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Each year the National Association for Law Placement publishes demographic data on diversity in the nation’s largest law firms. Based on a report prepared for the Chicago Committee by NALP, over the past 10 years, attorneys of color have made mere fractional gains in their representation at the partnership level in these firms.

An article in the December 10 issue of The National Law Journal, “The Law Trails Other Professions in Ethnic Diversity,” focused on a Microsoft Inc. study concluding that the legal profession is diversifying at a slower rate than other professions with similar education and licensing requirements. In its study, Microsoft zeroed in on enhancing the education pipeline as a solution.

Although Microsoft correctly ­focuses on a need for enhancing the ­education pipeline, changing how attorneys of color fare once employed post-law school graduation is just as critical a factor in making true progress in diversifying the legal profession. Investing in the path to law firm partnership and to firm leadership for attorneys of color is at the core of our objectives at the Chicago Committee, a 25-year-old organization whose diversity mission centers on attorneys of color, primarily in large law firms.

Empirical research on law firm diversity suggests that the most significant way for law firms to positively affect the career trajectory of minority attorneys is to focus on talent development best practices. Moreover, research shows that changing the way that law firms have traditionally developed and managed their professional talent can directly improve law firms’ bottom line. The Chicago Committee has developed a set of tools for large law firms that is instrumental to supporting best talent-development practices. The tools, collectively called the Talent Development Initiative, include a base line diagnostic template, best-practices models and index criteria by which law firms can determine whether firm policies, practices and culture are as favorable as possible to retain minority attorneys.

In a letter sent last August to Illinois law firms, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, whose oversight mandate includes diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, endorsed the Talent Development Initiative and its goals. In that letter, the commission encouraged law firms to be intentional about achieving institutional diversity and urged them to consider using the initiative’s tools to achieve that goal.

OUTDATED TALENT DEVELOPMENT

The Talent Development Initiative is designed to overcome law firms’ continued reliance on an outdated talent-development model. Often referred to as the free market enterprise model, it is poorly equipped to prepare young lawyers for a legal industry dominated by megalaw firms serving megaclients that require specialized legal expertise on a large scale.

Moreover, it often results in inequitable and ineffective distribution of development opportunities. Traditionally, law firms hired good raw talent — defined primarily by law school and grade-point average standing — and relied on partners to train and sponsor these young lawyers by subject-matter rotation, delegation and supervision. Associate numbers were relatively small, associate attrition was relatively low and there was less lateral hiring. The system was workable.

Today, partners delegate their work to larger numbers of associates and rely on the more senior associates to supervise junior associates. Under these circumstances, high-quality talent development is not assured.

There is little to no oversight regarding the quantity, and equally important, the quality of work distributed to each associate. Distribution of high-quality assignments is often determined by the personal comfort level of a partner with a particular associate.

More often than not, this means that associates who are most similar to the partner doling out the work get the most and the best assignments, leaving attorneys of color out of this critical in-crowd whose membership defines the group most likely to successfully transition to partnership.

The Chicago Committee and forward-thinking firm leadership understand that more formal and professionally supervised talent-development systems are required to train, sponsor and retain qualified talent, especially attorneys of color.

A critical component of the Talent Development Initiative’s best practices includes work assignment systems designed to ensure entry-level associates of color get both quantitative and qualitative work assignments that will maximize their legal skills’ development. Another component is a ­competency model so that junior lawyers clearly understand the practice and relationship-building competencies they must have at each stage of their career to achieve partnership. A third component is regular, effective advice and consultation from partners about practice and career development.

It is noteworthy that several Chicago Committee’s member law firms have implemented all or some components of the Talent Development Initiative with favorable results, including Hinshaw & Culbertson; McDermott Will & Emery; and Seyfarth Shaw. The Chicago Committee will continue to follow and to report on the progress of firms that implement the Talent Development Initiative.

It is essential to be mindful that enabling the success of those who have passed through the pipeline will itself have an impact on those to follow.

Peggy A. Davis is executive director of the Chicago Committee. She is a former partner at Winston & Strawn and was general ­counsel for the Metropolitan Pier and ­Exposition Authority in Chicago and vice president for diversity and staffing at Exelon Corp.