A Mismatch: Minority Lawyers and Traditional Law Firms
Law firms often fall into the trap of believing they are succeeding in DEI when recruiting minority lawyers. This way of thinking is fundamentally flawed because of the familiarity complex.
Lawyers thrive in law firms by finding new clients and generating billable hours from such clients. Lawyers failing to do this generally do not make partner, and the resulting burnout often leads to them leaving the profession. To combat this problem, law firms often have their more seasoned lawyers and partners (i.e., the rainmakers) teach their new lawyers the skill sets deemed required by the majority to succeed in business development. However, the lawyers tasked with this job are primarily white male lawyers who have successfully found major clients who are often white males. This approach is often ineffective when inserting a minority lawyer into the mix.
Why? Well, it comes down to familiarity. Clients are governed by psychology, and as is quite common among us all to gravitate toward the familiar instead of the unfamiliar. I call this the “familiarity complex.” It’s innate within humans and often serves as a defense mechanism. For this reason, when a white male client decides between a white male outside counsel and a minority outside counsel, the client tends to go with what they are familiar with. The question then becomes how a minority lawyer can succeed in the shadow of familiarity.
Staying Competitive: Embrace Your Diversity
The key to minority lawyers staying competitive is by embracing who they are and what their uniqueness brings to the table. Minority lawyers may attempt to assimilate into the white male narrative pervasive in most law firms. This is a mistake because a minority lawyer can never be a white male lawyer. Ever. No matter how much law firms provide coaching and development, in the eyes of the white male client decision-maker, the lawyer is a minority lawyer. They are different—not someone the majority client is typically used to working with.
Instead of minority lawyers trying to be something they can never be, minority lawyers should first accept who they are. This is key because being a minority in America exposes one to incredibly challenging experiences completely foreign to the majority. Having to overcome these challenges daily builds a strong, resilient, and enterprising mindset to overcome obstacles that don’t present themselves in the life path of the majority.
Minority lawyers have always had to find alternative, less-traveled paths above or around obstacles. Having to do this decade after decade creates a superhuman skill within minorities, which is hidden deep down inside because minority attorneys erroneously believe that to be successful, they must act and behave the same as the majority. This is wrong. This flawed form of thinking has not worked. It will continue not to work, forcing many capable minority lawyers to endure years of stagnant career progression and ultimately exit the profession altogether. By tapping into their unique experiences and fundamental differences, minority lawyers can harness the power of being different as a competitive advantage in law firm business development.
Equity and Inclusion: Championing Diversity
Law firms should leverage the power of minorities being different. It’s this difference that is the minority lawyer’s competitive advantage. This is why it’s time DEI leaders develop minority attorneys in a completely different way. A way that leverages the immense power that comes from being different. I call this strategic retention.
Strategic retention should seek to help minority lawyers tap into the life experiences that have provided them with many skill sets to survive and thrive as minorities in America. Skill sets that are highly applicable to law firm business development and that their white male counterparts have not had the opportunity to develop. Law firms should come to accept the fact that most in-house decision-makers are in the majority. As such, they must provide training opportunities for minority lawyers to develop business in nontraditional ways to overcome the “familiarity complex.” The traditional method of teaching business development to minority lawyers isn’t working. It’s time for a change.
The Future of Diverse Lawyers
When minority lawyers finally change their mindsets, embrace their diversity, and become the leaders of law firms, you will ultimately see an incredibly powerful ripple effect through the entire legal industry.
Minority lawyers will leverage different life experiences and cultural learnings to aid them in resolving the most complex domestic and global legal challenges facing American companies. As no single corporation in America can claim to be completely unaffected by the global ecosystem, more and more American companies face international legal issues, which require interfacing with people of completely different cultures and social norms. At this intersection, you will see minority lawyers, particularly those of foreign descent, get the opportunity to shine by tapping into their global knowledge and perspective to resolve international legal issues.
And ultimately, when law firms embrace a different method of training minority lawyers in business development, you’ll see a better working relationship between in-house and outside counsel; even the way that the non-minority lawyers in law firms approach business development and client servicing of in-house counsel is not ideal. It is time for a change.