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Legal Diversity is Gaining Ground: David Cunningham at Interact 2020

Why is diversity gaining momentum for corporate legal departments and law firms, even during a pandemic?  In part, it’s because the push toward diversity aligns with the demand for legal metrics and analytics that’s also remarkably gained steam.

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Diversity will be the topic on the table during It Is Time We Got This Right: Legal and Law Firm Diversity, a panel session to be held on Day One of Interact 2020.  The session will be moderated by Victoria Hudgins from LegalTech News, with a star industry panel that headlines David Cunningham among its members.  Together, they’ll discuss how diversity contributes to the effectiveness, collaboration, and ultimate value of legal departments and law firms.

As CIO at Winston & Strawn LLP, David has led one of the world’s most prominent firms in using technology, analytics, and streamlined business processes to deliver both value and agility for its clients.  Concurrently, as the founder of Legal Metrics, he’s helped advance how the legal industry agrees upon, visualizes, and shares the metrics that “define effectiveness, efficiency, value, and good working relationships,” as its website explains.

That’s given him a unique, multi-angled perspective on the topic of diversity, and how legal metrics have aligned with what’s become an industry-wide initiative.

“The legal departments always set the pace…”

Corporate legal departments have, of course, been primary drivers of diversity.  Clients like Microsoft have had longstanding diversity initiatives in place, and these organizations have dangled carrots (or shown the stick) to incentivize law firms who want to retain their business. “The legal departments always set the pace when it comes to changes like this,” he says.

The yardsticks being used to measure progress can vary, David explains.  A key metric is often proportionality in headcount, but in some cases law firms are also graded on their pace of change: they may not have arrived at an optimal level, but their efforts over time toward reaching it are recognized by the client.  Some clients are interested in a firm’s overall diversity, while a company like Novartis is focused on the diversity of the team that’s servicing them; others want to see that the senior leadership a firm has managing their matters is diverse.

One “very interesting” development?  Legal departments are being held to headcount limitations, and law firms have been forced to tighten their belts, too, even though the amount of work hasn’t declined. “There’s more work to be had if you’re really good,” he says, and are capable of proving to clients you’re able to do more with less by leveraging metrics, analytics, and reporting at a high level.  Being able to use metrics to demonstrate diversity, of course, is another advantage.

How pandemic has accelerated change

How has COVID-19 impacted all of this?  “We’re still learning,” David says, though some effects are apparent.  “It’s now hard to have a relationship-based client service approach because you can’t go visit the client.  So it appears to have accelerated the focus on metrics-driven relationships.”

Proof of the strength of the diversity movement might be the fact it’s gained momentum even during the pandemic.  As David explains, during periods of economic and social disruption, innovation and advancement typically suffer as companies retreat to tried-and-true practices to weather those storms.

“The focus on diversity is louder than it was a year ago.”

Yet in observing the effects of COVID-19 on the call for legal diversity versus what happened during the last major disruption, the 2008 financial crisis, he’s noted a significant difference.  Whereas the 2008 crisis put a brake on diversity efforts as legal professionals and their clients became concerned with hunkering down, the opposite has happened during the pandemic.  “The focus on diversity is louder than it was a year ago,” he says.

The number of firms joining Diversity Lab and legal departments implementing internal and external diversity metrics programs has been “far higher” than in 2019, he points out, despite the pandemic.  As firms and departments are pressed into making significant changes in how they operate and measure success, diversity has benefitted.

Learn more about legal diversity at Interact 2020

There’ll be much more said by David Cunningham and other panelists on the subject of legal diversity at this year’s Interact, the virtual conference for Mitratech’s global user community.  Other topics that might be touched on: How remote onboarding may – or may not – have a positive impact on legal diversity; how mid- and small-sized law firms may have the innate agility to move the needle on legal diversity more readily than larger ones; how the Big Four consulting firms may become bigger competitors for client legal business.

All these factors and more are part of what David sees as a truly transformative period in the legal industry.  “I’m sure we’ll see some remarkable things over the next five to ten years,” he says, and increased diversity is one pillar of that transformation.