With the passing of civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), I am reminded of what is possible when we set our minds on something bigger than ourselves. John Lewis taught us that we as individuals—and as a collective—should “never be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Due in large part to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and countless others’ longstanding commitment to racial justice, coupled with the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery and Breona Taylor, Black Lives Matter is a refrain being embraced by the masses, heard in the streets in protests by allies of different ethnicities, and in corporate boardrooms. And yes, Black Lives Matter is being lifted up by law firm leadership.
Law firms have been working on hiring and retaining Black lawyers for decades, but while some strides have been made, the numbers do not reflect significant gains.
So, what can be done to move the needle? To see real progress, law firms must: revisit their “why,” reimagine strategic outcomes, review current plans, reset the process to accomplish goals, and achieve results.
Law firms need to understand their “why” as it relates to hiring and retaining Black attorneys. Our “why” fuels everything that is done to accomplish a particular goal. Start by asking: “Why do we want to hire and retain more Black attorneys?” or “Why would Black attorneys be proud to work at our firm?”
Some law firms view initiatives to hire and retain Black attorneys through a charity lens, seeing diversity and inclusion efforts as volunteerism to help those less fortunate for a short period of time.
If your firm’s “why” is based on a charity mindset, this is likely why the needle hasn’t moved at your firm. For other firms, their “why” may be rooted in solidarity with the intention to create and sustain equality and equity for Black attorneys at their law firms. This “why” creates a runway for success.
For law firms to successfully recruit Black attorneys, they must have a vision of what success truly looks like.
Is your vision to have Black partners in your firm at numbers that reflect Black people’s representation in America? Is your goal for your firm’s leadership team to be more diverse? Is your goal that your compensation model fosters equal treatment and reduces bias toward Black attorneys?
You must decide what success looks like for your firm and communicate your goals to attorneys at the firm to effectively pursue identified outcomes.
Most firms have pre-existing plans regarding hiring and retaining attorneys of color. Does that plan align with your “why” and your intended outcomes mentioned above? If not, it must be revised.
Keep in mind, your plans should not be based on charitable endeavors, but rather focus on strategic initiatives that achieve equality and equity—including evaluating the current compensation model to determine whether it creates pay disparities.
Plans should also include awareness training and accountability benchmarks, and developing a diverse attorney pipeline. Current plans must be updated to effectively target your goals.
A strategic reset requires resetting expectations of lawyers at the firm, as well as the approach to achieve goals and the firm’s commitment to achieving them.
Expectations: Leadership should clearly communicate the why, the goals and the strategies the firm is committed to—and that it will take everyone at the firm doing their part to create equity.
Approach: Law firms need to identify and execute the approach that makes sense for their firms. The approach will likely include a combination of education on systemic racism, explicit and implicit bias training to provide tools to address issues in real time, creation and/or re-imagining of a sponsorship program, and analysis of the inherited client process to ensure equal access and opportunity.
Commitment: Firms need to set annual benchmarks to assess the program’s effectiveness, and make adjustments to continually progress.
In a recent conversation with a Black attorney, we discussed our collective appreciation for how law firms are making strong statements against racism; how they are creating a consortium of law firms to address discriminatory practices against Black people; and how still other law firms have pledged financial support for Black Lives Matter causes around the globe.
The attorney said that while these gestures are great, it is equally important that law firms’ external messages of equality of opportunity be reflected in their internal realities.
Law firms need results. By understanding your “why,” re-imagining your goals, reviewing current plans, and resetting and executing strategies to lead to measurable outcomes, firms will be closer to achieving results consistent with their identified goals.
As John Lewis reminds us, “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week or one year. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.” It is time for law firms to stand flatfooted and do what they can do to show, in word and deed, that Black Lawyers Matter, too.