DEVELOPING DIVERSE LAWYERS: Solutions to Consider
Professional development tends to be hard hit in a down economy, when most law firms are focused on the short-term fixes rather than their long-term interests. Any part of a budget that doesn't directly impact the profits of the firm is at risk. Diversity, in particular, looks to be getting short shrift. This is shortsighted on the part of firm managers, to say the least.
With law firms across the country being forced to tuck and trim their budgets, they are also, consciously or unconsciously, going through the process of reevaluating their values and cultural modes of operation. This is a real opportunity to rethink how to break down stratification within firms.
In more than a few firms, especially ones where diversity is given short shrift, stratification in the ranks may have limited the ability to adapt to today’s changing environment. The truth is, cultivating a wide array of ideas and experiences through inclusion programs isn’t just socially responsible policy for a law firm—it’s good business practice that helps a firm meet the diverse demands and problem-solving needs of clients and the economic circumstances. So when firms cut initiatives meant to recruit and mentor diverse lawyers, they may unwittingly reinforce stratification within the firm and limit the firm’s ability to bring appropriate perspectives to client work.
In the previous installment of Managing, I spoke with Terri Hartwell Easter, a former AmLaw 200 CEO and one of the first African-American women to head a law firm, who is now a consultant to firms on diversity issues. She discussed the current issues surrounding diversity in law practice, the economy’s effect on inclusion efforts, and why so many diversity initiatives fail. (See the July/August issue at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.) Here, in the second part of our interview, she offers ideas on what firms can do to improve their diversity efforts.
In our earlier conversation, you described the problems surrounding the failure of diversity initiatives—including a lack of financial consequences for firms, differing standards for measuring success and inadequate professional development. What else are firms missing when it comes to reducing the disproportionately high turnover of minorities?
TE: There is no argument that the turnover rate among diverse lawyers is too high and, even more troubling, so is the failure rate. Diverse lawyers often fail because they are not developed properly but also because they feel isolated. What is sometimes missed in that regard is that the “best and brightest” of diverse lawyers are individuals who were accustomed to success in every aspect of their lives before coming to your law firm. These individuals are the apples of not only their immediate and extended family’s eyes but of their communities, their educators and often their sports coaches.
Then they land an offer to be an associate, and after “summering” on fine dining and fun as their initiation to the firm, they find themselves working long hours at the bottom of the lawyer ranks, isolated from their support networks and often outcast from the firm’s social network, too. For some, this steep fall in status hits with no emotional or experiential base to fight the conditions, and so flight feels like the only alternative. Of course, not every situation fits this pattern, but many do.
So are firms making any progress at all in their inclusion services and programs? How can firms increase diverse attorneys’ overall satisfaction and success in the practice of law?
TE: Firms are trying to make incremental changes to processes that affect their minority lawyers, but some programs are just too broken to be fixed—they need to be re-engineered. All firms, however, can benefit by implementing the following types of initiatives, many of which would aid in developing non-minority lawyers as well.
- Better initial development, with credits for training. The idea of having law students intern in order to learn about a firm’s work and culture is great. But instead of the wining and dining, how about investing those dollars in giving experienced lawyers billable-hour credit for training newcomers over the summer so that the frequency and quality of the training offered is increased? This kind of specific skills instruction is a good head start for new lawyers and also gives law student-interns a better picture of whether their skills match the standards and culture of the firm.
In addition, every new lawyer should be given some number of billable-hour credits in the first year to train, allowing them to learn at a more realistic pace so that early assignments can be done over until they are correct. The idea that new lawyers are left to fend for themselves and then are penalized for devoting “excessive” hours on projects is counterproductive. For diverse lawyers especially, this circumstance can be fatal.
- Senior lawyers in mentoring positions. I believe putting more senior lawyers in these training roles is a very good idea. It is a valuable service to the firm for a lawyer who may be winding down his or her practice and who can provide for natural mentoring. Moreover, senior lawyers can be really credible advocates for the younger lawyer’s development in the firm.
- Mandatory performance evaluations. Performance evaluations should be required after every assignment in the first year. Yes, that sounds like a lot of investment, but it should be undertaken. Everyone should be clear about whether the lawyer is making the grade or not, and decisive performance action should be taken if the lawyer’s future doesn’t look promising. The idea of letting diverse lawyers “hang out” hoping they will get the message that they aren’t doing well because work assignments dwindle only serves as a bad model for other diverse lawyers. They can’t help but wonder, “Will this happen to me?” I call this the “dead fish in the pond” syndrome. It is humiliating to let a person languish in this way. Diverse lawyers especially need more feedback, again, because oftentimes there is no natural mentoring happening for them.
- Individual coaching by professionals. As lawyers advance, firms should routinely provide individual coaching for them. I am a big fan of professional coaching. In the dirty laundry of far too many firms there is a report card on mentoring with a grade of “C” or below. Let’s admit the truth, the best mentors in a firm are too busy to do much mentoring work—so rather than do it poorly, just outsource it. In this case, the outsourced model is better because a coach can be a more effective mentor by serving as a liaison to the firm in a constructive way while honoring confidentiality boundaries. Coaches can have a more honest relationship and a stronger trust bond with the lawyer, providing brutally honest feedback about a lawyer’s progress and investment in his or her career and personal development issues.
What closing thoughts do you have for our readers?
TE: Even in this chaotic time, new opportunities abound. There are many very good and promising diverse lawyers who are unemployed or underemployed, and while cultivating them may not be the planned expense to incur, it may be a strategic one to think about. If you have diverse lawyers who are languishing in your firm, you should take decisive action to improve their situations through more effective management as soon as possible.
Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of the ABA book Recruiting Lawyers: How-to Hire the Best Talent.