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For some, the recent emphasis on increased diversity in law firms is much ado about nothing. But for women lawyers of color, facing the compound biases of race and gender can be daunting. What is the big deal about increased diversity? What can law firms do to recruit, retain and promote women lawyers of color? What can women lawyers of color themselves do to ensure that they become (and remain) valued members of the team at their law firms?
Outside of the law firm context, minorities are frequently found in previously unimagined power positions. One example is the increasing number of minorities who serve as in-house and even general counsel of major corporations. In today's climate, corporations want to see their outside counsel reflect the diversity that they themselves have engendered in their legal departments.
In 1999, over 400 Fortune 500 corporations signed a Statement of Principle outlining their commitment to diversity and urging law firms to demonstrate a similar commitment. In 2004, these corporations followed the Statement of Principle with A Call to Action, which reiterated the corporations' demand for law firm diversity. A Call to Action implored law firms to become more diverse or face the very real possibility of losing the business of the signatory corporations. In essence, a law firm's failure to reflect diversity could result in the loss of a blue chip client.
In addition to in - house counsel, the number of minority judges and jurors has risen dramatically over the past few years. It is overly simplistic (and simply erroneous) to believe that minority judges and jurors automatically give an edge to minority lawyers. However, it makes sense that law firms would utilize diverse lawyers with perhaps a greater cultural commonality with the experiences of the modern judge and jury.
With the tide rapidly changing in favor of diversity in America's courtrooms and corporations, law firms that fail to employ diversity initiatives are at a sore disadvantage in marketing to new clients and in retaining existing ones.
Not Just a Numbers Game: The Role of the Law Firm in Increasing Diversity
Lateral recruiting is an important piece of the recruiting puzzle for law firms. Most lawyers no longer desire to spend their entire careers at one firm. Women lawyers of color, in particular, may become disenchanted at their law firms early in their careers, often due to a firm's failure to foster an inclusive environment or to take a genuine interest in the professional development of minority lawyers. See ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms (2006). Firms can employ several different avenues for lateral recruitment of women of color, including seeking out women of color at other law firms or in government/public interest positions and by direct recruitment of women lawyers of color through minority bar associations.
For larger firms, one way to help ensure diverse hires is through the establishment of a diversity committee or, at minimum, through diverse representation among members of the firm's recruiting committee. If a diversity committee is established, the composition of it will be subjected to scrutiny by both law school and lateral hires. Diversity requires a top down commitment; hence, the diversity committee should not be composed of only diverse associate lawyers. Rather, the committee should include the decision - makers in the firm, e.g. members of the executive or management committee, whether diverse or non - diverse.
For small firms, it is essential to make concerted efforts to interview women candidates of color, both at the law school and the lateral levels. Lateral hiring may be particularly attractive to small firms that may not have the resources to hire women of color fresh out of law school and to then provide them with the requisite training and development.
Whether hiring newly minted law graduates or laterals, it is crucial that recruitment of women lawyers of color becomes a priority for law firms.
Despite the numbers, the effort required to retain women lawyers of color is not terribly different from the effort required to retain other lawyers. Women lawyers of color will stay in law firms where they feel valued and where they feel that their professional development is reaching certain benchmarks of progress.
Those benchmarks include being provided with access to meaningful networking opportunities, both within and outside of the firm; receiving substantive work assignments; actual client contact, not just with pro bono or low hourly rate clients but also with the firm's institutional clientele; and placement on "pitch" teams when the firm is seeking new business. In addition, it is crucial that firms give the woman lawyer of color critical feedback as to her "hits and misses," both with regard to work product as well as with regard to client and firm relationships.
In addition, law firms can retain women lawyers of color by demonstrating their commitment to diversity outside of recruiting new legal talent. For instance, the firm can participate in or contribute to activities within the bar and in the community that promote diversity or that impact minorities. If the woman lawyer of color believes that her law firm is doing more than simply trying to reach a "critical mass" of minority lawyers, she is more likely to stay at the firm to advance from associate to partnership.
It does no good for law firms to pay lip service to diversity by hiring and retaining women lawyers of color for a specified time without allowing those lawyers an opportunity to advance to the partnership ranks of the firm. Law firms can equip women lawyers of color with the tools needed to move up to partner by clearly enunciating the criteria for partnership and by providing continuing training for these women as they move toward generating work of their own.
Beyond Simply Doing Good Work: Tips for Success for Women Lawyers of Color
Unfortunately, due to the low numbers of women lawyers of color in law firms, both at the associate and the partner level, it is rare that the mentor will be another woman of color. However, associates can seek out women of color at other law firms, often through involvement in specialty bar associations that cater to minority lawyers.
By encouraging law firms to focus on the importance of diversity in the legal workplace and by increasing inclusion and opportunities for traditionally excluded groups, such as women lawyers of color, the legal profession will make real and significant progress toward the goal of true equality and fairness.
About the Author
LaKeysha Greer Isaac is an attorney at Cosmich & Simmons, PLLC in Jackson, Mississippi, where she practices in the areas of general, commercial, employment and toxic tort litigation. She is a member of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and of the ABA Section of Litigation. She is an active member of the Mississippi Bar, the Magnolia Bar Association and the Hinds County Bar Association. She serves as co - chair of the Mississippi Bar/Young Lawyers Diversity in the Law Committee and was past co - chair of the Hinds County Bar Association's Diversity Committee.