by Sandra Yamate
Assorted events during 2020 and 2021 left many employers – including law firms – called upon to recognize and acknowledge the additional stresses of work and disparities of life borne by their employees of color. As a result, many employers found themselves hastening to try to address those issues, beginning with retaining the services of a diversity consultant. Law firms that previously had found no need for diversity consulting or use for diversity training suddenly discovered that not only did they need it, they wanted it . . . and couldn’t get it fast enough. Summer 2020 marked the start of a heady time for diversity consultants in the legal profession. Proverbial phones were ringing off the hook and many found themselves in the unanticipated position of having to turn away work.
Fast forward to late 2021: In an increasingly tight job market, diverse attorneys are in particular demand. Diversity, a previously desirable factor, has suddenly become an even more valuable element in recruiting and retaining top talent. Diversity consulting/training remain in high demand. But, some law firms suddenly find themselves in an unenviable position: their diversity consultant is firing them.
Oh, it’s said more nicely and gently than that: “I find that I haven’t the bandwidth to continue working with your firm” or “I think you’d be happier with a different consultant.”
- You go your way; I’ll go mine.
- I’m sure you can pay enough to someone else to take you on as a client.
- Let’s consciously uncouple.
What’s really at issue here?
Call it the Time’s Up paradox. Law firms and many other employers need diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting and training. But while a great many express a desire to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, far fewer are willing to invest the time and resources necessary to achieving those goals. And increasingly, diversity consultants aren’t anxious to be linked to law firms that aren’t serious about the work it takes to achieve diversity and inclusion. They don’t care to be used to substantiate that a law firm is trying to become more diverse and inclusive, all other evidence to the contrary. After all, a law firm that is making little or no progress reflects poorly on the abilities of its diversity consultant or the consultant’s integrity in continuing to keep them as a client without any noticeable progress. And, in today’s environment, there are plenty of other potential clients who might demonstrate a stronger or more genuine commitment to becoming diverse and inclusive.
Some law firms might shrug or cringe, while simply preparing to move on: find another consultant, maybe hire a new or more diversity professionals on their staffs, or just write a check to one or more social justice organizations. Those firms are failing to understand that the loss of their diversity consultant is not simply an inconvenience or aggravation or even a blessing in disguise. It is a red flag that is warning the firm that it is ill-prepared to survive, much less thrive, in a legal profession whose landscape – and the value it places upon diversity, equity, and inclusion – is changing, and will continue to do so in significant ways. It suggests that a firm is going to become increasingly less attractive as an employer to more recent law school graduates who have grown up, want, and expect to be working in a diverse and inclusive environment. It signals that a firm should anticipate greater challenges in maintaining current, and attracting new, corporate clients whose businesses are becoming increasing concerned with ESG – the “S” or “Social” incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns – and with the diversity standards and efforts being promulgated by self-regulatory organizations such as the NYSE, CBOE, NASDAQ, and FINRA. And it heralds qualities the firm is lacking: vision, flexibility, and preparedness. Operating a law practice as if it were still the 20th Century – business as usual – is not a sustainable model for law firms seeking to prosper in the 21st Century. Losing the services of a competent and knowledgeable diversity consultant should set of warning bells.
The one-year anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, and the two-year anniversaries of the murders of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd are approaching. The media is likely to be full of stories about whether, or the extent to which, things have changed. It’s an appropriate time to take stock of what we, as individuals as well as the organizations in which we work, have learned and how we may have changed since then. And, in our own self-assessments, if we haven’t learned the lessons well enough, changed the way we do things significantly enough, or recognized and adapted to the changes the past two years have wrought explicitly enough, then we are in serious need of diversity training.