- Firms need to help their attorneys feel safe to be their authentic selves at work.
Tiffany, a first-generation Black college student, graduated at the top of her class at a prestigious law school and secured a position at a large law firm. Everyone was thrilled when she started, happily greeting her. She did whatever was asked of her, working long nights, attending firm events, and being as pleasant as possible while not sharing much of her personal life and certainly not anything much about her background. Tiffany worked long hours on complex matters with sometimes difficult partners who didn’t give much feedback. She rarely spoke with attorneys outside of her office or her practice group. After two years, Tiffany gave notice and left to move to another firm. Partners were stunned, as they had hoped she might be a future partner.
The Great Resignation and frantic pace of lateral hiring seem on the decline in the legal industry as we face rising inflation and a looming recession. But law firms still face a retention problem – the same one they’ve always had: retaining underrepresented attorneys or attorneys of color. Firms are bringing more underrepresented attorneys into their organizations than ever before (the summer associate class of 2021 was the most diverse class ever , but they’re not retaining them. National Association of Law Placement data showed that attorneys of color left their firms at “twice the rate of white associates.”
The reasons these attorneys leave vary from wanting more mentoring and training, more money, more growth opportunities, more attorneys of color in leadership roles, and not feeling like they can be themselves. But clearly, these attorneys did not see themselves in the firm’s future. If you do not feel connected to the organization and leadership or feel a sense of belonging, it is hard to see yourself in the firm's future.
Underrepresented attorneys may not entirely connect or authentically share who they are because they may not feel safe doing so. Looking at photos of the founders of a firm on the walls and seeing no one who looks like you can lead you to downplay any differences you may have. Of course, we can’t overlook the years of racism against people of color in our society and industry, ranging from discrimination to microaggressions; that can cause anyone to try to stay off the radar, avoid being vulnerable, and shun authenticity in the name of safety. It’s hard to share authentically who you are when you don’t trust how others around you will react, and you’re unsure if your workplace is a safe space to be vulnerable.
We’ve seen many underrepresented attorneys “button up” behind their suits: both physically keeping a very proper and professional demeanor at all times, and often keeping others at arms’ length to avoid discovery of anything different about them. Layer in imposter syndrome, and you end up with attorneys who may not want to share authentically, for fear of exposing themselves to be different from others or for fear no one wants them to share authentically because they might discover they are different.
Not authentically sharing leads to the exact problem attorneys may have sought to avoid in the beginning-seeming different from others and risking not fully connecting with them. People want to work with people they like and with whom they connect. We spend more time on a given weekday with colleagues and clients than with our loved ones. We have watched many politicians lose elections because voters didn’t feel they’d want to enjoy a beer with them.
Beyond that, getting promoted is hard when you’re trying to blend in and not draw any attention to yourself. Securing a promotion may depend not on your performance but on your exposure to the right decision-makers. But when you’re working so many hours/week behind closed doors or in your home office, it’s hard to get to know key stakeholders outside of the teams on your current matters. Beyond that, getting promoted is hard when you don’t share authentically. The hierarchical system of a law firm means associates don’t always get exposure to leadership - managing partners, executive committee members, and even equity partners who may hold power at promotion time. In large firms, decision-makers often are spread across the globe in various offices. Even in smaller firms, a hybrid workplace means attorneys may not spend much time with leaders in other practice groups.
From a well-being and motivational aspect, staying engaged through long hours is hard and often isolating work when you don’t feel connected to those around you. If you don’t feel a sense of belonging, it’s hard to see a place for yourself in your firm's future. It’s already hard to see yourself as a leader when you see few people who look like you leading the firm.
One key to retention is encouraging underrepresented attorneys to embrace their personal brand and share it authentically. When attorneys are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work, it can boost their confidence and productivity. Kevin Slaughter spoke at the 2022 annual meeting of the Legal Marketing Association, sharing how he spent a lot of time and energy hiding his background and “code-switching” when he first started practicing law: “For a long time, I was leaving a big part of me outside when I walked into a law firm, including perspectives from things I saw in my neighborhood growing up that you couldn't possibly see. But I was leaving all that out.”
Once colleagues encouraged Kevin to share himself more authentically and made clear their firm was a safe space for that, he realized that his code-switching was even hurting his work: “None of my clients or colleagues were getting everything I had to offer. I wasn't bringing my whole self. Once I stopped code-switching, now I have this amazing energy and confidence I bring to everything that has nothing to do with my M&A and contracting skills.”
Slaughter reported that his business development efforts have been much more successful now that he brings all his energy and confidence to everything he does and communicates who he is. “People react to what you put out. Code-switching and suffering from imposter syndrome negate your ability to be authentic and generates negative energy – you are literally not ‘ok’ with who you are, while authenticity generates positive energy.” Slaughter says he now creates more authentic and meaningful relationships that make his business development much more successful.
When attorneys share more authentically who they are, what they’re passionate about, and what’s important to them, they often find easier ways of connecting with colleagues, clients, and prospects not based on the matters they’re handling. During the COVID pandemic, attorneys reported better connections with clients once everyone was Zooming into each other’s home offices, living rooms, or kitchen tables. Our children, pets, and partners exposed the artifice of us having no roles from 9-5 other than “devoted attorney.”
Sharing authentically can help underrepresented attorneys build new connections and clients. Underrepresented attorneys often have smaller legal networks coming into practice if they were first-generation college students or come from a lower socioeconomic background. Boosting visibility can help expose these attorneys to other like-minded attorneys and clients, helping to build a community outside of their firms.
Learning to hone your brand and share it authentically is internal work attorneys need to take on, but leaders can take steps to encourage that work and help them further share to boost their visibility, foster a greater sense of belonging, and increase the chances of retention.
By taking these steps, you’ll have happier and more engaged attorneys who take their place in your firm's future, and perhaps more attorneys like Tiffany will stay in their firms.