This year we commemorated the 95th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as I reflected on his legacy within the context of law firm power structure, I wondered what more could be done to truly move the needle closer to the vision of America he so eloquently illustrated in his "I Have a Dream Speech". This speech was his response to the employment inequities propagated by institutionalized racism. While there has been some progress made at firms across the country, it is a lamentable fact that the presence of Black partners as members of the upper echelon of law firm management is a rarity. Law firm partnerships have remained stubbornly segregated even as the number of women and people of color has continued to rise in law firm admissions and attendance.
Law firm partners are a special breed of people whose life stories are often resplendent with grit, determination, and resilience. Nowhere are there more stories of perseverance than with Black partners, particularly women who have shared with me heroic stories of redemption to achieve their success. These are people working at the top of their field, often in incredibly hostile environments to achieve the highest levels of success a lawyer can reach at a firm, yet, time and again when speaking to law firm management I hear that they cannot find Black partners or other partners of color to fill their ranks. My question is, where are they looking?
Attracting — and retaining — Black lawyers
According to the American Bar Association's 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession (https://bit.ly/48LdcQy), 5% of all lawyers are African American, 5% are Hispanic and 2% are Asian — numbers that fall short of their representation in the actual population. Lawyers of color are graduating from a variety of law schools and practicing in law firms of all shapes and sizes. Though small in number, they are out there and as eager for an opportunity and success as any other person.
There are a variety of strategies I would suggest law firms employ to attract Black partners:
It is, however, one thing to bring in Black partners; it is another to keep them. According to Major, Lindsey & Africa's 2023 Lateral Partner Satisfaction Survey (https://bit.ly/3vUZFHn), Black partners were more likely to rank compensation and a lack of support to build one's practice as important factors in deciding to leave.
Show that the firm is fostering a supportive, diverse, inclusive environment by:
Why a diverse partnership matters
A commitment to hiring Black partners is not only a matter of social responsibility but also a strategic business decision that can enhance a law firm's performance, reputation, and competitiveness in the legal market. A diverse workforce brings different perspectives, experiences, and ideas to the table. This diversity fosters a more inclusive and dynamic work environment, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving. This, in turn, can drive innovation because people of color may bring unique insights and innovative approaches to legal challenges, contributing to the development of creative solutions that benefit both clients and the legal industry.
Clients do not want to be met with a homogeneous legal team. Clients come from diverse backgrounds, and having Black and people of color partners in law firms ensures that the legal team reflects the diversity of the clients they serve. This can enhance client trust and satisfaction, as clients may feel more understood and represented by a legal team that mirrors their diversity.
Generally, having Black people with voting rights and sitting on the executive committee, compensation committee, and other powerful bodies within law firm management will help to promote an environment of diversity which will in turn promote the retention and recruitment of talent from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. This will, in turn, attract a more varied client base because partners from diverse backgrounds often have relationships with clients outside of the purview of traditional law firm management — thereby expanding and deepening prospective returns for the firm more broadly.
Having Black partners in leadership positions can serve as a positive representation of underrepresented communities, signaling that the firm values diversity and provides opportunities for career advancement. Furthermore, a firm with diverse leadership, including Black partners, is more likely to foster an inclusive culture. This inclusive environment can be appealing to individuals from backgrounds who seek a workplace where they feel valued. Thus, driving the recruiting and retention of partners and associates.
A silver lining
As Generation Z and Millennials mature within the ranks of the law, they are driving societal shifts. Generally, many younger lawyers, including those in Gen-Z, have shown an increased awareness and emphasis on issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This may be reflected in their views on the importance of creating diverse and inclusive environments within the legal profession.
In Major, Lindsey & Africa's 2023 Millennial Survey (https://bit.ly/4b6MwLH), over half of the respondents believe that law firm leadership has outstayed their effectiveness and that the Millennial generation is changing law firm policies and culture for the better. These feelings are strongest among women associates and partners who graduated law school after 2004. In the same report, an incredible 70% of respondents felt that law firm partnership was less desirable than it was a generation ago. That number jumps to 80% when the respondents were women of color.
With Millennials entering the partnership ranks, I would expect to see an even greater focus on DEI, leading to the creation of a more diverse and inclusive working environment. Millennials were taught to prioritize the ability to play nice with others; therefore creating a collaborative environment/culture is important to them. This generation is also known for having an entrepreneurial mindset, which may lead to a greater emphasis on supporting business development, client engagement, and innovative perhaps tech-focused approaches to legal services. Pair all of that with their priority on environmental and social responsibility, and with Millennials running the firm, it will likely be a more attractive place to work — which will greatly impact retention and recruitment.
In his iconic and often quoted 1963 I Have a Dream speech Dr. King says, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." As younger generations move into the management ranks, there is hope that more Black lawyers and lawyers of color will ascend to the upper echelons of the firm. But in the meantime, do not lose focus on making bigger strides now to develop all your talent. It will only benefit the firm in the end.