Diversifying Big Law: A new book edited by Anthony Thompson looks at law firms’ lack of progress in recruiting and retaining people of color

Abstract illustration depicting racial diversity
Tony Thompson
Anthony Thompson

“Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords that organizations like to advance but too often have difficulty implementing.” Those are the opening words of Raising the Bar: Diversifying Big Law, a book edited by Anthony Thompson, Professor of Clinical Law and Faculty Director of the Law School’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law. Published in August, the book features a conversation with four partners of color at leading law firms, three of whom are NYU Law alums: Debo Adegbile ’94 of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr; Lisa Davis ’85 of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz; Damaris Hernández ’07 of Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Ted Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. (Adegbile and Hernández are also trustees of the Law School.) Thompson spoke with us about the book.

Your primary focus as a practitioner and academic has been criminal justice. What led you to this topic?

First, having been on this law faculty for 25 years, I have been witness to the experiences of our graduates when they have chosen to work at major law firms. Second, I have spoken to a large number of law firm partners over a number of years who genuinely have been concerned about the lack of diversity in Big Law. And, lastly, in my role as founding director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law, examining our profession in all its dimensions has been one of the early goals of the Center. There is much work to do on diversity in Big Law. We have made some progress on gender—though not enough—but firms have made only nominal progress on race.  

Why the specific focus on Big Law?

Book cover art for Raising the Bar

When we look across the legal profession, we certainly could be talking about prosecutors’ offices, the bench, public defender offices or small to medium size firms, as well as in-house counsel, corporation counsel, or law school faculties. We have done a horrible job of ensuring that the law reflects the rich diversity of our nation. But to explain the focus on Big Law, I will borrow from an old criminal justice trope: Big firms have the “means, motive and opportunity” to lead in this area. The firms have the means in that they hire a large number of entry level and summer associates annually. They have the motive because increasingly clients want to see more diversity reflected in the legal teams that are involved in their engagements. And they have the opportunity, because for the first time in many years, law firms, lawyers, and the legal profession generally are focused on this issue of race and difference.

People have been talking about the need to increase diversity at law firms for decades. What is this book’s principal contribution to the conversation?

Perhaps the biggest challenge to increasing diversity at law firms is educating the firm’s associates and partners about the specific things they must consider in thinking about the experiences of lawyers of color. Firms need to change their practices to make the environment more hospitable to people of color at every stage. The book discusses in some detail the things partners and associates need to do differently and the things they need to continue to do. 

In particular, the book looks to raise awareness that they must mentor, sponsor, and be alert to the experiences of all lawyers, not just the ones who look like them. The book addresses everything from interviewing to evaluations to promotions, and not only lays out specific steps that firms should take, but it also explains the rationale for the changes. 

The book notes that there are economic reasons for law firms to diversify—it will improve their bottom line. Why hasn’t this incentive been enough to produce results to date?

Data confirms that those organizations that are diverse tend to be financially successful. So, diversity isn’t just a “good thing” to do, it actually makes good business sense. But the financial story hasn’t been enough to produce the results we need to see, largely because diversity means changing cultures: the culture of the firm, the profession, and our cultural definitions of success. Changing culture means recognizing and addressing deeply ingrained behaviors. It is difficult to make these types of cultural changes without a commitment from the leadership that is serious, measurable, and consistent throughout the firm. It also requires a firm-wide commitment to the enterprise. 

In many ways, this is a fundamental question of leadership in the law firm and in our profession. These are changes that will not happen organically or as a result of sporadic prodding by clients. Even those clients who are demanding more diversity on their engagements are not solely focused on this issue, so the diversity message can get lost. The commitment to diversity—and the willingness to change—has to be embraced at every level of the profession.

What’s your response to the “pipeline” argument—that top law firms (and law schools) fall short on diversity because the pool of applicants is too small?

The pipeline argument is a bit of a red herring. There are large numbers of law students of color seeking jobs in Big Law. So, there is indeed a pipeline. But large law firms often limit the schools at which they will recruit to the top eight or 10 law schools. And if every firm is doing that, they are going to compete with each other for the same pool of law students of color. 

When you look at firms that are taking this issue seriously, you see firms broadening their pool by recruiting at institutions where there are larger numbers of law students of color, and those firms are finding ample recruits. The focus has to be on the experiences that associates will have in the recruitment, retention and promotion aspects of practice. The pool of applicants is quite large if your metric for success is finding qualified hard-working candidates.  

As you look to the horizon, are you optimistic about change in Big Law on the issue of diversity?

I think that race is America’s great dividing line. It will always be a difficult challenge. But for the first time in many decades, I see that lawyers are beginning to think about leadership in this important area. Firms are asking the right questions, having important internal conversations, and beginning to seek outside help in diversifying their ranks. At the end of the day, success will turn on whether there is a firm commitment—pun intended—to the issue.

Posted October 14, 2019. Updated August 13, 2020