Why Law Firm Diversity Programs Fail

Why Law Firm Diversity Programs Fail

Diversity oddly seems to be the only area where major law firms and the hardcore overachievers who run them are content with mediocrity.

It’s not that law firms haven’t thrown money at diversity – sponsoring diversity scholarships, hiring diversity managers, and hosting diversity trainings. It’s that these efforts aren’t working.

Despite such efforts and websites touting a commitment to diversity, law firms still struggle to recruit and retain diverse talent. For instance, over 75% of minority women leave their firms in the first five years of practice compared with a roughly 50% overall attrition rate. 1

So why do law firm diversity programs fail? Below are some ideas for law firms to consider:

1. You Make Diversity a Diverse Associate’s Issue – As much as I appreciate a good “call and response” (e.g., Bill Clinton at the 2012 Democratic National Convention), the downside is that the message does not reach the folks who most need to hear it.  Diversity affects everyone at the law firm. Yet, time and time again, the only people invited to diversity programs are the diverse associates. While diversity affinity groups help create much-needed community, the reality is that success depends on how diverse associates interact with all lawyers, many of whom are not diverse. 

2. You Outsource Your ConsciousnessDiversity consultants can help a law firm embrace diversity, but not when the resulting program fails to reflect the input of that firm’s diverse associates, non-diverse associates, or management. While diversity is a profession-wide issue, each law firm has its own unique challenges. Diversity programs that are not tailored cause participants to tune them out.

3. You Use a Meaningless Definition of DiversityIn an effort not to offend anyone, we end up with mushy definitions of diversity (e.g., “everyone is different”). True, everyone is different, but law firms do not have a problem recruiting and retaining everyone. This watering down of diversity ignores those differences that actually serve as a basis for exclusion in law firms.

4. You Build Awareness Without Asking for Action – Diversity training, particularly when aimed at managers, has no personal punchline. Even those who know and agree the firm has a diversity challenge walk away wondering, “Now what, what can I do?” Generally the “now what” is high-flying diversity initiative in which the person has no personal stake or accountability. This does not address the daily micro-inequities that ultimately drive diverse associates to leave law firms.

5. You Focus on Entry Rather than Development – The current approach to diversity in law firms can be summed up in three words – “Recruit. Release. Repeat.” Law firms (1) recruit diverse law students (2) who are then left to fend for themselves as junior associates (3) while the law firm works on recruiting the next class. Not nearly enough emphasis is placed on the factors that seem to disproportionately challenge diverse associates such as legal writing or finding and securing a law firm champion. 

What do you think about the current state of law firm diversity programs? Let us know in the comments.


  1. NALP, Keeping the Keepers II: Mobility & Management of Associates.
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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.