CLI Seeks Firms for Diversity Survey

Denver organization aims to diagnose workplace ills in pilot program

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The Center for Legal Inclusiveness is seeking local law firms to participate in a pilot survey this fall to measure workplace diversity, inclusion and employee engagement. The organization aims to recruit 10 firms for the computer-based survey, with the first round of results to be released in the spring.


Patrick O’Rourke, board chair of the Denver-based CLI, said the organization had for years been looking at how to improve the culture of law firms to retain recruits from underrepresented or marginalized groups. He said that while firms have made strides in bringing diverse attorneys into the profession, they haven’t done as good of a job at keeping or promoting them.

 “If you’re bringing people into the organization but you’re not able to keep them there, you’re not really going to be able to change the culture,” O’Rourke said.

A 2018 survey on law firm diversity published by Vault.com and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association showed that although recruitment of attorneys of color has improved, racial minorities were disproportionately likely to leave their firms in 2017, accounting for 22% of those who left while representing only 17% of lawyers employed in the firms. Among associates, that number was even higher at 28%, the survey said, adding that these attrition rates were the highest in 11 years, even surpassing those from the peak of the recession. The survey also found that minorities were much less likely to be promoted to partner, with 46% of white attorneys holding the title, compared to 24% of attorneys of color.

O’Rourke said collecting information about employees and their perceptions of their firms is an important step toward addressing these trends. 

“If you don’t actually ask your people what they’re thinking, you’re guessing,” he said.

CLI sought out tools to gather information about the work environment within law firms that might be contributing to inequality and poor retention, which led them to the Diversity Engagement Survey developed by the University of Massachusetts Medical Schools and the American Association of Medical Colleges. 

The 22-item survey takes less than 10 minutes to complete and asks employees about a number of factors that affect workplace inclusivity, including their sense of belonging and common purpose, trust, respect, access to opportunity and whether there is a fair system for rewards and recognition.

The survey will also collect demographic information to be determined by the firms in conjunction with CLI. O’Rourke said he expects the firms will collect information on each respondent’s position within the firm, gender, race and sexual orientation, with the option not to disclose sensitive information.

“There would not be an employee identifier attached to the survey results because it’s really meant to look at the health of the organization, not a particular person,” he said.

O’Rourke said he hopes a mix of big, medium and small firms, along with in-house counsel, will sign up and ask all employees to participate, although participation should not be mandatory. While most of CLI’s members are located in the Denver metro area, he said the organization would be open to working with Colorado employers outside the Front Range.

Firms would have to pay $2,500 to participate in the survey. O’Rourke said that’s less than a large firm would pay to have similar research conducted with just its own employees, and if more firms sign up for the survey, the costs may be spread even further. The data could help diagnose problems in the workplace that lower productivity and increase turnover, making the survey a smart investment for firms, according to O’Rourke.

“The cost of recruiting, training and developing an attorney is tens of thousands of dollars for a firm,” he said. “If the culture of a law firm doesn’t support keeping a person there, that’s an investment that you’ve lost.”

The survey will identify a firm’s strengths and weaknesses in “inclusivity factors” like trust, respect and access to opportunity and break the results down by demographic category, allowing comparison between groups. CLI will develop programming to address weak points, O’Rourke said, adding that a year or two after the initial survey, employees could take it again to see whether there was improvement in areas the firm targeted as priorities.

The University of Massachusetts will compile the survey data and deliver the reports, O’Rourke said. The university would also have the ability to use de-identified data for broader research purposes.

O’Rourke said he hopes that if the pilot program is successful, CLI could offer the survey every 18 months or so to another group of firms, along with follow-up surveys for those who had participated previously. 

For now, he said, the organization is focused on recruiting its first group of firms. Karen Hester, CEO of CLI, is handling recruitment and said that while no firms have officially signed on yet, there has been a lot of interest.

— Jessica Folker

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