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Statistics published by the American Bar Association show that despite many firms’ efforts, progress has been marginal.

How to increase diversity in your law firm

By Matthew Chaney
BridgeTower Media

The legal profession has a diversity problem.

Statistics published by the American Bar Association show that despite many firms’ efforts, progress has been marginal.

In 2017, women made up only about 35 percent of all active attorneys who participated in a national survey conducted by the ABA. Similarly, non-white attorneys made up only about 15 percent of that same pool.

The numbers are so low that in 2016, the ABA adopted a resolution urging legal employers and clients to create more opportunities for diversity in the profession.

But what can firms do to encourage more diversity?

BridgeTower Media spoke with a number of diversity chairs and hiring partners at firms throughout the country to find out what they’re doing to bring in more diverse talent and to find out how they work to keep them once they’re in the door.

Attracting diverse talent

Among those interviewed, most agreed that when it comes to finding qualified minority, LGBTQ and women candidates, it pays to recruit early and build what some called a “pipeline of diverse candidates.”

As Rudene Haynes, hiring partner at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia, put it, the idea is to build loyalty in the communities where your company does business.

“Hunton & Williams has used [internship programs] as an opportunity to invest in the best and brightest, to give them the opportunity to work early, fall in love and stay,” Haynes said.

Besides internships, firms use tactics such as offering scholarships, doing community outreach, providing and participating in networking opportunities and marketing their current diversity to get their names out there and attract the best diverse candidates.

Denise Gunter, the head of Nelson Mullins’ office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that her firm starts reaching out to diverse talent when they are still in high school.

“We partner with clients and high schools in Columbia, South Carolina, to deliver street law, diversity pipeline programs,” Gunter said. “Those are programs to help educate high school students about various legal issues, and that’s also a great way for us to start meeting people before college.”

She said that her firm also has partnered with historically black Claflin University in South Carolina to offer pre-law scholarships.

Jorge Leon from Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, which has locations throughout the country, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, said his firm encourages employees to do diversity-related pro-bono work to further the firm’s brand.

“You got to be there to inspire the next generation,” Leon said. “We’ve got to be there to help them out. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes good business sense and it makes good brand-building sense.”

When it comes to the actual act of hiring, many firms go the extra mile, by traveling to diversity hiring fairs like the Southeastern Minority Job Fair and establishing relations with historically black universities and minority law student organizations.

Many firms also focus attention on hiring laterally through affiliation in local and national diversity bar associations.

David Mackey of Anderson & Kreiger LLP in Boston said his firm was the recent beneficiary of such a lateral move when former U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz decided to join the firm after they hosted the gala for the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.

“Sometimes you just never know where those benefits are going to come from,” Mackey said.

Retaining diverse talent

For many firms, beyond attracting diverse talent, the problem is keeping it.

Almost everyone agreed about the importance of creating a culture of diversity at their firm. Haynes said that it’s one thing to have diverse employees, but another to have them working in significant leadership positions.

“It’s helpful if the diverse candidate can see role models in the firm,” Haynes said. “If you can see others in that position, it provides some inspiration and shows that it’s possible for you as well.”

One of the biggest factors in retention of diverse attorneys is whether they get paired with a quality mentor or sponsor who can direct them through the policies and politics of the firm while advocating for them.

“It’s not as easy as it might sound to find the right person for each new hire,” Anthony Rusciano of Plunkett Cooney in Michigan said.

Rusciano said that lack of quality mentorship often is the difference between an employee staying with a firm and walking out the door.

Allison Domson from Williams Mullen, based in Richmond, said that her firm has multiple affinity groups all overseen by the firm’s Diversity Committee: The Attorneys of Color Initiative, the Women’s Initiative and the LGBTQ Initiative.

She said the groups do a lot to provide social and professional support for associates while giving employees the chance to assume leadership roles.

Some firms also recommended participation in national diversity organizations like the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity which provides employees opportunities for networking and training that the firms sometimes cannot provide on their own.

Michelle Crockett from Miller Canfield, also based in Michigan, talked about the importance of having a formal system in place to check in with employees. She also talked about the importance of employees having equal opportunities for work.

“One of the biggest problems we see is people dying on the vine because they’re not seeing enough work,” Crockett said. “They don’t see a path forward. Work is the path to success.”

As a result, her company is considering hiring a dedicated work assignment coordinator to monitor every associate’s workload in every office and to work with leaders to ensure work is distributed fairly.

Many firms also participate in national surveys like the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. They say it serves as a good gauge for where the company is and helps give direction about where to go next.

“A lot of times those [surveys] can be good measures to see where you fall short and … what changes the firm might need to make,” Leon said.

It’s not just one thing

Almost everyone interviewed for this story made the comment that there is not a single thing that a law firm must do to create and maintain a culture of diversity. Rather, it is a combination of factors and policies put together to create change.

“It’s going to take a lot,” Crockett said. “You’re going to have to come at this in a lot of different ways in order to see some real progress.”

Beyond that, almost everyone agreed about the importance of having a top-down commitment to diversity, beyond anti-discrimination policies and diversity trainings.

“Just try stuff. The reality is that some of it may not work,” Crockett said. “Having firm leadership that understands that, appreciates that and supports that is critical.”

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