Law Firm Diversity: What Can You Do About It?

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During the summer of 2001, I was one of 50 law students chosen to work as a summer associate in the Washington, DC office of an international law firm. Coming from Indiana to the place commonly called “Chocolate City,” I expected to see a diverse class of summer associates. But as I looked around the room, I didn’t see any other African Americans and only a few other law students of color. This lack of diversity concerned me, so I boldly expressed my concerns during a training session. I distinctly remember pointing out the irony of a summer associate class that did not reflect the diversity of Washington, DC.

In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so bold, based on the shocked reactions of the others in the room! However, I was keenly aware that if the summer associate class was not diverse, then the associate classes and partnership levels likely weren’t diverse either—and this lack of diversity could potentially impact my career progression at that particular firm.

As an associate at law firms in Texas and Washington, DC, I have experienced firsthand the importance of seeing someone who looks like me in the higher ranks of the firm. Diversity in the upper echelon of law firms sends a clear message that “I can do it too!” One only has to look at the leadership of most major firms to understand the diversity challenges facing law firms where the top positions are overwhelmingly held by White males.

So what happens to my career motivation if I don’t see attorneys of color or female attorneys progressing to the top ranks of leadership in major law firms? I’m likely to feel discouraged by my apparently dismal career prospects…

My concerns that day in 2001 still exist today—and maybe to an even greater extent, given the economic challenges of the past decade. As law firms become more selective in their hiring decisions, diverse attorneys may find themselves standing outside the fancy glass offices of the top law firms in the country, rather than sitting at the associate and partnership tables. I believe most law firms see the value of diversity, especially as corporate clients become more sophisticated in their demands for diverse legal teams working on their matters. But what can law firms do to improve diversity at all levels?

I don’t claim to have the magic answers, but I think targeted recruitment efforts and retention strategies may help law firms increase the number of diverse associates and partners walking those elite marble hallways.

Recruitment Efforts
Recruitment of diverse attorneys begins well before law school, and many organizations and programs already exist, so there’s no need for law firms to recreate the wheel. Instead, active involvement in and support of existing programs is needed. So-called “pipeline” programs help expose diverse students to the legal profession early. For example, Just the Beginning – A Pipeline Organization® (www.jtb.org) offers programs for middle, high school, college, and law students. Also, the Council on Legal Education Opportunities (www.cleoscholars.com) works with high school and college students preparing to apply to law school.

These are just a couple of examples—others include the National Black Pre-Law Conference (www.blackprelawconference.org) and Urban Debate Leagues (www.urbandebate.org). Additionally, the American Bar Association and the Law School Admission Council created the Pipeline Diversity Directory, which is a searchable database of programs (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/diversity/diversity_pipeline/resources/pipeline_diversity_directory.html).

Although financial contributions are helpful, law firms can also support programs like these by donating attorney time. For instance, law firms can allow attorneys to receive billable hours credit for mentoring students and participating in shadowing programs. Students in these programs need to see themselves reflected in the legal profession, and by giving attorneys credit towards billable hours for their work with these students, both sides of the equation benefit.

Retention Strategies
Having a diverse pool of candidates to choose from is essential for law firms to increase diversity. However, these efforts must not stop with recruitment. Law firms must also develop strategies to retain diverse talent within the associate and partnership ranks.

Involvement in professional organizations such as the National Diversity Council (www.nationaldiversitycouncil.org), Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (www.alfdp.com), and the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (www.theiilp.com) is important, so firms can stay abreast of developments in the industry. Law firms may also discover diverse lateral hire candidates by participating in local, state, and national bar associations.

Additionally, firms should continue to provide professional development activities on topics such as legal research and writing, client and business development, oral advocacy, and deposition training, among others. These courses can be offered in person or as webinars, podcasts, or video chat, which will allow diverse attorneys to learn from many different experts in the legal field.

Formal mentoring programs for new attorneys are also necessary, because mentors can share insight, practical guidance, and advice on navigating the rigors of a law firm career and meeting the expectations of the firm.

Finally, law firms should consider providing professional coaching services for associates who are on the partnership track. These coaching sessions can be tailored to the specific needs of rising associates, as a supplement to mentoring and professional development programs.

With the support of law firms, diverse attorneys can develop the skills necessary to achieve and maintain success as leaders in their firms. And as law firms work to improve the diversity landscape, future attorneys will be able to say, “I CAN DO IT TOO!”

*After spending most of her legal career as a commercial litigator, T.K. Floyd decided to take a leap of faith to start her own family law practice based on her desire to help build and strengthen families in her community. She is also a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern. You can learn more about Ms. Floyd by visiting her website at www.tkfloydlaw.com.