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  • February 15, 2024

    The DEI Landscape in Law Firms

    Amid concerns around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, many law firms are still committed to their organizational framework of DEI through their values, messaging, and culture. Mary Purdy discusses a recent report of DEI efforts across the nation and in Wisconsin.

    Mary Purdy

    professionals discussing around a table

    In her Business Law Blog article, “The DEI Conundrum for Companies,” Nadelle Grossman explored both obstacles and opportunities that companies face in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

    In this article, I expand that discussion, noting and commenting on ways that law firms can establish or build upon their DEI efforts to overcome challenges they may have.

    Uncertainty in the Realm of DEI Commitments

    Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College,1 it is no surprise that challenges to DEI have grown in various areas of academia, business and organizations, and the legal community.

    Further, concerns spread across the country as companies and law firms, including Morrison Foerster LLP and Perkins Coie LLP, faced lawsuits relating to their diversity programs – with both lawsuits since dropped.2

    DEI Representation

    Despite potential barriers, law firms continue to drive their DEI efforts – as noted in the 2023 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms published in January by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). NALP tracks diversity statistics by surveying associates from U.S. law firms from its Directory of Legal Employers.

    Mary Purdy Mary E. Purdy, Marquette 2024, is interested in practicing in corporate and business law.

    According to the report, the representation of women attorneys in U.S. firms has significantly increased since 2014, from 33.48% to 39.51%. Lawyers of color comprise 20.45% of attorneys in those law firms, which reflects a 1.2% increase from 2022. NALP considers this increase a milestone because the level now exceeds 20%. Most notably, NALP reports that women of color represent 10.91%, a 75% increase from 2022.

    As further insight, the NALP report provides national and local gender and race/ethnicity demographic data from various major U.S. cities, including Milwaukee. The national data indicates that lawyers of color represent 20.45%, with Asian lawyers at 8.57%, Black lawyers at 4.18%, and Latinx lawyers at 4.93%.

    The report also noted that, in six Milwaukee offices with a total of 889 lawyers, people of color represent 7.65% of all lawyers in those offices, Asian lawyers comprise 1.46%, Black lawyers 1.35%, and Latinx lawyers 2.59%. It also stated that women of color represent 3.49% in Milwaukee as compared with 10.91% at the national level. With Milwaukee apparently behind the national average, perhaps it is the recent challenges to diversity criteria in hiring that deter law firms from establishing a DEI culture.

    While diversification in Milwaukee law firms is progressing slowly, only the Los Angeles area and New York City exceed the national data in all demographics from the 31 major cities captured in the report.

    Law Firms Fostering DEI Commitments

    Many law firms publicize their commitment to DEI through their websites and various social media platforms and identify DEI efforts as part of their values.

    For example, one law firm highlights its value of supporting an inclusive environment by featuring their DEI programs, relating to education, training, and retreats.3 At its core, the law firm integrates its DEI efforts into the area of advancement and retention where it identifies DEI as an essential part of serving its clients.

    Similarly, another law firm identifies DEI as a guiding principle in its efforts in recruiting, retention, and community outreach.4 In essence, the law firm recognizes that embracing DEI strengthens its legal community and its connections to clients.

    Many law firms with DEI programs demonstrate their commitment to inclusiveness through their leadership, client relationships, public-facing communication and marketing, and hiring. DEI representation is fostered through not only a law firm’s employees – but through its mission and values.

    Conclusion: Room for Advancement

    The NALP report makes clear that, in recent years, DEI representation in relation to gender and race/ethnicity demographics in law firms continues to rise.

    Law firms can still drive DEI efforts through various ways. They can identify DEI as a core value and recognize its importance in its leadership, associates, clients, and community. They can also incorporate DEI initiatives into their firm’s principles and foster an inclusive environment and culture.

    As shown in NALP report, there is much room for advancement.

    The author would like to thank Nadelle Grossman, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and professor of law at Marquette University Law School, for her support in preparing this article.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Business Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


    1 Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, 600 U.S. 181 (2023).

    2 Tatyana Monnary, “Perkins Coie DEI Suit Ended by Anti-Affirmative Action Group,” Bloomberg Law, Oct. 11, 2023. Additional details surrounding the dismissed suit against Morrison Foerster LLP may be found in Grossman’s article.

    3Expressing a Culture of Inclusion,” Husch Blackwell.

    4Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI),” Godfrey & Kahn.

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    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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