October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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Firstperson: Worst Practices in Law Firm Diversity
by Susan Hackett
As the senior vice president and general counsel of the American Corporate Counsel Association, I talk to a lot of lawyers of color, both inside and outside counsel. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) to hear some of their tales of diversity "worst practices."

Frankly, I think "worst practices" tales offer more valuable guidance than many "best practices." So here are some of the most common complaints about diversity practices, in hopes they will help you identify practices that your firm needs to address or overcome.

Focusing on Recruitment to the Exclusion of Retention and Promotion
Some firms are so anxious to hire more minorities that once they do, they think their work is done. They just sit back and wait for their newly diverse firm to bring it all home. They are stunned when their minority hires begin to leave or drop off the success track. While attrition levels for minority hires are higher than for other groups, let's face it--attrition among majority hires is a big problem at a lot of firms, too.

The lesson is that the work is just beginning once you've made a hire. The greatest investment in any new lawyer is not in the cost of hiring, but in developing the culture, support mechanisms and leadership initiatives that will ensure a lawyer's future success. In addition to the payoff you get by way of "return" from hires who stay with you, the larger benefits of cultivating a better work environment will rain down on everyone in the firm. What's good for minority and women hires--meaningful training, mentoring, challenging work, an equal chance to make mistakes and be reprimanded (and forgiven) for them, client development opportunities, balanced life options and the like--is good for every lawyer working in the firm. Address the issues that your minority lawyers are talking about, and you'll address the issues that will help your overall attrition figures improve.

"Ghetto-izing" Diversity Initiatives
Do you connect diversity initiatives to the firm's strategic goals, compensation, partner evaluation or other important initiatives and management priorities? If the firm relegates its diversity initiatives to an uncommitted committee made up largely of the minority lawyers and staff whom the initiatives are meant to serve, management gives the committee no meaningful power to make changes in the way business is done.

Failing to Assess Past Efforts or Set Measurable Goals
If you've had minority hires leave in the past, did you conduct exit interviews? Have you looked at your firmwide and practice area attrition and success rates, and then segmented those rates by race and gender and done something with the resulting information? Do you have a baseline understanding of where you are and specific ideas about where you want to go?

Once you begin a diversity initiative, you must measure your successes and failures mercilessly, collecting both the good news and the bad. Don't collect metrics just so that you can show "compliance" with firm goals and NALP-collected stats. This information should help you institute changes in your organization that will allow every member of your firm to prosper. Plot your performance over time so that you can do comparative year-to-year analyses. Connect bonuses and other appropriate compensation to the success of these efforts. And make sure that you continue to assess your efforts and add new goals along the way.

Aiming to Hire Only the Top 5 Percent from the Top Five Law Schools
How many times have you heard this one? "We won't lower our standards, and there aren't enough qualified minority candidates." What hogwash. Take a look at a recent survey published on the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's Web site (www.mcca.com). The survey, titled "What It Takes to Succeed," looks at the 2,000 top partner bios at the most successful law firms in the country--and it reveals some very interesting statistics. Only 48 percent went to a "top 10" law school, only 16 percent were on the law review, only 22 percent graduated with honors, and only 17 percent had a federal clerkship.

These stats indicate that the qualities it "takes to succeed" have little to do with what many firms list as top hiring criteria. So why not challenge your hiring committee to look for talent that offers a broader array of qualifications for success? The facts are in, and they dispel the "quality candidate" myth.

Take it from me: Diversity is increasingly important in assessing what it takes for a firm to prove its continued merit to a law firm department client. You should start looking into how your firm can take advantage of the natural edge that diverse firms have with corporate clients. If you don't believe me, take a look at the four criteria now used by the American Lawyer to decide who makes its "A list"--diversity is one and associate satisfaction is another. Avoid some of these worst practices and your firm will be closer to making the grade.


Susan Hackett ( hackett@acca.com) is Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the American Corporate Counsel Association, (202) 293-4103.