January 22, 2020 Feature

Recruiting and Keeping Diverse Talent Challenges Firms

By Nancy Kisicki

This article originally appeared in the ABA/Bloomberg Law Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct in October 2019.

A lack of diversity and inclusion and a significant gender pay gap are persistent problems in the legal profession, but law firms have options for tackling these issues.

In an October 2019 Aon Law Firm Symposium session entitled “Rising to the Challenge: Achieving Gender Pay Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Law Firms,” panelists offered suggestions for identifying, hiring, and keeping diverse lawyers.

Identifying diverse talent doesn’t mean lowering standards, the panel said, but simply requires casting a broader net and rethinking the pipeline typically used to identify new lawyers. Ideas included searching at a broader range of law schools, recruiting at affinity bar associations and asking members of the firm to recommend lawyers they already know.

Panelist Patricia Brown Holmes, a partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LP, suggested recruiting laterally from firms beyond the “top” law firms, as well as contacting experienced individuals returning after having left the work force. Such lawyers might begin in part-time or of counsel status, and later increase their involvement.

Diversity efforts have measurable effects when it comes to supporting clients. As Giselle Perez de Donado, Global Chief Employment Counsel at Aon, observed, having lawyers with diverse backgrounds ensures you have the best possible fit for any type of matter or claim. Brown Holmes agreed that the more diverse the firm is, “the more likely you are to have a person who fits the bill.”

The panel agreed that clients have been increasingly assertive about their expectations for diversity and inclusion in the firms they hire. Joseph K. West, a partner and the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Duane Morris LLP, noted that Microsoft awards a 3% annual bonus to firms meeting diversity and inclusion goals.

And each of those goals—diversity and inclusion—must work hand in hand. Perez de Donado said that firms have made progress on diversity, but work remains to be done on inclusion. West emphasized that once a law firm has succeeded in attracting diverse talent, it’s “important to hold onto that talent and not to let it wither and die on the vine.”

Accepting Differences, Countering Bias

The first step toward inclusion, Brown Holmes explained, is accepting that there’s something different, and not doing so contributes to individuals’ malcontent. “It’s okay to call me black,” she said; “if you say you don’t see color, then you don’t see me.”

She related an experience in which she and three other minority partners sat together at a dinner. When challenged by another partner who felt this was offensive, she responded, “Why do we have to split up?” and pointed out that he was sitting at a table of all white males.

Brown Holmes indicated that interaction between minority partners helps them feel accepted, included and comfortable, and should be encouraged.

West recommended that firms examine whether implicit bias at various “choke points” impedes the development of talent. The tipping point, he explained, is not getting good work assignments, with reduced client exposure and reduced hours following from that. His firm has addressed this issue by rotating assignments, giving everyone an opportunity to grow, develop and succeed.

West also described a study in which a legal memorandum containing mistakes was reviewed by 60 diverse law firm partners. Half the graders were told that the associate who wrote it was Caucasian, and half were told that he was African American. Those who were told that the associate was African American identified three times as many errors, suggesting the memorandum was reviewed with a more critical eye.

Moreover, the memo was graded a full point lower by those who were told that its author was African American, with corresponding comments: “Are you sure he works here?” vs. “he made a few mistakes.”

Addressing the Gender Pay Gap

Moderator Jennifer Finnegan, Senior Vice President and Executive Director at Aon’s Loss Prevention Group, cited statistics showing that in 2018, male partners made 53% more than female partners. West said that factors contributing to the gender pay gap include an affinity bias causing decisionmakers to reward people who look like them, and life choices made by women that result in a gap that follows them throughout their careers.

To address the gender pay gap, West recommended both equity and transparency.

Brown Holmes explained that her firm determines compensation according to the lawyer’s contribution to the client team. The system recognizes that it takes a team to keep a client happy and ensures that everyone on the team feels valued.

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By Nancy Kisicki

Nancy Kisicki is Associate Counsel at the American Bar Association, Chicago.