X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Retention has finally become a major focus of efforts to promote diversity in large law firms. Fueled by Sara Lee Corp. General Counsel Rick Palmore’s “A Call to Action,” an increasing number of general counsel of major companies are hiring and firing law firms based on actual performance with diversity. Impressive hiring successes alone are not enough to satisfy such companies, as higher rates of attrition among minorities and women make it difficult to show numerical improvement from year to year. Law firms thus recognize the need to do something meaningful about retention, but many are confused about what best to do. This article offers some frank ideas about how they should proceed. Minority and women lawyers, like their white male colleagues, leave firms for a variety of reasons, many unrelated to diversity concerns or other factors that law firms can address. The principal reasons for the higher attrition rates among minorities and women, however, have a common origin. And they can be addressed effectively through a universally applicable set of strategies. The elements of these strategies can be reflected in a strategic retention model. They are neither mysterious nor complicated, but they do require taking a step back in order to appreciate fully some fundamental matters about the “business” aspects of law firms that may be taken for granted by leaders. (The focus here is on large law firms, but this model will work for other legal environments, too.) Most minorities and women leave law firms because they do not believe that they are succeeding, or that they can be successful, in their particular firms. One can call this the “success horizon” perception. When the success horizon is positive, most people stay and strive to reach it; when it is negative, they leave. Everyone knows intuitively that the oft-stated “better opportunity” elsewhere is frequently a rationalization for a perceived negative success horizon at the current firm. There are some genuine exceptions, but they do not account for the higher rates of attrition among minorities and women relative to white males. The key to retention thus begins with identifying the factors for minority and women attorneys to be successful in the firms, and it ends with actively seeking to empower them with the tools to meet those factors. Along the way, a dose of atmospheric change may be required to address important intangibles, such as the “comfort factor.” That key will open everything else. Business fundamentals The factors for success, of which six are fundamental, are quite straightforward and are applicable to all young (and even older) lawyers, regardless of race, ethnicity or sex. Ironically, that may cause them to be taken for granted and left unattended. Focusing on the individual attorney, they are: Development of high-quality legal skills to do a type of work that the firm values. Opportunities to do significant work, on significant projects, for significant clients. Development of a high profile or stature, both within and outside the firm. Recognition by (and support from) important leaders of the firm and one or more of its significant clients. Perception within the firm that the lawyer is a valuable “business asset.” Awareness and confidence by the lawyer or employee that the first five factors are being met. There is nothing extraordinary among these factors, although the explicitness of the “business asset” concept may be jarring to some. The problem arises when a law firm does not articulate clearly and focus systematically on these factors in dealing with its minorities and women.
DIVERSITY ‘Invisible’ attorneys seek notice Senior attorneys fall by the wayside True diversity means putting the focus on retention Women hold the keys to their success The carrot didn’t work, so clients apply the stick Trying for an early start on the ‘diversity pipeline’

In addition, a few of the factors are currently more challenging for most minorities and many women, which is a reality that even many proponents of diversity resist facing because of concern that it weakens the business case for diversity itself. That is a false concern, but such resistance can hamper recognition of the need to act strategically to empower minorities and women to meet these business factors. Take the perception that an attorney is valued within the firm, for example. It should be the result of success with the factors that precede it on the above list, but it carries independent significance. If it is not occurring automatically as a result of focusing on those underlying factors, then specific things can and should be done to ensure that it occurs. Somewhat similar is the last business factor above, which is confidence that the first five are being met. The importance of this seems obvious, but it goes begging in most large law firms until it is too late. Firm managers tell the person, after learning that he or she has decided to leave, how much they really love him or her and how bright they see the future for the person at their firm. Managers cannot assume that a young lawyer who is doing well will automatically know and appreciate that fact. Moreover, they must recognize that some elements of a predominantly white-male environment might mask that recognition and appreciation by a minority or woman attorney. Law firm leaders cannot indulge a belief that their firms are color-blind or gender-neutral, regardless of how much they might wish that they were and strive for them to be. The importance of the “business asset” concept cannot be overstated, even if embracing it makes people uncomfortable. Seen clearly, it is neither politically incorrect-if one places any value in political correctness as a virtue per se-nor otherwise impolite for candid discussion in running a business. And, of course, running a business is precisely what law firm leaders are doing and must do. To do so effectively, they will see most things in hard-nosed terms of resources, assets, value-enhancers (or value drains) and so on. Personnel matters should be treated no differently, and neither should the matter of personnel diversity. It is appropriate, therefore, to recognize this important business factor and call it by its proper name. At the end of the day, whether a minority or woman attorney (junior or senior) is, and is perceived to be, a valuable business asset of the firm will define his or her success horizon there. Accordingly, it is at the center of the strategic retention model. Unstated as a separate factor is the concept of being perceived as responsible for significant business for the firm. It is embedded within the concept of valuable “business asset,” although it properly includes other elements of value. Whether a minority group member or woman attorney (especially as he or she becomes more senior) is responsible for significant business at the firm will be, in most situations, a key component of the valuable business asset reality and perception. As a result, it will play a major role in whether that person is perceived to be valuable and knows it, and thus whether he or she remains or leaves to seek something better. Empowerment The above analysis leads to considering how to make the business factors real for more minorities and women. Resurrecting an old, sometimes overused term, one could call the overall process “empowering” minorities and women for a positive success horizon. Its basic elements are not extraordinary, although law firms historically have given little more than lip service to most of them. The process should not be left to happenstance. It requires a strategic approach and commensurate commitment, just like any other important business objective of a firm. Success in the business of practicing law is neither intuitive nor taught in most law schools. If law firm leaders recognize that reality, then there is no rational explanation for taking an essentially “sink or swim” approach to the progress of the young lawyers they hire. That approach ensures high levels of attrition generally, wasting considerable amounts of financial and other resources whenever any lawyer who might have been taught to swim is permitted to sink instead. It also ensures even higher levels of attrition among minorities and women, because the waters at large law firms are even more treacherous for most of them. Managers should assume that all of the attorneys their firms hire have the ability to swim, or else they would not have hired them. But managers must not assume that young lawyers come to their firms knowing how to do so. That improper assumption ignores that most of the six business factors are not self-evident to young lawyers. Moreover, it ignores that the question of how to meet those factors, within white male-dominated law firms, will likely be particularly perplexing for many, if not most, minority and women attorneys. At this point, the basic elements for an effective retention program for minorities and women-focused on empowering them as valuable business assets with a positive success horizon-should leap off the page. Here are six elements to consider: Training in substantive skills areas. Mentoring generally about the existence of the six business factors for success. Work-assignment systems that ensure the attorney has opportunities to do significant work for significant clients. Mentoring or coaching about how to develop one’s profile and stature. Coaching about the concept of valuable “business assets” and assistance with strategies to become and be recognized as such. Guidance and assistance with respect to becoming “responsible for” significant business. If these matters are addressed purposefully, there is no need for anything else. The best ways to address them, however, may differ among different law firms, and so each firm must assess explicitly and candidly where it stands with respect to its resources and ability to implement each element of the model. Then, the firm should customize its retention program to address realistically that assessment of its particular challenges or needs. No one correct way For example, there is no one correct way to implement the requisite substantive training or to ensure effective mentoring or coaching. Not all firms will start from the same place. If a firm has a history of being (or being perceived as) an inhospitable environment for minorities or women, it must address that history or perception. This is an example of the “dose of atmospheric change” to address intangibles mentioned earlier. Whether it is a small or large dose will depend on what has been called the firm’s “diversity baseline.” The threshold imperative, however, is the same for all: Recognize and call these elements by name, and then commit to addressing each of them. It is no accident that mentoring or coaching is used expressly in three of the six elements of the model. It also could be used in two others, as “training,” “assistance” and “guidance” connote an element of mentoring or coaching. A lot is being written about the importance of mentoring and coaching, including specifics on how to do it more effectively. The critical point here is its central role in a retention strategy and the business factors to which that strategy should connect. Firms will never solve retention problems if they do not commit to effective mentoring or coaching of young lawyers. There’s one more matter that lurks in dark places of some minds, making many folk of genuine goodwill uncomfortable about diversity, and providing an excuse for inaction by some others. All law firms have made, and will continue to make, some hiring decisions that are mistakes. They make mistakes with some white males, and they make mistakes with some minorities and women. Some people will not work out, and no retention program can cure a genuine hiring mistake. One can’t, it has been said, squeeze blood from a turnip. Of course, there are those who, in the secret recesses of their hearts, feel that firms are dealing with “turnips” as a general matter when they focus on strategies to retain minorities and women. Such people are seriously unenlightened, if not something worse. They need more remedial assistance with diversity, and several sources are making it available. When that remediation has been effected, they can come back to the discussion here for what to do next. W. Randy Eaddy is a partner in the corporate department (and chairman of its securities practice) at Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton. He is chairman of the firm’s diversity council and served a three-year term on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. A schematic drawing of his model is available by contacting him at [email protected] .

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.