The field of law still holds a first-place title among other professions, but it is a title that law really, really does not want to hold: The practice of law is the least diverse profession in the United States. American lawyers are 88 percent white, and two-thirds male, and that concentration increases as one looks up the ranks to partners and firm leaders. To their credit, law firms are desperate to address the imbalance. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that, especially in the early years, we may have put the wrong frame around diversity. Simply put, diversity isn't charity. It isn't something we do to provide opportunities to minorities, or to provide a better face to clients. This "do-good" frame of reference can still be reinforced by solemn mission-statement pronouncements, awards and honors given to firms for their diversity efforts. But diversity isn't just an external benefit the firm confers to others. Instead, the research is sending a different message: Diversity provides a very tangible benefit to the organization that embraces it. Even stripped of altruisms, all teams should want to increase their diversity, but especially teams focused on the kinds of challenging work that characterizes a legal practice.
This benefit is particularly salient in the context of a current case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week, the Court heard oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. the University of Texas, where the university needs to defend its consideration of race as a part of its holistic assessment of candidates. The university needs to prove, not that affirmative action benefits the minority students who receive it, but that it benefits the university itself in its larger mission to educate its entire student body. According to research discussed in a recent New York Times "Opinionator" piece, that benefit is real: Diverse teams make everyone smarter, minorities and nonminorities alike. This makes diversity all the more important to a firm's strategic planning, and it also matters in the day-to-day decisions in staffing trial teams and other client services projects. In this post, I'll take a quick look at the research and discuss its implications.
The Supreme Court's Question: Does Diversity Benefit the University?
This focus on the broader benefits of diversity matters in the context of the Supreme Court's current test case on affirmative action. Abigail Fisher, a white student, applied to the University of Texas in 2008 and alleges that the university violated her 14th Amendment rights when it denied her admission while admitting less qualified African-Americans. After a fairly complex case history, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case for a second time last Wednesday. The arguments addressed the question of whether racial diversity creates a rationale that is strong enough to support the compelling state interest needed to overcome strict scrutiny of the state's racial preferences.
As a policy, of course, affirmative action has long been grounded in the worthwhile goal of helping disadvantaged minorities get closer to social parity. But, as outlined in a recent Atlantic article, the jurisprudence has evolved to the point where that benefit does not matter. What matters instead is whether the broader educational climate benefits from the diversity that affirmative action supports. In that context, whether minorities benefit or -- as Justice Scalia questionably claimed -- are hurt, is somewhat beside the point. What matters is whether affirmative action serves the general intellectual purposes of a university. According to the research, it does. And it does in a way that should matter to law firms and other working groups as well.
The Researchers' Answer: Yes It Does
The New York Times opinion piece from last week was written by Sheen Levine and David Stark, professors at the University of Texas and Columbia respectively. They report on a series of experiments (Levine et al., 2014) in which students in both the U.S. and Singapore were assigned the task of calculating prices in stock market simulations, and then buying and selling stocks using real money and keeping the profits. As they traded, the students could observe their counterparts, checking and revising their own valuations based on what the others were doing. In that kind of scenario, the classic finding is that people tend to copy each other uncritically and end up worsening their performance by copying each other's mistakes. And that is indeed what the research showed...when the groups were racially homogenous. When the groups were diverse, the research participants were less susceptible to groupthink and more measured in their valuations. And it was not a small difference. "The findings were striking," the researchers wrote, "When participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate. The prices they chose were much closer to the true values of the stocks."
The reason diversity works in this context suggests a reason it is likely to work in all educational or problem solving contexts. "Diversity improves the way people think," the authors continue, "By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike."
One irony is that the very factor that can make diversity subconsciously uncomfortable -- what the authors call the "cognitive friction" of being surrounded by people less like ourselves -- is the factor that makes for better decision making and better teams. We work better with a little cognitive friction. So the lesson for law firms and trial teams is a clear one, and it doesn't depend on charity or altruism: Keep working to increase diversity. You'll be better critical thinkers and more effective error detectors once you get there.