A Seat at the Table: Providing Equal Opportunity to Encourage Longer Tenures for Diverse Lawyers

Source: Keeping the Keepers III: Mobility & Management of Associate Talent

As client pressures increasingly play a strong role in demanding diversity from outside counsel, associate diversity has become highly valued among law firms. The rationale for this pressure comes from the theory that clients find that attorneys from diverse backgrounds strategize and attack client matters in different ways, yielding the best and most creative solutions for clients. Recognizing the need for a diverse workforce, law firms have ramped up their diversity initiatives with varying degrees of success. The majority of these firm initiatives tend to focus on recruiting minority associates, and yet these same firms have not been effective at retaining the same associates. Despite seemingly unanimous support of firm's diversity initiatives, minority associates leave firms in significantly higher percentages than non-minority associates. This begs the question, why?

Although attrition is to be expected, it is important for law firms to be able to evaluate and manage attrition levels effectively, especially with this increased need for diversity. Focusing on the hiring of successful diverse associates and managing associate attrition are critical to understanding more clearly why diverse associates leave. In addition, probable departure destinations are important components in assessing and managing diverse associate attrition. Firms generally spend a considerable amount of money, time and effort attracting, developing and retaining valued employees. These resources should be amplified in the diversity context, recognizing that diverse associates have different needs than those that are non diverse.

According to the latest report in the NALP Foundation's Keeping the Keepers series, average minority attrition was significantly greater than that of non-minorities throughout 2006-2011. The research also shows minority lateral associates tend to be with their firms for less time than lateral non-minorities prior to lateraling to other firms. Surprisingly, a significantly, and consistently, higher percent (35%) of minority departures were classified as "desirable" as compared to 28% of non-minority departures. While there may be a multitude of reasons as to why an attorney's departure is deemed "desirable" presumably it whittles down to a firm feeling dissatisfied with the departing attorney. Generally speaking, diverse associates at law firms have similar educational backgrounds as non-diverse associates at said firms, so the potential to put out similar work product is equal. As such, there must be other factors at play that lead to the dissatisfaction felt by firms regarding minority associates.

As a minority attorney and recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, I have developed a niche practice working with diverse associates and find that many of my candidates are dissatisfied with their personal professional development within the law firm environment. Interestingly, some general counsels have picked up on this dissatisfaction and prefer to hire minority attorneys coming directly from law firms. They generally find these attorneys have a stronger drive than non-minority candidates to perform well after feeling neglected by law firm leadership at their firm. While almost every law firm has launched some sort of diversity initiative, these programs tend to focus more on recruiting diverse talent rather than on professional development of current employees. It is abundantly clear that the majority of law firm partners and associates are not diverse. While no one is accusing them of discriminating against minority associates in the aggregate, it is their natural bias toward favoring known quantities that creates invisible barriers against a diverse associate's professional growth. These invisible barriers thwart a minority attorney's opportunity to thrive within the law firm environment, and as a result, they either feel disenchanted or neglected by law firm leadership, arguably yielding less than desirable work product.

The impact of these barriers is not initially felt by diverse attorneys. In the first two years, all law firm associates generally start on the same page, and diverse associates do not notice differences in their professional development.

Disparities become more apparent in the third year of practice, when they see non-minority attorneys given more growth opportunities and as such, this is when the attrition rate for diverse and non-diverse attorneys begins to diverge. Attorneys with access to growth opportunities—those in positions of power—tend to prefer seeking out junior attorneys with similar backgrounds to join them at court, client meetings and/or social networking events. Diverse associates end up feeling excluded from key work assignments, are not given access to formal networking contacts and have fewer opportunities for inclusion amongst leadership.

In order to combat minority associate attrition, law firms should include incentives within their diversity initiatives that will help eliminate hidden barriers against diverse associate growth. For example, perhaps firms can create a "diversity" billable hour credit that all associates, both diverse and non-diverse, can earn by attending affinity group networking events. This will encourage non diverse attorneys to socialize with diverse attorneys, thereby fostering a more inclusive culture. While creating billable credit may seem like an odd incentive, it shows minority attorneys that the firm leadership does care about retaining them, and they are not simply trying to achieve a quota of diverse associates. This will help create an internal culture and structure that allow diverse attorneys an equal opportunity to thrive—a necessity in order to retain minority attorneys. While law firm leaders may not formally reach down to associates in order to cultivate their growth, that is exactly what is necessary for diverse associates to thrive, because of the natural bias to work with non-minority associates. Leaders must be encouraged to reach out to associates they know, as well as those that they do not, in order to sustain a diverse workforce and encourage professional growth.

In the same vein, law firm leaders should ensure that diverse associates are made aware of these barriers against professional growth and encouraged to overcome them. As a minority myself, I find I have to work extra hard to be recognized by the leaders in my field, and I can imagine diverse associates must do the same. Law firms should encourage minority attorneys to ask for feedback more often, especially if they are feeling their professional growth is being neglected. Once again, this will help create a culture that encourages minority associate development, therefore making it easier to retain diverse associates and also creating better work product for clients. Minority associates should also be encouraged to take initiative and align themselves with organizations and clients that are important to law firm leadership. This helps the firm by strengthening relationships between the attorneys whereby leading to better assignments and mentoring opportunities.

Of course, these procedures will require regular reassessment to determine what works well and what does not, since every law firm is unique. Gone are the days when diversity initiatives that focused solely on recruiting are enough to sustain a diverse workforce. Affirmative action-type plans like those will not cultivate an inclusive culture for associates. Demonstrated initiatives by law firm leaders that recognize leadership must reach down in order to help those associates reaching up are necessary for retaining a diverse and talented workforce ultimately yielding the best solutions for law firm clients.

Ru BhattRu Bhatt is a Managing Director in the Associate Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa and is part of the firm's New York office. Ru specializes in placing associates of all levels in top-tier national, international and regional law firms as well as in prominent in-house positions. Ru distinguishes himself by being a strong advocate for his candidates.

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