The Ethical Obligation of a Diverse and Inclusive Firm/Legal Department: A Case for Affinity and Resource Groups

5 Min Read By: Peter J. Sullivan


Events that have taken place in the United States and Canada over the past few months have highlighted the systemic racism that Black/African American communities continue to confront and battle in both society in general and professional settings, including the legal profession. Racism and biases have created barriers to the Black/African American community in all aspects of society, including within our respective business and legal communities.

The ABA National Lawyer Population Survey 10-Year Trend in Lawyer Demographics (the Demographics Survey) evidences that in 2009 Caucasians made up 88 percent of the profession, a figure that only went down to 85 percent by 2019. Further, the Demographics Survey indicates that between 2009 and 2019 there has been only a 5.2 percent change in the male to female ratio within the profession (men in 2019 accounting for 64 percent of the profession and women for only 36 percent).

Ethical Obligation to Provide Access to the Profession

The results of the Demographics Survey show that the profession has a long way to go in becoming accessible to a diverse membership. The profession generally, and each law firm individually, has an ethical obligation to take measures to improve access to justice, including accessibility to membership for all, especially those who have traditionally encountered barriers to entry and advancement in the profession. Meeting this obligation requires greater commitment to eliminating discrimination and racism in any form, and this needs to become a greater focus for us all.

We, as a profession, can and should do better and do more. 

General Initiatives Undertaken by Law Firms to Encourage Inclusion

In response to the underrepresentation of diverse attorneys in the profession, many law firms have increased their focus on initiatives meant to ensure they are able to attract diverse talent and retain that talent through meaningful engagement and advancement to senior leadership positions. Examples of these initiatives may include some of the following:

  1. hosting sessions on cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training;
  2. providing financial support for diverse attorneys to become members of, and attend conferences held by, cultural or LGBTQ2+ bar associations or organizations;
  3. educating through organized cultural programming such as diversity e-memos;
  4. enrolling in organizations that assist with policy development and review to ensure that firm policies do not exclude or disproportionately burden any cultures, races, or sexual orientations/gender identities;
  5. developing and implementing procedures for responding to client diversity reporting requests to ensure that legal teams are staffed by diverse attorneys at all levels (including senior/originating lawyers) and addressing the associated confidentiality/disclosure issues; and
  6. developing and implementing affinity group policies and encouraging/causing the initiation of meaningful affinity groups.

Affinity Groups

Affinity groups play a central role in increasing diversity within law firms. They allow their membership to actively engage in communicating and gathering around a central unifying purpose and background to support one another and create a voice for their members. Through this approach, they can promote confidence, career growth, leadership potential, and success. They can also provide effective business and professional development opportunities through engagement with clients who share the personal characteristics of their membership.

To create a successful affinity group program, it is important to implement a policy that makes clear the parameters for establishing affinity groups. It is advisable that the proposed founder(s) commit to (1) serving a certain term of leadership (i.e., two years), (2) establishing the goals of the particular affinity group and its early planned initiatives, (3) acting as a mentor or champion of the membership, (4) completing sensitivity training to be able to assist membership in handling difficulties encountered, such as harassment or discrimination, and (5) regularly reporting to the firm’s diversity committee.

Given that affinity groups are an initiative of inclusion, consider making them open/welcoming of all firm members rather than just lawyers.

Examples of affinity groups may include: Asian, Black/African American, Latino/Latina, Jewish, LGBTQ2+, persons with disabilities (and their caregivers), mental wellness workers, and parents of young families.

Successful affinity groups may undertake initiatives such as the following:

  • volunteering/partnering with community and youth outreach programs;
  • hosting events during dates or periods of cultural significance (e.g., Black History Month, Pride);
  • engaging in affiliations with law school student affinity groups to create mentorship opportunities and assist with recruiting;
  • hosting/mentoring high school students from inner-city schools for exposure of youth with shared personal characteristics to law firm life (including programming addressing interactions with police and employers, relationship building with successful people who share their personal characteristics, and tours of financial districts and courthouses);
  • circulating firm-branded calendars that list all of the holidays/dates of note for the culture/religion associated with affinity groups;
  • hosting lunches and learns with speakers/panels discussing specific issues applicable to the culture or personal characteristics of the membership for CLE credit;
  • organizing teams to run in the annual Pride runs/walks/charity team events;
  • organizing initiatives to recognize and support antibullying campaigns (such as the International Day of Pink, which provides an opportunity to celebrate diversity and raise awareness to stop homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, and all forms of bullying);
  • hosting “Let’s Walk” events to build community and promote health and exercise;
  • hosting speakers or activities with the aim of reducing stigma and providing mental wellness education and coping strategies;
  • providing firm members with mental health first aid training to provide ongoing support to colleagues who may encounter mental wellness difficulties, and the like;
  • lobbying to enhance firm benefits, including mental wellness apps for all firm members; and
  • creating spaces/forums (i.e., parents of young families) for those sharing challenges, experiences, and resources with one another.
By: Peter J. Sullivan

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