Law Firm Diversity: How to Recruit and Retain Diverse Talent

The lack of diversity in the legal profession is not a new problem. Unfortunately, the crisis has existed for decades. What is new, however, is that the problem seems to be worsening. According the ABA, African American attorneys are losing ground in BigLaw.  The situation is so dire that some law firms have no partners or associates of color.

Despite these facts (or perhaps because of them), many law firms want to diversify their firms. But the desire to diversify – without more – will not create lasting change. This post will explain the challenges facing law firms and then provide tips for increasing law firm diversity.

Barriers to Law Firm Diversity

Attorneys of color face a number of obstacles at law firms. One of the first barriers is bias. At times, the bias is overt. For instance, when a legal recruiter publicly states that Black attorneys make too many mistakes to succeed in law firms, the bias is plain to see. However, most of the time, law firms and lawyers engage in implicit bias. Unlike overt biases, implicit biases aren’t directly stated. So, even a partner who believes he isn’t racist may grade a memo from a Black associate more harshly than one from a white associate.  Both explicit and implicit biases make it difficult for attorneys of color to succeed.

African American attorneys also lack the networks that promote success. As all lawyers know, making partner isn’t just about billing the most hours. It’s also about convincing the current partners that you belong. African American attorneys are less likely to have these social networks to help them up the partnership ladder.

Finally, some law firms simply haven’t done enough to create diversity. While most law firms make positive statements about diversity, few follow through on them. As a result, Black attorneys are left in the lurch.

First Steps Toward Law Firm Diversity

Though most law firms lack diversity, luckily, they can take steps toward addressing the problem. The first step toward law firm diversity is self-assessment. Firm leaders should take stock of the firm’s culture. Partners or other leaders should examine how attorneys – especially attorneys of color – feel about working at the firm. Gathering this information will let firms know where changes need to be made.

After assessing the current diversity climate at the firm, leaders should start by getting top management to value diversity. Those who resist should be reminded that diversity is not just the right thing to do. It’s good for the bottom line. Increasingly, clients are demanding that their outside counsel value diversity as much as they do. Firms that do not diversify their staffs risk losing millions in revenue.

Once top-tier management is on board, make diversity a priority. Include diversity in the firm’s mission statement and strategic plan. Create a budget for diversity initiatives. To prevent diversity from becoming just talk, create accountability measures. Include diversity in employee evaluations. Allow employees to bill hours spent on diversity work. These small actions will let employees know that the firm takes diversity seriously.

Recruiting and Law Firm Diversity

Of course, firms cannot become diverse without hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Here are some methods for recruiting African American attorneys:

  • Consider where you recruit. Recruiting at a limited number of schools will limit your firm’s diversity. Recruit at HBCUs, BLSA job fairs, and other places where Black attorneys abound. Post job ads in spaces where lawyers of color will see them.
  • Revamp your recruiting process. Use recruiting practices that minimize bias. Blind recruiting is one way to reduce bias. Another way is to ensure that the firm uses a diverse hiring committee to oversee the process. Be careful of using terms like “fit” to marginalize Black candidates.
  • Make diversity a recruiting goal. Let the hiring know that the firm expects them to meet certain goals at various steps. Requiring the committee to interview a certain number of diverse candidates is a good start.

Law Firm Diversity – Creating an Inclusive Environment

While recruiting diverse attorneys is a start, it cannot be the end. Getting attorneys of color in the door is only the beginning of the process. To ensure law firm diversity over time, the firm must create an environment where attorneys of color feel welcomed and valued. Here are a few things firms can do to create an inclusive environment.

  • Make the rules clear. The firm should adopt clear standards for how it expects its employees to be treated. All employees should be made aware of those standards.
  • Provide training. The firm should train all employees in the latest diversity and inclusion skills. At a minimum, employees should be trained to recognize and limit their own biases.
  • Mentoring matters. As stated, African American attorneys and other attorneys of color often struggle to create social networks with their white peers. Mentoring programs can bridge that gap and provide Black attorneys with much-needed social capital. The firm should encourage both formal and informal mentoring.
  • Create a diversity committee. A diversity committee can provide valuable feedback to the leadership. The committee can alert leaders to problems, make recommendations, or serve as a sounding board for new policies.
  • Hire a diversity chair. A diversity committee is valuable, but having a full time employee devoted to diversity is a major step in the right direction. The diversity chair can devote every hour to helping the firm achieve its diversity goal.

Law firms need diversity. Though the path to law firm diversity may not be easy, firms can take steps today that will lead to greater diversity tomorrow. If your law firm wants to recruit diverse attorneys, contact The African American Attorney Network. The Network is committed to helping the legal profession diversity by connecting law firms with quality legal talent.