OPINION: An Introduction to D&I in Latin America

Contributed by
25 Sep 2019

IN recent years there has been an increasing focus on diversity and inclusion issues affecting legal professionals in Latin America. This momentum has been significantly boosted by initiatives like the “DILALP” conference (Diversity & Inclusion in the Latin America Legal Profession), which was organised in 2017 by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP), the Vance Center’s Women in the Profession Program, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion of the New York City Bar Association, and five multinationals to discuss progress in this area of the world. 

We spoke with Sandra S. Yamate, IILP’s Chief Executive Officer, who shared her views on how the D&I agenda is being implemented in Latin America. 

First, Sandra warns against referring to “Latin America” as a monolithic region, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. In addition, she told us that “it would be a tremendous mistake to assume that a homogenous approach would be effective in Latin America.” 

Although diversity and inclusion issues in the Latin American legal profession are as complex and multifaceted as in any other region of the world, gender diversity has been a key area of focus to date. 

Sandra explains that this may be partially due to the fact that (as in many parts of the world) gender diversity in Latin America is one of the more accessible entry points into any discussion of diversity and inclusion. At the same time, of course, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography, language, and other diversity characteristics are ever present and Latin American lawyers are keenly aware of that. 

As in other parts of the world, women lawyers in Latin America are visible but generally perceived to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of the profession (as law firm partners, corporate leaders and members of the judiciary). However, there is little detailed or measurable data to present an accurate assessment or to gauge whether there are significant differences from one Latin American country to another. Rather, there are some small, disparate efforts to measure and understand diversity issues in Latin America, but it is difficult to base broad generalisations about diversity in the region on these discrete efforts. 

For example, Sandra tells us that in a survey of associates at one firm, 78% of men wanted to become partner while only 53% of women aspired to the law firm partnership ranks. In a further dissection of the data, the firm found that the leading reasons that deterred women from wanting to become a partner stemmed from both a lack of flexibility and role models. 

Whether that would be similar at other firms in the same or other countries is unclear. Nevertheless, even a small study like this does highlight diversity-related issues that might serve as fruitful areas for further research such as flexible working.  

Flexibility, however, is not only about maternity leave or family responsibilities. At its most fundamental level, flexible working simply means that lawyers have the option of working remotely and at times of their choosing – something that firms already anticipate the Millennial generation will want and expect. 

D&I professionals like Sandra are optimistic that better data and better evidence may be forthcoming in the future, as international companies and firms are visibly starting to invest in such infrastructures to drive diversity and inclusion efforts. And, consistent with these efforts, diversity data collection from outside counsel is also becoming more common. 

One advantage to data collection by these global companies is that most have a presence in more than one Latin American country. Therefore, despite still being treated as a single region by many of these firms, there is recognition that diversity and inclusion goals, objectives, strategies and efforts can vary dramatically from one country to another. 

While there may be similarities and commonalities, the social, economic, and philosophical underpinnings can be very different between countries. Anyone seeking to advance diversity and inclusion in the legal profession in Latin America as a region needs to understand and appreciate this. 

Sandra offers further food for thought when it comes to which approaches may work best in Latin America: 

“Central to the conversation about how corporations approach diversity and inclusion is the debate surrounding which approach is most effective: the carrot or the stick? Should corporations award law firms for excelling at diversity and inclusion or punish law firms for failing at it? It remains to be seen and it may even be that the carrot works better in some parts of Latin America while the stick is more effective in others.” 

It’s an exciting time for D&I leaders in Latin America. More and better data collection, programmatic strategies, and tailored infrastructural initiatives are being introduced and increasingly focus on the particular needs and objectives of the various countries and regions within Latin America. Many may begin with gender diversity, but their scope will eventually – even quickly in some parts of Latin America – expand beyond gender to encompass other diversity characteristics. 

To conclude, Sandra tells us that the Latin American legal profession is developing its own views, approaches, and strategies to become more diverse and inclusive. Diversity and inclusion proponents in other parts of the world should be prepared to help and support those efforts without trying to impose their views, approaches, and strategies on Latin America. At the same time, every effort should be made to share information and experiences, experiments tried, and lessons learned – both to and from Latin America – for the benefit of diversity and inclusion efforts worldwide.