Diversity & The Bar™

A Diversity Self-Assessment Tool for Law Firms

By Audra Bohannon, Maureen Giovannini, Patricia Fitzgerald, and Nicole Robitaille with introduction by Veta T. Richardson

In a busy, competitive world where people are increasingly anxious to benchmark against their peers, there are no easy answers. In fact, the race is often won by those who focus more on improving their own performance rather than worrying about what the competition is doing. With that lesson in mind, MCCA turned to one of the world's leading diversity consulting firms, Novations/J. Howard & Associates, for assistance in developing a self-assessment tool, or "personal report card" that law firms might use to look with a critical eye at how they are progressing with their diversity goals.

The premise of this tool is MCCA's award-winning Creating Pathways to Diversity research program. The MCCA Pathways concept is as follows:

  • Compliance brings people into an organization.
  • Diversity demonstrates an appreciation for their differences.
  • Inclusion creates an environment in which people want to stay.

An organization's progression and transformation from a compliance focused workplace to a workplace of inclusion is the result of initiatives by diversity committees, entrusted with responsibility for implementing programs and policies to increase inclusion and opportunities for the firm's traditionally excluded groups (for example, minorities and women). While this tool does not offer right or wrong answers, it is designed to stimulate thought and open a dialogue within the firm regarding how to advance its diversity efforts.

After completing the self-assessment and reviewing the results, MCCA encourages you to review our Blue Book on Recommended Diversity Practices for Law Firms. To date, this research report continues to offer the most comprehensive examination of law firm diversity programs, reflecting quantitative data voluntarily submitted by more than different law firms and qualitative data gathered through focus group discussions involving more law firm attorneys at all career levels, and equally reflecting the views of minorities and non-minorities, women and men.

Part 1—Instructions

Read through the statements on the attached Adobe Acrobat file. Check each statement you think applies to your firm. After you have completed checking the statements, transfer your checks to the grid below.

Transfer the check marks from the previous statements to the grid below. Each statement falls into one of three categories: diversity/inclusion awareness, diversity/inclusion initiatives, or measurable diversity/inclusion results. Subtotal your scores for each section by adding up the points for the checked items in each column. (Note that in a few instances, a check means that you should subtract points.) If your firm scores a lot of zeroes or negative numbers in any category, this likely indicates a need to refocus your efforts on these areas to overcome potential challenges to your firm's success regarding diversity.

An inclusive law firm requires clear leadership from the top. That leadership is most important to the success in undertaking initiatives and achieving concrete results in the other categories. A good place to start is developing a firm specific business case (for example, marketshare, cost of turnover, lost productivity) for diversity and inclusion. The business case is the basis for integrating diversity and inclusion initiatives into the firm's strategic plans and goals, including its vision, implementation plans, accountability process, and rewards and recognition. The active involvement of senior partners as well as establishing accountability for diversity and inclusion goals are also key aspects of this category that ensure long-term success.

Too many firms have accepted "the myth of the meritocracy" – that success is a function of the individual's innate ability without openly acknowledging the weight of informal networks on one's career. As a result, firms devote insufficient time and resources to the career development of attorneys. In the absence of formal career development programs and processes, informal networks become even more important than they normally would be in providing necessary mentoring and sponsorship. This is especially detrimental to the success of minority attorneys who often lack access to these informal networks and do not foresee themselves progressing or growing. As a result, they may leave after a few years. Hence, while the items in this category are important to develop the potential of all the firm's attorneys, they are especially significant in the retention and advancement of minority attorneys.

This category focuses on processes that are used to attract, hire, and retain a diverse group of attorneys at all levels. Effective recruitment and retention strategies are necessary, but are not alone sufficient to build a diverse and inclusive law firm. Without commitment and action in the other categories, even a firm that scores high in recruitment activities may find that minority attorneys leave in as great numbers as they enter, creating what some refer to as a "revolving door." Recruitment and retention are only the beginning. They need to be married with inclusive behaviors and systems and processes that support minority employees to feel they are welcomed and valued.

Representation and demographics, which are the "baseline data" about the actual diversity profile of the firm, will reveal important gaps in representation that appropriate initiatives can be designed to fill. In addition, tracking the demographic changes in the firm's diversity profile over time, measured against ongoing initiatives, will be essential for documenting what works, as well as identifying continuing opportunities for improvement. At the end of the day, many minority attorneys will evaluate the firm's real commitment to diversity and inclusion in terms of "How many people like me do I see advancing to key levels and positions?"

The firm's "workplace culture" reflects its unique, ingrained identity and personality, its way of doing business, and expectations regarding the way those at the firm will go about the business of the firm. This workplace culture is reflected in all aspects of the dynamics of "law firm life," including its formal policies and informal practices. That culture will determine those who fit and those who do not, and for minority attorneys, whether they will feel free to express important aspects of their self-identity or culture, which do not reflect the majority culture of the firm. The degree to which minorities are included (or excluded) from formal and, especially, informal networks will likewise contribute to their overall sense of "belonging" at the firm. All of these factors are key variables that influence both the successful recruitment and retention of minority attorneys along with the firm's reputation as a "good place to work" for attorneys of color.

How a firm presents itself to the outside world sends important messages to prospective new hires and clients about the firm's commitment to diversity and inclusion. The degree to which those messages are developed with sensitivity to diversity is critical, and it is also important for firms not to ignore the importance of having a diverse group working for the firm to craft those messages. For example, the firm's web site may be one of the first exposures a law student has to the firm, and may influence the decision about whether or not to pursue a career there. However, the bulk of a firm's diversity focus should not be placed on looking good externally and putting a diverse face forward for clients and the outside world without also simultaneously investing on developing strong internal practices and diverse demographics. Otherwise, where the emphasis is markedly more external than internal, the firm will be viewed by its minority lawyers, and eventually others outside the firm, as false window dressing lacking serious commitment or focus.

Part 2—What the Scores Mean

Awareness and skill building, as well as structure, process and formal initiatives, are important steps in driving results and creating an inclusive workplace where all employees feel valued and able to deliver results that impact the bottom line.

Review the scores in each of the categories in two ways: the strength of your scores and whether the activities reflected in each statement are focused on developing diversity/inclusion awareness, creating diversity/inclusion initiatives (an organized approach used to produce changes in the way the firm manages a diverse workforce), or delivering measurable results. Compare how many points you could have scored versus how many points you actually scored. Negative scores or a number of zeroes likely indicates areas where your firm needs to refocus its efforts and assign higher priority.

Which categories have the strongest scores? Which categories show the weakest ones? Are the scores balanced across the categories? High scores in one or two categories do not compensate for lower scores in other categories. A moderate profile, with a balance across categories, shows a stronger, more inclusive workplace than a random mix of high and low scores.

This self-assessment tool was not created to offer you a grade or a right or wrong answer. The purpose is to trigger your consideration of areas where your firm may be doing well and where it needs to focus efforts to improve.

You are encouraged to give a copy of this self-assessment tool to 10 other members of your firm who represent a cross section of your workforce, perhaps without offering them the scorecard. Also, consider allowing them to submit their responses anonymously. Compare their responses with your own. If their responses differ significantly from your own, you may wish to consider recommending that the firm focus on developing strategies to address the areas where you see the greatest divergence of views.


Diversity and inclusion within law firms is a multifaceted issue, but the business case is strong. Creating an inclusive work environment that encourages the development and success of all employees, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or other aspects of diversity is everyone's responsibility, but it must be embraced and driven first from leadership. Opportunities can be managed in a manner that supports minorities of the firm to achieve their highest potential. Diversity practices and policies should address the full spectrum of experience within the firm: leadership, recruitment, retention, development, workplace culture, and the external face of the firm. Initiatives must move beyond awareness into action, and there are concrete ways in which to do this.

MCCA, with the support of Novations/J. Howard & Associates and others, has identified some of these strategies in Creating Pathways to Diversity: A Set of Recommended Practices for Law Firms. This publication provides a more detailed overview of the issues facing minority attorneys, and ways in which law firms can actively address those issues. Some of the tools include: "Seven Steps to Getting Started: Moving From Lip Service to Diversity" and a "Top 10 List of Diversity Recommended Practices." This publication can be downloaded for free from the MCCA web site (see Research Programs, Law Firm Best Practices) or request it in hard copy by contacting MCCA.

The authors of this article Audra Bohannon, Maureen Giovannini, and Patricia Fitzgerald are employees at Novations/J. Howard & Associates, which specializes in helping organizations create and sustain diverse and inclusive work environments. For more information about Novations/J. Howard & Associates, go to The introduction of this article was written by Veta T. Richardson, executive director of MCCA.

From the September/October 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®

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