When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action in education in 2023, it seemed like a DEI backlash was in full swing — but data shows that law firms are continuing to support inclusive environments and employ diverse talent.

There is no shortage of news articles and discussions that share best practices, concerns and insights in DEI to help law firms determined to make advancements. Among them, the Legal Marketing Association’s DEI Special Interest Group recently presented “The DEI Controversy: Current State of Inclusion in the Public Discourse,” a webinar that explored several challenges and opportunities in this evolving landscape.

Led by Merle Vaughn, managing partner and national law firm diversity practice leader at Major, Lindsey & Africa, the program included speakers Caren Ulrich Stacy, founder and CEO of Diversity Lab, and Terra Davis, chief diversity and talent development officer at Knobbe Martens.

Each shared their definition of what diversity means in the legal industry, noting that it can be presented in several ways.

Shifts in DEI Under the Big Tent

Stacy referred to Diversity Lab’s demographics data, noting that diversity continues to be underrepresented in leadership in law firms and legal departments. She emphasized that diversity is broader than gender and race. Other groups that can get overlooked in the under-representation category include lawyers with disabilities and LGBTQ+ attorneys.

Davis’s definition of diversity focuses on including embracing the uniqueness of the individuals in a law firm and how to do that in a thoughtful way.

Many law firms have created employee resource groups or affinity groups to meet the needs of diverse individuals at their firms. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against education affirmative action, the definition of these groups has shifted slightly. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Davis said. “It means that these law firms and companies are now saying all are welcome, and while we have this [affiliation] group for this specific group of people that offers a safe space to engage and interact, if you are not a part of that group but want to help in a meaningful and thoughtful way, then you can.”

After the Supreme Court decision, Stacy saw that law firms immediately stepped back to reflect on processes and practices in work allocation, recruiting, sponsorships and more to answer whether they were being inclusive to all. “This was the silver lining,” she said. “Firms reviewed what they were doing, how they were saying it and then how they were taking action on those things to make sure that they’re inclusive and equitable for everyone. This is not an ‘us versus them.’ It really was opening the door wider and making sure we leveled the playing field.”

Several lawsuits have emerged that are resulting in changes in the application language for law firm scholarship and fellowship programs. Davis’s firm broadened theirs by having the students themselves explain their definition of diversity and how it relates to them.

The Impact of Gen Z

Davis discussed the options lawyers have and decisions to make before joining a law firm. “We are now at a point where there are five generations in a law firm all at one time,” she said. “Gen Z is one of the generations that will fight and push back, because coming out of law school, they know they have options, whether going directly into private practice or into the public sector working for government; there’s a breadth and scope of things that they can do, and there are places they can be that value what they value.”

She commended law schools and universities that are increasingly teaching students about diversity issues, noting that summer associates are entering her firm and directly asking her tough questions and for data about diversity. “They are willing to walk based on the information disclosed to them — it’s that important to them. They are empowered to ask questions in the workplace.”

Examining what matters and is meaningful to all individuals in a law firm and what drives them to come to work each day may require some tough conversations to determine how firms are upholding and supporting values that are important for all.

Nikki Lewis Simon, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Greenberg Traurig, discussed that sentiment in her Law360 article about DEI best practices. “Not thinking holistically about DEI will not likely yield the results you want — ultimately, inclusion. Success is not just about recruiting, or HR, or procurement. It is something that comes from addressing DEI across all areas, all departments and all levels. It is also the result of how you are communicating, internally and externally,” she wrote.

Legal Marketers as Ambassadors for DEI

Law firm marketers should be fully educated about what their firms are doing in DEI and able to speak about it in a knowledgeable way, Davis said. Being able to share what a firm is doing in current programs and activities, and speaking about it knowledgeably with clients, upholds and demonstrates how invested it is in the DEI initiative throughout the firm.

Continuing Investments in DEI

Evidence is clear that law firms and legal departments are pushing ahead with DEI efforts across the board. A Law.com article about an early 2024 DEI study of corporate executives found that “companies are pressing ahead with their DEI efforts, and often even increasing them, despite last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling.”

Importantly, the survey also shed light on the need for organizations to increase and improve communications about DEI programs that would help minimize risks. Law firms would do well to assess their own similar communications with this aspect in mind.

These findings correspond with a survey of C-suite executives by Chief, a network of women executives and leaders, which found that 80% are still investing this year in DEI initiatives at their companies. In addition, “two in five executives place understanding and promoting diversity, inclusion, and access [as] among the most important leadership capabilities for the C-suite in 2024.”

Stacy said Diversity Lab findings echo similarly. “We are not seeing pullback on what legal departments are doing. Many of them are still recruiting diverse boards and taking action on the things they were doing to create inclusive hiring, development and more.”

It’s clear that prioritizing DEI remains essential, evidenced by data showing the ongoing importance of DEI initiatives in the corporate world, as well as the work being done at law firms to align with and reflect client values and address the needs of individuals at the firms.

2024 is continuing to drive necessary discussions in the legal industry about the clear need for improving and growing DEI. How that happens and is communicated remains critical to clients, lawyers, staff and other internal and external stakeholders. If you are facing challenges about how to communicate your DEI messaging, let’s discuss! Contact me at vhood@jaffepr.com or 904.220.1915.