Five tips for law firms to adopt DEI best practices by 2024


Many law offices are working to increase diversity and equity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging (collectively called “DEI”) within their teams.

Media headlines last year in the dynamic field of DEI suggested that the trend in the tech industry to divest from such programs was a sign of the end of post-George Floyd’s surge. This headline frenzy intensified in the wake of coverage of anti-DEI legislative initiatives and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision It prohibits universities from using race data to make admissions decisions.

The business case has not changed. While headlines may discuss the “future” of DEI, it is still the case that diverse teams deliver better business results. Diverse teams (still know) their value, and law firms still risk losing team members to a competitor or to a team member who starts a new firm.

The analysis behind headlines attempts a prediction of possible applicability of Supreme Court’s ruling to private employer DEI initiative, suggesting that these initiatives could be safer from attacks if they reflect value propositions based on qualitative and quantitative data that relate to a specific company or industry. With a data-substantiated DEI, firms are unlikely to need to deemphasize diversity of race or ethnicity (as was targeted by the education admissions case) or any protected class.

Here are five tips on how law firms can implement DEI best practices by 2024.

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1. Set the tone at the top to work past the ‘D’ in DEI

Leaders use communication strategies to direct and reinforce workplace standards, and a firm’s DEI initiatives should include a narrative based on policies, practices, and measurable behaviors that compromise an equitable process. For a qualitative element like “belonging,” meaning feeling respected and valued regardless of your individual or group’s diversity qualities, DEI initiatives must support the people behind the letter “D” through tailored and measurable processes based on the data specific to a company or industry that promote equity and inclusivity.

Tip 1: Action Steps

  • Recognize that leadership accountability is a must, and define DEI’s value proposition by using quantitative and/or qualitative data.
  • Demonstrate the importance of DEI initiatives in the firm at the highest level of leadership.
  • Communication of expectations to leaders at every level to contribute positively towards an atmosphere belonging.
  • Leaders should be provided with the necessary training, resources and knowledge to succeed (and held accountable if they don’t).
  • Support team member-led initiatives, create new resource distribution models and—importantly—thank yourself and your leaders for the willingness to persevere.

2. Adopting or doubling down on a growth and learning mindset

DEI is a field that is constantly changing, and therefore requires a constant reorientation to new methods or the application of proven methods in new contexts. Business leaders must act when the time is right, even if they have imperfect information. They must also do this in this context. Leaders and lawyers in particular often choose to mitigate risk based on the predicted net financial result. However, implementing DEI initiatives for a business requires that leaders take risks, rather than mitigate them to the point of inaction. Even the most thoughtful initiatives can make some people uncomfortable. Law firms, and their leaders, will make mistakes. They will be held responsible, either directly (e.g. a confrontation) or indirectly (e.g. a lower level engagement or leaving the law firm). A growth mindset will encourage team members to feel a sense of belonging by encouraging the firm to seek, analyze and apply feedback gathered through quantitative and/or qualitative data.

Tip 2: Action Steps

  • Respond to feedback.
  • Accept that the firm might not achieve all or part of its DEI initiatives.
  • Regularly reflect on your actions and make incremental adjustments.
  • Celebrate and express gratitude to DEI efforts. Validate any changes as progress.

3. Develop emotional intelligence and self-awareness

In order to address DEI initiatives, emotional work is necessary. Leaders do not have to carry the burden of correcting the past, but they must understand the importance of small actions towards incremental progress. Actions carry more importance than brand messages and require more energy.

Tip 3: Action Steps

  • Consistently make efforts that are consistent and of a sizeable scale to achieve long-term outcomes.
  • Demonstrate growth mindset
  1.   Celebrate effort as you go.
  2.  Learn from your mistakes
  3.   Share lessons.
  4.  Repairs should be made as soon as possible.

4. Ask for help

To develop tailored mitigation strategies to address organizational barriers, consider an internal compliance audit of DEI initiatives or a third-party assessment. Consider an internal audit of DEI efforts or a specialized third-party assessment. Identify the educational or experiential gaps, and provide targeted training. Training should be intentional with a follow-up program to reinforce the skills learned.

Tip 4 – Action steps

  • Build a network of peers and leaders with a shared appreciation for DEI initiatives. Prioritize being coached by a more experienced leader in DEI and mentoring a peer or leader with less DEI expertise.
  • Employ or engage support personnel or professional experts, whether they are internal or external.
  • Train your staff and hold them accountable for implementing the lessons they learn.

5. Implement DEI initiatives that have been substantiated

This is hard work. DEI initiatives must include measurable organizational behavior and a value proposition backed by quantitative and qualitative data and implemented using best practices.

  • Diversity: Create clear, measurable, and specific DEI initiatives based on the value proposition of your industry or business. Track results.
  • Equity and Access: Provide an equitable system of policies, actions, behaviors, and practices. Track opportunity, contribution, and advancement.
  • Inclusivity: Evaluate and identify underrepresented groups using equitable processes.
  • Belonging: Whose perspective was considered, prioritized or left out? Asking these questions will help create a culture in which team leaders and members ask the same questions.

Jill Warning, director of DEI in SRD Legal Group – a women’s virtual law firm – is a woman. Warning is a practicing lawyer and specializes on providing legal services to companies in the financial services industry. Warning is an active military spouse who attends the NAMWOLF conferences regularly (her views on this article were influenced after her attendance at a NAMWOLF conference held in New Orleans, March 2024). She also serves as a member of NAMWOLF Emerging Leaders Initiative and the events committee. Warning and her family moved from Newport, Rhode Island to Honolulu in 2023. She has since created new running routes within her neighborhood of Ko’olau Mountainside.

Mind Your Business consists of a series written by lawyers and other professionals within the legal sector. These columns aim to offer practical advice to attorneys on how to manage their practices. They also provide information about new trends in legal technologies and how they can make lawyers more efficient.

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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.


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