YourABA October 2011 Masthead

Retaining diverse lawyers, eliminating hidden barriers

“The open door to diverse attorneys has now become a revolving door,” writes Kathleen Nalty, executive director of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, in her article, “Inclusiveness in the Legal Profession—Retaining Lawyers of Color,” from a recent issue of the ABA Labor and Employment Law newsletter.

Citing five national research studies completed since 2006, Nalty says that there are hidden barriers at law firms that prevent the advancement of lawyers of color, leading to a much higher rate of attrition for diverse lawyers, compared to their white counterparts. “In some firms, attrition for diverse attorneys is near 100 percent.”

Among hidden barriers found in the studies: exclusion from key work assignments, inadequate mentoring and development opportunities, diminished access to formal networking contacts and fewer opportunities for inclusion among leadership.

Since the bias is subtle, many lawyers of color are completely unaware it is happening at first. The disparities become more apparent by the third year of practice, and the attrition rate for diverse and non-diverse attorneys begins to diverge.

“Lawyers are surprised to learn that these hidden barriers are caused—not by bias against diverse attorneys—but by bias for other non-diverse lawyers,” explains Nalty. “Those who control access to many of the opportunities in law firms are still mostly white straight males who often seek out other attorneys with similar backgrounds and interests when looking for someone to go on a social event, court, a deposition or a client meeting.”

Since the bias is subtle, many lawyers of color are completely unaware it is happening at first. The disparities become more apparent by the third year of practice, and the attrition rate for diverse and non-diverse attorneys begins to diverge.

Pointing out that law firm diversity efforts have focused almost solely on recruiting, Nalty recommends that attorneys interested in retaining lawyers of color start by identifying the hidden biases of their firm and work to eliminate them. She also advises the formation of advisory boards consisting of lawyers both within and outside the firm to provide guidance on diversity efforts.

Diverse lawyers, too, can work to overcome the barriers that slow career advancement, says Nalty, recommending that lawyers of color ask for feedback more often and that they get involved in outside organizations that matter to the firm’s senior management. Such involvement can help strengthen relationships between the attorneys, leading to better assignments and mentoring opportunities as well as help with networking.

The ABA Labor and Employment Law newsletter is a publication of the Section of Labor and Employment Law.

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