If they're going to stick around their firms, minority associates need guidance and advocacy from a diversity professional who's already been in their shoes.
By Jeremiah DeBerry|November 05, 2007 at 12:00 AM|The original version of this story was published on The National Law Journal
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Isolated…disillusioned…frustrated…misunderstood…uncomfortable…discouraged. These are the most common adjectives that many minority associates sometimes use to describe their reality at large law firms. Such angst, all too often, leads to the premature departure of these associates from the very firms to which they, ironically, worked so hard to gain entrance. To be sure, there are success stories of minority attorneys in large law firms. One example is my colleague Deryck Palmer, an African-American and a significant rainmaking partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. However, Palmer, along with a few others, is the exception, not the rule. The plight of the minority associate in large firms is not new to the legal profession. What is new, however, is the pressure such firms are now under from their corporate clients to remedy this problem. The push by in-house counsel to improve diversity within the legal profession is well-documented. From the 1999 pledge made by more than 500 in-house legal officers in the celebrated “ Diversity in the Workplace: A Statement of Principle” to the reaffirmation and extension of such a pledge in “ A Call to Action Diversity in the Legal Profession” in 2004, chief legal officers have led the way by encouraging their outside counsel to use more diverse legal teams. Today, however, the gentle nudge of encouragement has, in some cases, become an outright demand for change. Chief legal officers at many companies are now demanding that law firms use diverse legal teams or risk losing the privilege of representing such companies. To comply with this new client directive and to reduce the attrition rate of minority attorneys, an increasing number of law firms have enlisted the services of diversity professionals. Today, there are more than 50 diversity professionals at law firms with 150 or more attorneys. I recently joined their ranks after more than 15 years of practicing corporate law in New York City, where I became a partner for a national firm and only the second African-American partner in the 70-year history of the firm’s New York City office. During my tenure as a practicing attorney, I have served on many recruiting committees, established diversity committees, and have tirelessly promoted diversity in the legal profession. A few years ago, I founded the National Attorney of Color Network, a company dedicated exclusively to promoting diversity in the legal profession. Most diversity professionals are dedicated exclusively to creating, implementing, monitoring, and modifying a firm’s diversity initiatives and programs, including the recruitment and professional development of minority attorneys. However, the career profile of diversity professionals varies greatly. Some are former practicing attorneys, while others are attorney development or human resources professionals. Some practicing attorneys, who focus on diversity issues on a part-time basis, are also referred to as diversity professionals. Regardless of profile, whether or not a diversity professional will be successful in helping a firm create a diverse and inclusive environment will depend largely on three factors: who is selected to serve as the diversity professional; the level of management support and financial resources a firm is willing to commit to its diversity initiatives; and whether or not the diversity professional’s primary responsibilities are clearly defined and understood by everyone. THE RIGHT PERSON A diversity professional must have a passion for improving diversity in the legal profession. Such passion is a vitally important attribute for a position that will undoubtedly provide a fair number of maddeningly frustrating experiences, as partners, associates, and administrators resist or reluctantly embrace the implementation of policies and procedures designed to improve diversity. In my experience, a firm policy that requires mandatory diversity training is often met with resistance by employees who don’t believe they need it. In addition, due to the out-of-office time required, supervising attorneys are often reluctant to embrace policies that encourage minority associates to attend conferences designed to address issues of importance and relevance to minority attorneys. The frustrations caused by such resistance and reluctance can be minimized, however, if the diversity professional is given the authority to make and enforce the initiatives that are being met with resistance, but that are necessary to create a more diverse and inclusive environment. Creating such an environment, in most instances, will require significant cultural and organizational change. In other words, partners and practice group leaders will need to become more committed to mentoring and an equitable distribution of cases and transactions (which typically doesn’t happen in large firms). Success in achieving such organizational change will require hard work, dedication, and an unyielding commitment to stay the course. In addition to the passion, an ideal diversity professional should possess some, if not all, of the qualifications described below. First, the diversity professional should be an attorney who has effectively practiced in a large law firm environment for at least six years, or who otherwise has significant experience interacting with senior attorneys and is familiar with the large law firm work environment. Second, the diversity professional should be a member of one or more of the underrepresented groups in the legal profession. Due to a perceived sensibility that the diversity professional possesses, ostensibly because of his or her status as a member of an underrepresented group, minority associates will be more willing to speak candidly about their experiences at a firm. Open and honest communication is the cornerstone to the creation of a diverse and inclusive environment. Further, by appointing an individual who is not a member of an underrepresented group as its diversity professional, a firm runs the risk of sending the unintended message that firm management believes members of such underrepresented groups are not capable of serving as a diversity professional. In addition, it may also communicate an underappreciation by firm management of the value in having a member of an underrepresented group serve in a leadership position. Third, the diversity professional should have a successful track record of recruiting minority associates to large law firms. One of the more important functions of the diversity professional will be to assist and guide the law firm’s recruiting effort in connection with identifying and recruiting minority associates. As a result, understanding the mind-set of candidates from underrepresented groups will be critical. A proven track record of success includes having relationships with deans and career placement officials at schools where a firm recruits and having a significant understanding of the issues that minority attorneys are concerned about when they are considering a law firm. Lastly, an ideal diversity professional should have very strong interpersonal skills. In particular, the diversity professional should be enthusiastic, a good communicator, a strong leader, well-respected by his peers, and a team player. Given the paucity of minority senior level attorneys and partners at large law firms, one of the primary roles of the diversity professional will be to mentor minority associates, who may have no one else in a firm to turn to for career advice. Such mentoring will greatly improve a firm’s retention rate by helping to alleviate feelings of isolation, frustration, and disillusionment among minority associates. In addition, because the diversity professional will need to work closely with the recruiting, marketing and human resources departments, it is imperative that the diversity professional be a team player. MANAGEMENT SUPPORT In addition to selecting the right person, a firm must provide support for diversity initiatives from senior management. Without a clear and consistent message from firm leadership that improving diversity is a high priority for the firm, the diversity professional and the firm’s initiatives are sure to fail. One of the most effective ways to deliver this message is to create an organizational structure in which the diversity professional reports directly to the chairman of the firm. In addition, practice group leaders must be willing to make the extra effort to mentor, nurture, and provide guidance to minority associates, as requested by the diversity professional. The support provided by firm leadership must also include a substantial financial commitment, in the form of a diversity budget, which should include competitive salaries for the diversity professional and for an adequately staffed administrative support team. In addition, the diversity budget should include financial support for events organized by attorney and law student organizations that promote diversity in the legal profession. The diversity budget should also include expenses that will be incurred in connection with the external promotion of a firm’s commitment to diversity. DEFINING THE ROLE A third element is making sure that a firm clearly communicates the role the diversity professional will play in the law firm environment. Based on an informal survey that I recently conducted of members of the newly organized Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, the role played by diversity professionals varies greatly. Some diversity professionals merely assist their firm’s diversity committee in implementing initiatives, while others are partners in their law firms who sit and vote on various firm committees and participate in management of the firm. The role of most diversity professionals, however, falls between the extremes. While all firms have different needs, there are some responsibilities to which every diversity professional should be assigned with respect to a firm’s internal and external diversity initiatives. Internally, the diversity professional should:
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