How the Racial Justice Movement Has Changed Legal Search

The conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion (D&I) was amplified as a result of George Floyd’s death in May 2020. The call for social justice that followed his and numerous other unjust deaths of Black individuals around the country shook all aspects of society, including the way organizations look at hiring top talent. As search consultants, we have seen firsthand the significant and ongoing impact of this movement on our clients and the legal profession as a whole.

Prior to the social justice movement, for some of our clients, D&I was a critical topic of conversation as we began the recruitment process, but this emphasis was not as widespread as we would have hoped. We saw a lot of disparities depending on company size, whether the client was publicly traded or privately held, and where it was located geographically. In some instances, it was not a topic of conversation raised by our clients at all, and we found ourselves initiating the D&I discussion as it related to identifying new talent for an organization. In our experience, prior to the current focus on alleviating systemic racial and social inequities, D&I was generally a topic of importance, but it was not always a crucial element in our client’s decision-making process or our early discussions.

However, since May 2020, we and many of our colleagues have noticed a positive, purposeful change among our clients, as they seek to enhance their commitment to D&I. First and foremost, many are becoming more intentional around diversity hiring—asking for it, pushing themselves out of their predetermined boxes and truly making a commitment to diversity in their recruiting practices.

From our earliest interactions, they are now more often asking about our experience with hiring diverse talent. This can mean many different things, but the common thread is that having an established D&I track record is now a prerequisite to hiring a search firm. Rightly so, they want to see real-life examples of our work and metrics. We rely on our extensive experience in the market to educate our clients on the many factors that can affect the pool of diverse candidates, including the location and requirements of the role. For example, a company located in an area that is not diverse, or with a history of racial conflict, may face significant obstacles in its attempts to attract top diverse talent. Additionally, requirements regarding a specific type of educational background and pedigree can limit a company’s ability to identify a diverse pool of candidates. Our extensive market knowledge allows us to level-set expectations and paint a realistic picture of the anticipated candidate search process.

More often, our clients are taking the time to educate us about D&I at their company—and we, in turn, are diving deeper into understanding their company culture, legal team, and unique D&I challenges and opportunities. Beyond the legal team, we are talking to their D&I professionals and/or ERG members too, to get a comprehensive view of the entire organization. We want to understand what diversity means to the company and its leaders, both in and out of the legal department. Armed with the information that we have gathered from internal stakeholders, we are well-positioned to search for top talent and educate strong candidates about a company’s commitment and needs in this area.

We find that our clients are also taking more opportunities to talk about how to foster an environment that supports diversity internally, educating their employees about issues like unconscious bias and interview techniques, and they are generally supporting more open conversations around diversity. They are no longer just talking the D&I talk, but walking the walk. As search consultants, we help reinforce those practices and urge our clients to think differently about what they think are “must haves” in candidates and what their preconceived notions of the “ideal” lawyer are. Specifically, we have encouraged our clients to take a broader view around pedigree and “top tier” schools and law firms, and for instance, seek candidates from HBCUs or other equally strong institutions that may be perceived as “less prestigious.” We have also advised clients to avoid rigid requirements outlined in a job description that may eliminate strong diverse talent. We strive to help them get past their biases and keep them from falling back on their old habits.

Organizations that are committed to hiring diverse talent must also understand that many candidates, regardless of race or gender, are often using diversity metrics and commitments to determine whether a role is attractive. In fact, diversity-related questions—such as, “What is the company’s ‘real’ commitment to retaining diverse talent and moving individuals through the ranks?” or questions around a lack of diversity among the senior management team and how or if a company is addressing this concern—begin as early as initial calls with search consultants about an opportunity. And hiring managers can expect this will continue throughout the interview process. Frankly, an organization’s ability to articulate and demonstrate their commitment in this area can determine whether they can attract top talent into their company. Similarly, companies are more often asking candidates for examples highlighting their commitment to D&I and about what kind of contributions they can make to their potential employers’ D&I efforts.

Organizations are also looking more closely at their retention metrics and searching for ways to truly hold on to their best diverse talent. At this juncture, the challenges facing our clients are not just related to hiring diverse talent, but also about retaining diverse talent. Inclusivity is the piece many companies must focus on once they have developed a strong pipeline of diverse talent. An important part of this is educating the employee base and continuing open conversations around D&I. It will also be crucial for organizations to determine the specific steps they need to take to make this a long-term priority—to demonstrate to their workforce that a diverse, inclusive culture is a core company value and will remain so.

While we cannot predict what will happen next, we are seeing real momentum in the legal profession as it relates to a commitment around D&I. Especially in light of recent nationwide political and social unrest, it is clear that we are at an inflection point. We believe that the drive for change in the D&I space will continue because our clients and society are responding differently, with a renewed commitment to the critical importance of diversity in the legal profession. As a next step, it is imperative that the legal industry take specific steps to prioritize finding and retaining diverse talent. Our hope is that this is not a fleeting moment in time, but rather a sea change that will have impact on the profession for years to come.

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