September 01, 2015 Articles

Recruiting Is Only the Start: 7 Tips for Retaining and Mentoring Diverse Attorneys

What are some best practices to improve retention and diversity at all levels?

By Danny Van Horn

Many law firms and legal employers talk openly about the importance of diversity and some do a pretty good job at recruiting diverse attorneys at entry level positions. Few can show real progress at more senior levels. While a necessary first step, it is simply not sufficient to talk about diversity and to recruit diverse attorneys at entry-level positions without there also being progress at more senior levels. We all have to get much better at retaining them and helping them develop into productive more senior attorneys.

Of course, that is easier said than done. What are some best practices that legal employers can follow to improve retention and ultimately diversity at all levels within their organization? Here are seven suggestions:

  1. It starts with honest recruiting. You have to be honest about the skill set really required to succeed in your organization. Don’t just list certain grades or clerkships or law review opportunities because that is what you have always done. You need to really think through the skill set entry-level applicants and employees need succeed. You then need to be honest with the people you are recruiting about what those skills are and how you see the candidate in terms of having or lacking certain skills. If for diversity purposes you are providing an opportunity to someone who otherwise does not fit your hiring criteria, you need to be honest about that and explain how you are going to help that candidate get up to speed with everyone else in short order. There needs to be a shared understanding as to where that candidate stands and what he or she needs to do to succeed. Yes, this honesty may result in the candidate declining the job offer. The point of honesty at the outset is to set expectations and demonstrate transparency. In the end, what people want is an honest opportunity to shine. If things don’t work out, there is a greater chance for understanding if the criteria were explained fairly and thought out well. More importantly, there is a greater chance that the candidate will rise to the occasion.

  2. Find the right mentors. In every organization that I know of, those who make it and succeed did so in no small part because those who came before them opened doors, picked them up when they were down, and helped guide them along the way. Before the new hire comes in, identify someone who agrees to be that new hire’s champion. It is critical that the mentor not be stereotyped: don’t automatically pair a new female associate with a more senior female. Of course, it is helpful to have senior attorneys to talk with who have shared your experiences and have a common background. But it is a mistake to start and stop at that premise. There’s no reason a new hire can’t and should have more than one mentor. The first principle in selecting a mentor is finding someone really ready to look after and champion the new hire.

    The mentor relationship needs to be reevaluated periodically. The mentor may not be doing their job. There may not be a good personality fit between the two. Don’t let a bad pairing remain in place just because that was the decision the first day. Perhaps most importantly, ask the younger hire how they feel about the mentor relationship after they have been in it for a time. Ask them who they would like as a mentor if they could choose anyone. Then work to make that happen.

  3. Develop a career checklist. As soon as possible, create a career checklist for the new hire. For example, it might include, “By the end of your first year here, you should have argued a motion in court or taken a deposition.” Then put milestones on each skill set or accomplishment. The new hire, their mentor, and any management in the organization should periodically review that checklist to see how the hire is progressing. The checklist can then also be used to look for good experience and opportunities for that hire. One of the worst things a legal organization can do is hire a diverse attorney “for the numbers” and include them in various marketing pitches and marketing collateral but fail to give them substantive work and an opportunity to shine. At the very least, if you included a diverse attorney in a marketing pitch and got the work, they should be heavily involved in the work.

  4. Give honest feedback. It’s not easy to hear when our work has not met expectations. If we are honest with ourselves, honest feedback is a great opportunity to grow and learn—even if it’s painful. If you avoid telling a diverse attorney that the work they did was less than expected for fear that your honest feedback will be perceived as showing improper bias, then you do that attorney, your organization, and yourself no good. Problems are created when people are consistently told that they are doing well when they are not or when they are simply not given any feedback at all. To give honest feedback, there needs to be a relationship such that the person receiving the feedback understands that you are trying to help them grow and that you believe in them. Communicate that you have high expectations for the diverse attorney and want to help them succeed and achieve those expectations. Like anyone else, they may not like hearing the negative feedback at first. They may have gone a very long time without anyone telling them that they did anything that was less than stellar. Understand that too. Commit to enough of a relationship that you can ride out any initial reaction you get. Keep caring, and in the long run they will appreciate you for it. The flip side of this: Don’t give glowing praise when it’s not warranted. That’s just as bad. In order for this to work, you need regular, honest feedback.

  5. Career planning. Every now and then, talk with these hires about career planning and about the extracurricular things they can and should be doing to further their career and advancement opportunities. Take them to meetings and conferences. Introduce them to your contacts. Groom them as you would anyone else you wanted to see succeed. Help them develop a vision and a career path. Part of that is, of course, listening to them and asking them what they see as their long-term goal. Challenge them to write a fake ideal resume that would be theirs in five or ten years, and then work backward from what that picture looks like to today. Then build a plan with them to work toward that ideal resume.

  6. Social opportunities. Retention in any organization is about more than just professional opportunities. It helps to know and like your coworkers. So, get to know them. What are their hobbies or interests? What about their personal lives? Invite them to dinner and to meet your family. Show them that there are important things about getting to know the people at work. Invite them to play golf or to have dinner with other friends. Work to get to know their network and help them get to know your network. It is much easier to care about someone that you know. Get to know them and help them get to know you.

  7. Look out for them. There is, will be, or has been a point in all our careers where we quite frankly messed things up. From that vantage point, the view can be bleak. If the person you are mentoring or another diverse attorney in your organization makes a big mistake, take that opportunity to reach out to them, lift a helping hand, and encourage them. That is also a great inflection point to provide honest feedback and career-planning covered by other points. Always remember to communicate with an attitude of care and friendship. It will go farther. If the screw up is so bad that it is unrecoverable, sometimes the best thing you can do is to help buy that person more time and help them find another job. If you can’t retain them in your organization, retain them as a friend and contact. It is a small world. We do reap what we sow.

Retention is as important as recruitment. The keys to retention are honest communications, a shared vision for development and success, and genuine concern for the person. These goals are much easier said than done, but the path to success in retention is not a mystery. Is your organization measuring its retention? Is your organization focused on efforts to retain folks that it has already hired? You should be.


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