Without plentiful examples of Hispanic attorneys climbing the ranks to equity partnership, Millennial and Generation Z attorneys don’t see their contributions, perspective, and talents being valued at the same level as their non-diverse counterparts. So how can law firms build a better career path for diverse attorneys, thereby reducing attrition?
Firms can start by rejecting tokenism in marketing and business development. Too often, diversity and inclusion efforts start with client-facing marketing, instead of creating the conditions for success internally. Diverse associates resent the insincerity inherent in tokenism. Instead, more care should be focused on creating a culture where different perspectives are valued by leadership. Not just the inclusion of diverse talent in the pipeline, but the celebration of and gratitude for their unique contributions. Given that not all forms of diversity are outwardly visible, firms must also create a safe place for people to self-identify.
Internally, firms must make earnest attempts to hire and develop the careers of individual diverse attorneys. They can support capable diverse attorneys by pairing them with non-diverse mentors in leadership, or those who are considered rainmakers. Firms might consider improving transparency among assignment distribution and compensation, thereby committing to the value of fairness. Firms can make the road to success concrete by ensuring the junior ranks know when diverse attorneys achieve success. They should also consider uncovering leadership potential among diverse attorneys at an early stage, similar to how business development skills are sought out for development.
Finally, firms should also reconsider the weight of credentialism in the hiring process. While firms must continue to provide the highest level of legal services, the elite sectors of the industry maintain an obsession with high-end credentials as the threshold barrier to entrance. Many still view the education system as purely a meritocracy. This remains the case despite the high-profile example of purchased merit (see operation Varsity Blues, etc.) and the growing recognition that acceptance into top-tier academic institutions is not equally available to students of all economic backgrounds. Here, reassessing the metrics that predict long-term success for law firm lawyers both in revenue generation and non-revenue focused contributions will open the aperture for who can thrive at the firm.
While the lack of diversity among law firms is acute, the interest in seeking solutions is at a high point. Law firms need attorneys of diverse and varied backgrounds to face the new world and serve modern clients. Let’s face these problems head-on, with creativity and ambition.