Diversifying Law Firms Requires a Mindset Change

Source: Corporate Counsel

There has been much discussion regarding the legal industry and its characterization as the least diverse profession.  And lawyers aren't doing enough to change that. As an African-American former corporate general counsel of a Fortune 20 company, and now an executive recruiter focused on recruiting lawyers, I can attest to the challenges the legal profession faces when it comes to diversifying its ranks. I've worked in prominent law firms both on the West Coast and in the Midwest as one of a handful of minorities on the payroll.

In my view, the core of the diversity problem lies in the mindset of today's lawyers—and to diversify the profession, that mindset must change. At its roots, the legal profession is an old profession built on tradition and precedent. Lawyers like to do things "between the lines" they like structure; they like to do things in a traditional, conventional way where the path seems clear. Lawyers often tend to be somewhat rigid in how they approach issues. Think about it: Lawyers are trained to look at how things have been done in the past and then figure out how to apply that to the case before them now. They are devoted to "following precedent," which works very effectively in many contexts but not when it comes to accomplishing change.

For the diversity challenge to really be addressed innovatively, it’s as if many lawyers need to "step out of themselves" for a moment and put aside some of the very traits that have made them successful.

Law firms pose the biggest challenge. As they recruit, many of them still cling to the old tradition of looking almost exclusively at class and law school rankings. Assessing more "intangible" qualities such as strong emotional intelligence and business sense takes a back seat. Firms significantly narrow the funnel of viable candidates when they remain focused exclusively on top-ranked law schools and sterling grades.

Corporations often have been better at addressing diversity as they are driven by their customer base and want to ensure that they can relate to the customer they are trying to reach. Companies are used to having to make decisions quickly, so they are more agile and can change with the times. Unfortunately, though, companies usually rely on law firms to train the lawyers they eventually hire as in-house counsel, so their pipeline is impacted as well by the challenges within law firms.

In my current role as a senior legal recruiter with Major, Lindsey & Africa, I strive daily to help address this problem. We often hear from firms that stress the major impediment to diversity in their organization is the available pool of minority candidates who meet the traditional criteria (i.e., went to top law schools and have high rankings). Part of our role is to present candidates outside the narrow box; candidates with high emotional intelligence and outstanding interpersonal skills--both of which are at least as important as scores given in a classroom. An effective trial lawyer or general counsel, for example, needs to be able to read people and react to them effectively. Those qualities are much more important than what happened in law school years ago. I've personally served on several public company boards, and I've experienced the business world mindset firsthand and seen hiring through that lens—it's one that largely is more forward–thinking and pragmatic than the one found in most law firms.

So how do we begin to change the mindset?

We begin by being self-aware. By being aware of the fact that we, as lawyers, often tend to have personalities that are most comfortable hewing to narrow traditions and precedents regarding how to do things like recruiting. Why not “step out of ourselves” and embrace new, innovative and broadened ways of assessing talent? If a technology company can quickly pivot in a new direction when it needs to, why can’t a law firm be nimble enough to see that its diversity efforts have fallen short and that embracing a new approach is imperative?

We begin by demonstrating our commitment from the top down. It is essential that the leaders of the organization convey their personal commitment to diversity and are vocal and upfront about it. If the leaders are making diversity a priority, then the team will follow suit and take the cue from what they see and hear.

Next, we need to take a long hard look at our recruitment tactics. Re-evaluate your current hiring criteria and develop selection methods that focus on pragmatic skill sets that really matter within your organization.

We at Major, Lindsey & Africa achieve diversity in our placements because of our process and our commitment. We maintain and continually update a proprietary candidate database of more than 500,000 attorneys worldwide. We conduct our own diversity research, publish regularly, participate in legal organizations, sponsor and co-sponsor diversity-focused networking events, mentor diverse candidates and list hundreds of in-house counsel and lateral associate and partner positions on our website. I personally have had the pleasure of placing many diverse lawyers in senior positions in huge organizations around the country, such as Panasonic North America, Princeton University, Washington Gas and Anixter International.

For lawyers, building a diverse team can feel complicated since there are no clear rules and no finite end to the issues; it is an ongoing process of continual progress. As a lawyer, I acknowledge that there’s a part of myself that takes comfort in doing many things in the same way that they have been done traditionally. But by sticking stubbornly to the certainty, predictability and comfort of my normal approach, don't I miss out on a lot of wonderful, innovative things I could otherwise be doing?

If the legal profession is going to finally address its diversity challenge, it will need to broaden its approach to recruitment and become the innovator that it's capable of being. If it can't do that, it risks becoming an anachronism, increasingly less relevant in a society and business world that inexorably are becoming more diverse every day.

See the feature article in Corporate Counsel, October 12, 2015.

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Paul S. WilliamsPaul Williams is a Partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office. A Fortune 500 public company director and a former chief legal officer and corporate secretary of a Fortune 20 company, Paul focuses on conducting in-house searches, particularly general counsel and other senior level positions.

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