September 13, 2019 Articles

“It Takes A Village”: How to Help Diverse Lawyers Navigate from Associate to Partner in Big Law Firms

What role do all attorneys play in the new development of new lawyers?

By Cory Patterson

We have all heard the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” While this precept has commonly been attributed to African sources, its origins are unknown. In any case, this proverb best describes the true path to success for, and within, law firms big and small when it comes to moving diverse associates through the law firm ranks to partnership within the firm. The one element missing from the proverb, which would make it more fruitful as a guideline for lawyers, is the word “support.” It takes the unwavering and active support of the village to guide an associate to the partnership level. That statement cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to attorneys of color, female attorneys, and LGTBQ attorneys in a big law firm setting. There is no question that over the past 20 years, we have all watched as diversity among attorneys has decreased not only in the partnership ranks—historically and consistently far below what it should be in relation to the population of the legal profession—but even in the associate ranks. Most observers have attributed this decrease in diverse talent to a pipeline problem. One might assume that the pipeline must be drying up if we are seeing such a significant overall decrease in diversity in the pool of attorney talent.  This assumption could not be further from the truth. Although the problem as to why we are seeing a decrease in diverse associates in large law firms is multi-faceted, one significant reason is that large law firms have lost (or perhaps never truly cultivated) the concept of the supportive “village.” Law firms, especially large law firms, have stifled the growth of their diverse attorneys by simply relying on statistics as a demonstration (or advertisement) of their efforts to create a more diversity-friendly environment—often providing lip-service when it comes to substantive work, by embellishing their inclusion, and providing a diversity and inclusion illusion to their clients. No matter the diversity initiative or plan, there cannot be upward mobility of diverse associates, or any associates for that matter, without a supportive environment and culture. 

For any associate to thrive in a large law firm environment, they must have a village around them for support. The support of the “village” is paramount to the success of the associate rising through the law firm’s ranks and making it to the level of equity partner. This is even more apparent and evident when it comes to diverse attorneys. Attorneys enjoying inclusion in the ranks of the majority race or gender of a firm seem to immediately be brought into the fold of that firm. By being embraced instantly by the firm, they enjoy support out of the gate, leaving diverse attorneys without a similar level of support. Oftentimes in large firms, diverse attorneys are left to “sink or swim.” Left on their own, diverse attorneys must conform and assimilate to their environment or they will not flourish within the law firm. This scenario is not new or novel; it is the exact same scenario that has plagued the push for more diversity within the large law firms for years. Most importantly, this situation has stifled the progress of diverse attorneys in their efforts to make it to the level of equity partnership. Large law firms have consistently, and, quite frankly, disingenuously touted diversity and inclusion without taking ownership of their own firm “village.” They have established diversity initiatives and inclusion plans only to watch as the number of diverse associates dwindles, a situation even more evident when one looks within the partnerships ranks and management of the large law firms. Even though diversity and inclusion has been a hot topic for possibly more than two decades, its impact within our legal community continues to fall flat because of our failure to encourage the most basic principle in our society: community. In other words, a failure to support the “village.”

Large law firms must recognize that it takes the support of the entire village to bring their diverse attorneys from budding associates to thriving equity partners. So how does your village operate? How does your village support its associates? Are your associates expected to assimilate and conform? Or are the associates allowed to be themselves and expand the culture of the law firm? It is incumbent upon all the lawyers in the firm to do their part in making the “village” cohesive and supportive. Are all the partners within the firm buying in to the notion of promoting all associates to partnership? Gone are the days in which law firms can accept bringing in ten to twelve associates, expecting that only three to four (if any) will make it to partnership.

All lawyers within the firm must play a part. But the tone and culture of the firm comes from the top. Executive-level management within the law firm must be “all in” when it comes to bringing diverse attorneys through the ranks to partnership. The executive level management within the firm should be carrying the flag of support for their diverse associates. This can be done not simply by assigning mentors within the firm, although this is very helpful, but becoming mentors themselves. Executive management within the firm should be hands on in the development of diverse attorneys. Our profession is, and always has been, relationship-based. The relationship of executive management to their diverse attorneys paves the way for those diverse attorneys to make partner. The relationship with executive-level management is the blueprint for the success of diverse associates. To take it a step further, the buy-in from executive-level firm management is the catalyst that pushes and projects diverse attorneys through, and clears the path for their success.

While executive-level management provides the blueprint, all equity and non-equity partners have a vital role in being a part of the supportive “village.” One way for them to partake in this effort is personal responsibility for a diverse associate. When associates come in, they rely on the firm’s partners to provide them work. Partners must give diverse attorneys substantive work. Too often, diverse associates are treated like over-glorified paralegals—doing the law firm “house work,” or tasks that have no legal significance. Diverse attorneys need meaningful work that allows them to interact professionally with clients early in their development. Partners within the law firm need to have ownership of the work that they are providing their diverse associates and need to be aware of how that work assists that associate in making it to partner. In addition, each partner must feel a sense of responsibility in the development of all associates. For the village to be supportive, there must be a consistent mindset among the majority of the members of the village that they are taking ownership of the success of the diverse attorneys.

The remaining lawyers in the firm—of-counsel and associates alike—also have an important role in providing a network of support. There is no question that management and the older partners have the lion’s share of the duty in creating an environment to assist diverse attorneys in progressing through the firm, but all associates, majority and diverse alike, need to support each other. Inviting each other to lunch, assisting each other with projects and research, getting to know one another, and developing a strong professional relationship, are paramount factors in the success of all the associates.

The success of a law firm is based on the production of its attorneys. By embracing a more village-centered atmosphere in the law firm setting, everyone has an ownership interest in the success of the firm. Diverse attorneys are making headway throughout large law firms, but the change that we want to see will continue to be fleeting until more law firms start embracing a supportive village environment. Diversity and inclusion within our legal profession must do the same. We are all a part of a collective legal village. It is imperative that we all ban together as a village and support each other as we seek to make our profession more diverse and inclusive of all attorneys. All of this can be summed up in another African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Our diversity and inclusion as a profession will not go where we want it to go unless we all go together.

Cory B. Patterson is an associate with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd in Greenville, South Carolina.


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