The perennial debate on diversity within the legal profession emerged again recently when over one 170 general counsels signed an open ultimatum to the Big Law community: show us statistical progress or prepare for extinction. Law firms no longer have the luxury of asking why they should propel women, attorneys of color, and LGBTQ+ lawyers toward success. It is presumed every sophisticated business leader has read the research and understands the underlying business rational and moral imperative. As a former Big Law associate, minority bar association leader, and diversity professional, I offer here five ideas for law firms that are sincerely ready to improve. To preface, nothing here is particularly revolutionary. These are just a few common-sense tips to help move your firm beyond its demographic plateaus, and enhance your firm’s prospects for success.
1) Identify a specific diversity narrative. Just about every law firm website includes boilerplate language about the organization’s commitment to diversity. Discerning candidates know to probe beyond marketing puffery. What success has your organization enjoyed with women, attorneys of color, or the LGBT legal community? Perhaps your firm goes above and beyond to support mothers on the partnership track. Or, does your firm encourage associates to become affinity bar association leaders by granting billable credit for those activities? A personalized narrative (with facts to back it up) tells a much more compelling story than generic platitudes. If, after deep searching, there is nothing unique about your firm’s diversity strategy, it may be time to consider whether your firm’s ideological commitment is translating into measurable positive impact.
2) Broaden your hiring specifications. If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: It is numerically impossible to improve diversity at law firms if hiring partners fail to consider strong candidates from a wide variety of law schools. The Law School Admissions Council bluntly states that the current population of law school students across our country does not yet reflect societal demographics. We also know that racial minorities are far more likely to incur staggering law school debt, so they quite reasonably consider financial aid just as important as a law school’s rank (if not more so). If minority students are economically induced to attend second and third tier schools, and we know there are insufficient diverse law students nationwide to start with, law firms cannot bypass all but fourteen schools and realistically improve diversity. Recruiters who tell you otherwise are either inexperienced in the diversity space, or unwilling to break from antiquated habits.
3) Get serious about employee retention. Imagine a partner reading a client email that says, “I am considering alternative firms that will be more responsive to my particular needs.” Most partners would immediately jump to address specific problems before that client goes elsewhere. Now, instead of a client, picture a diverse mid-level associate articulating the identical statement to that same partner. How many rainmakers and practice group leaders would go to the same lengths to keep that associate? If firms want to keep diverse associates as potential long-term leaders, they must treat them as important assets because that is what they are. And remember, the savvy diverse candidates you are (or should be) courting will take a hard look at your firm’s mid-level and senior associate ranks as a predictor of their own prospects for success. Retention begets recruitment.
4) Call the bosses to action. Law firm diversity efforts often fall disproportionately on the shoulders of diverse associates. How many of your law firm partners (diverse and non-diverse) serve on the board of a national affinity bar association? Are any regularly investing their time (in addition to their checkbook) with the non-profits and law schools devoted to innovative diversity programming? I know first-hand that groups such as the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Institute for Legal Inclusion in the Legal Profession, and Pipeline to Practice (whose board I recently joined) all welcome sincere attention from law firm leaders. Not only would such efforts broadcast a genuine interest in diversity within the profession, they have a decent shot at improving cultural competence among leaders within your organization.
5) Stop Staring Inward. I would wager my last paycheck that after last month’s general counsel letter, law firms across the nation began convening internal Diversity Committee meetings to (1) identify which of their clients signed the letter; and (2) formulate a public relations response to anxiously highlight their own progress on the diversity front. Don Prophete of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete decided to publicly respond, not on behalf of his firm, but to offer his own testimony as the first black lawyer to become a name partner at an AmLaw 250 firm. He instantly became the most credible voice on this topic by taking a risk and engaging candidly in the national conversation. Creating internal task forces and subcommittees will not yield this type of powerful impact. Diversifying the legal profession literally requires changing the face of your workforce, so looking beyond your firm for advice and expertise is essential.
If your firm is looking for strategic guidance on diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn. I am also delighted to chat with diverse attorneys about career development and their experiences in the law firm world.