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Law Practice Today

January 2023

Leading With An Eye On Diversity

Ben Grimes


  • Lead with a commitment to support your firm’s diversity (and your clients) will lead to financial benefits as well as changing the way people experience the practice of law.
Leading With An Eye On Diversity

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It has been nearly 10 years since Deborah Rhode wrote Lawyers as Leaders. Since then, the closed-door conversations about how we prepare lawyers to take on and excel in positions of responsibility have come much more into the open. Law schools have seen a proliferation of programs aimed at teaching leadership. They are trying to answer a need. Across the profession, lawyers are put into positions of influence, asked to build consensus around solutions, and tasked with organizing teams large and small to bring those solutions to life. Politician-lawyers work to solve problems on a national or international scale, and executive-lawyers in nonprofit organizations work to ameliorate human suffering at every level from global to neighborhood. In firms, lawyers are bringing diverse skills to meet client needs, whether that be addressing family dissolution disputes, billion-dollar acquisitions, matters of criminal consequence, or disputes between individuals and corporations. We recognize that our work is more than just having the client point us in a given direction. We have an obligation to “exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.” How we do so has real consequences, for our clients and our businesses.

Legal businesses, for my purposes, include our firms, in-house corporate legal offices, governmental legal offices, and all of the other variations of legal service providers. For convenience, I’ll refer to law firms, but the implications of lawyer leadership and the ideas that flow from them apply across the board. Pursuing leadership excellence should be a goal that is distinct from successful and efficient management.

Management is a focus on ‘getting the trains to run on time,’ on creating efficiencies of process and aligning resources against requirements. Leadership is about ‘setting the timetable’ and creating the environment within which client service is provided. Leadership, in this sense, has a dual purpose. One is the traditional, easily accessible, concept of making decisions and setting agendas. It is deciding what the firm is going to do and the broad strokes of what steps are necessary to achieve those ends. But law firm leadership is also about the how of execution, in that it must set the tone, and create the culture that supports the firm’s vision and values. A leader’s role in the firm is to translate vision and values into policy, practice, and daily behavior.

Managing a law firm requires more than simply delivering client service, and your ability to inject leadership into your management practice will change your business results. Even KPIs that seem purely financial – like realization rate and labor percentage – can be affected by leadership throughout your firm. For instance, spending on meaningful employee benefits rather than those that look good on a recruiting website but don’t actually support attorney and staff well-being increases labor percentage. Alternatively, focusing on attorney and staff-well-being can reduce health care spending and positively affect other metrics like employee absence and turnover rates, average billable hours, and client and employee engagement. One top-line metric to keep an eye on is associate (and partner) retention. We know that money is only part of the calculus when someone decides to leave a firm, and this is especially true when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). These things, ultimately, come down to law firm culture, and culture is a direct reflection of your firm’s leadership at every level.

The most common approaches to ‘fixing’ DEIB have been the creation and expansion of mentoring programs and a greater emphasis on sponsorship among senior leaders. The former is meant to accelerate an associate’s development and provide access and exposure to successful firm leaders; the latter provides support behind the scenes that can lead to opportunities to work on projects that allow an associate to demonstrate their skills on a bigger platform within the firm and with clients. Both mentorship and sponsorship are meant, in their own ways, to address what is often perceived as a ‘pipeline’ problem – the view that not enough qualified minority or underrepresented associates are available. Mentorship and sponsorship initiatives are a first foray into addressing the firm-specific barriers to full participation by minority and underrepresented attorneys, but they only offer a 1:1 benefit, and don’t address many of the root causes of discomfort and uncertainty for diverse associates. The problem isn’t one of pipeline and it is only partially (though not insignificantly) an issue of access and opportunity. The issue is culture.

Law firm culture is how we do what we do, the secret sauce that makes This Firm special. But This Firm was established and has developed in the greater context of the broader profession of law and with an emphasis on the external rather than the internal. Profits and client service – impact – are critical pieces of law firm success, but these often ignore the internal frictions and interactions that drive those external factors. Trust, authenticity, and well-being are powerful drivers of team success, and it is critical to remember that law firms are collections of teams. From individual client engagement teams, to litigation teams and practice groups, and management of the biggest firms, the business gets done by teams working together. But that work is done inside the firm’s ‘secret sauce,’ and the culture your firm sets has a huge impact on the experience your associates will have. A culture that does not operate with trust and mutual support or in which attorneys have to mask who they are because they fear being excluded from opportunities is one in which well-being suffers.

Your exit interviews may suggest associates (and partners) are leaving because of money or for “a new challenge,” but these should be taken with a grain of salt. Unless there was a major falling out, departing lawyers are likely to want to keep good relations and may sugarcoat their answers or avoid talking about the real issues altogether. Too often, lawyers are leaving because they just get tired of wearing a mask at work, tired of being someone else because that’s what’s required to get ahead. Because This Firm isn’t walking it’s DEIB talk.

There is an alternate path, and there is a business case to support the it's-just-the-better-way-to-operate argument. Addressing firm culture and creating an environment that embraces the diversity of our profession gives attorneys a reason to stay. Associate (and partner) loss can be reduced simply by changing the environment, and reducing attrition has significant downstream benefits. There are explicit cost savings to be had – recruiting, hiring, and onboarding cost money and partner resources; reallocation of client work can reduce efficiencies. Perhaps more importantly, though, are the intangible benefits. In addition to enhancing the firm’s reputation (helpful for recruiting both talent and clients), you can grow a bench of talent that can sustain the firm over time.

Culture change benefits everyone in the firm, but it has the most profound impact on minority and underrepresented attorneys and staff because they are the most likely to feel the need to alter how they operate or conduct themselves with the most emotional defenses in place. Leading through a DEIB lens isn’t difficult, and really only requires focus on a few key areas: language and aligning stated values with demonstrated values.

Language is the simplest change to make but it is evidence of the firm’s position on its values, generally, and its support for DEIB, specifically. Consider these alternative ways of discussing new DEIB initiatives:

To fix our DEI numbers, we need to do x.

Doing x will help us be the firm we want to be.

Taking action because of a need to fix a problem speaks to an external force dictating the terms of success and includes an inherent element of resistance. An outside force always faces some measure of opposition. When a firm acts from a place of want, a place of intrinsic desire, the barriers to action and adoption are much lower. There might still be some inertia to overcome – the classic, this is the way we’ve always done things – but action driven by choice rather than obligation will have greater resonance and swifter adoption. At the individual level, language is evidence of mindset. Even more, language can affect mindset, and how a leader talks about values or DEIB initiatives can change how they, and everyone around them, think about the need and value for change.

Aligning demonstrated values with articulated values is another key area of focus when leading for DEIB change. The first step here is to ensure that leaders at all levels have a common understanding of the values that drive the firm. That common understanding is not developed by having people read the website or a whitepaper or sit through an onboarding briefing.  Certainly a common understanding is initially established, but that has to be periodically reinforced by revisiting these values regularly. That common understanding of firm values is important to aligning firm policies and practices with those values and giving leaders at all levels a framework on which to base actions and decision-making in new or uncertain situations. Finally, aligning values and firm conduct should include the firm’s reward structure. This might include financial rewards and incentives, but it might also include non-monetary benefits (e.g., formal leadership positions) or, in extreme cases, actually transitioning attorneys out of the firm if they find their personal values in conflict with the firm’s.

At the individual level, leadership with a DEI lens means building trust in new ways. The goal is to offer a place where lawyers can offer their authentic service to clients, and the proof of success is in the authenticity of leaders at all levels. Leaders must be the first movers when it comes to trust and authenticity, and they have many ways to develop these. In doing so, it is important to realize that seniority and experience are not a proxy for authenticity, especially for minority and underrepresented attorneys. The profession is replete with examples of minority attorneys who take on very senior roles but still feel a need to ‘wear a mask’ to work. Authenticity is grounded in trust, and developing trust can, and should, start small. A senior attorney acknowledging a junior associate’s strength is an easy place to start. Far too often, associates are discovering their strengths through the absence of criticism rather than endorsement of success. A leader that can make that endorsement and acknowledge a personal weakness in the same area amplifies the building of trust. Small trust-building habits can form the basis for a profound shift in the environment your firm creates.

Ultimately, your firm’s leadership, at all levels, reflects your commitment to your values. Fostering a culture of trust and authenticity by teaching your attorneys – from senior associates to managing partners – to lead with a commitment to supporting your firm’s diversity (and that of your clients) can lead to financial benefits as well as changing the way lawyers, clients, and the public experience the practice of law. Leading through a DEIB lens – through a human lens – makes it possible.