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There is an episode of the hit TV show “Seinfeld” in which George decides that every decision he has ever made has been wrong, so he resolves to do the complete opposite of what he would do normally. When he does, his luck changes and everything begins to go his way, including getting a girlfriend and a job with the New York Yankees, and moving out of his parents’ house. Like George, if law firms and corporate legal departments are really serious about improving diversity in the profession, then they must make dramatic and drastic changes to the way they currently function. While there has been a slight increase in the number of minorities and women in the profession, the yearly increase has been slow. The lack of substantial progress raises the question: Are law firms and legal departments putting forth their very best efforts in improving diversity? It has been estimated that the medical profession has between 20 percent and 25 percent physicians of color and the accounting profession about 21 percent professionals of color. What is stopping the legal profession from matching their professional colleagues or meeting the U.S. Census estimates of 32 percent minority and 50 percent female representation? About 99 percent of the top 200 law firms have diversity best practices in place. They have formal diversity programs and diversity committees, and they spend tens of thousands of dollars on sponsorships, partnerships, and relationships with organizations promoting diversity. According to Altman Weil’s 2007 Flash Survey on the Diversity Manager Position in Large Law Firms, 61.1 percent of firms surveyed have a full-time director of diversity who focuses exclusively on diversity initiatives. Firms have mastered the “do something” aspect. Some firms have even mastered the “do something meaningful” aspect with initiatives like making sure the partnership track is available for lawyers on a less than full-time schedule, expanding their recruiting pool outside the traditional schools, and holding partners accountable at compensation time for their efforts to increase diversity. But being really serious about diversity means going beyond the “do something” and the “do something meaningful” phases to the “do something drastically different” phase. SIMPLE AND DIFFICULT Achieving diversity is both simple and difficult. To see drastic progress, firms must be willing to try new and innovative approaches. This should not be as hard as it seems. The same approach that law firms offer every day to meet their clients’ needs — innovation, problem-solving, agility — should be the same approach used in having diverse representation in law firms. At the same time, this is difficult because not only are people in general resistant to change, but lawyers and law firms are particularly comfortable with convention, tradition, and precedent. Paul S. Williams, managing director and director of global diversity search at the legal search firm Major Lindsey & Africa, states that firms must “recognize that lawyers’ bedrock tenet of adherence to precedent and the way things always have been done, is a liability, not a virtue, in achieving diversity.” So what would a law firm do if it were genuinely serious about reflecting the face of society? It would do almost everything completely differently. The following recommendations represent drastic shifts in the law firm environment, but may yield dramatic improvements. 1. Confront the brutal facts. In Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he found that all good-to-great companies found a path to greatness by first confronting the brutal facts. Law firms must recognize that there are biases and stereotypes that negatively impact the success of minorities and women in the profession. Initiatives must be tailored to this reality. An MIT Workplace Center survey found that women often leave the partnership track due to the difficulties of juggling law firm demands with caring for children. Let’s face it: Only women can be mothers and most often mothers have the majority of the responsibility for child care. In addition, the 2003 Minority Corporate Counsel Association study, The Myth of Meritocracy: A Report on the Bridges and Barriers to Success in Large Law Firms, interviewed partners of color and found that their law firm experience included negative stereotypes about intellectual ability, exclusion from promising assignments and valuable relationships, and lack of mentors who provide honest feedback. A firm that challenges the traditional approach to a work day, the traditional path to partnership, and how opportunities for success are provided will tend to be successful. 2. Do not dilute the real issues. The real issues are related to race and gender, but mostly race. It’s a fact that the advancement of minorities lags that of white women and men. In an effort to make diversity initiatives more palatable, it is becoming increasingly popular for firms to throw everything possible into the definition of diversity, including military or veteran status and the neighborhood where you grew up. Overly broad definitions mean nothing and can make the diversity effort meaningless. 3. Stop appeasing, pleasing, and convincing. Stop trying to satisfy and pacify the dominant group (white men). Most resistance to diversity is motivated by fear of change. Do not be afraid to challenge traditional systems that may be exclusionary, oppressive, or discriminatory. Firms must look for ways to make sure everyone is being treated equally with the same opportunities. 4. Rethink recruiting. Stop playing the law school ranking game. Use non-traditional means to get quality people. Look beyond traditional top-tier law schools. Ask for letters of recommendation from those who can provide insight on skills that are most important to clients. Pay more attention to pipeline initiatives that focus on lawyer development and promotion. This is critical because partners mostly are promoted from within or are homegrown. In an effort to improve diversity in South African firms, one firm offers law school scholarships to the children of its most loyal and longtime support staff. 5. Examine the work assignment and allocation process. When minority lawyers are asked about their experience in law firms, some explain that they are simply not on the radar screens of partners. Work may not be fairly or equitability distributed because white male partners may automatically give work to the lawyers they are most comfortable with, which in many cases is another white male or a white female. Minority associates give examples of how a partner in desperate need of assistance will walk right pass a minority lawyer’s office. Other examples include not providing the same development opportunities to minority lawyers. Partners might ask the minority lawyer, “Can you prepare me for this meeting?” “Can you research this for me?” “Can you translate this information?” rather than “Can you handle this for me or work with me on this project?” Sometimes it is overprotection, sometimes it is a patriarchal issue, and other times it’s merely, “I won’t take a chance on you.” A former minority female partner at a large law firm described it as being “coddled to death.” Firms that examine how and what work is distributed and ensure a formalized professional development and practice management process may see sudden dramatic results. 6. Examine success. Define what it takes to be truly successful in the firm. Chances are, it is not all about grades, class rank, and law school attended. MCCA’s study examined what separated those who moved up from those who did not. It showed that grades didn’t play a major role in success. More than half of the distinguished top lawyers graduated from schools other than top-tier law schools. 74.1 percent didn’t graduate with honors, 79.8 percent did not graduate with law review. In the same study, general counsel identified ability to prioritize, good judgment, interpersonal skills, good client service, and public speaking ability as important skills for lawyers. Firms would do well to interview their most successful partners, and identify common denominators to use as a basis for recruiting and developing new lawyers. 7. Invest in training the right people. Firms should focus on providing diversity training to those in the firm who have direct influence on the composition of the law firm, such as the hiring committee, recruiting committee, mentors, practice group leaders, professional development directors, and managing partners. 8. Let money talk. A diversity director from an AmLaw 100 law firm stated that if firms were serious about diversity they would “compensate practice group leaders and managing partners based on performance in diversity recruiting, mentoring, volunteering and promoting diversity and diverse associates to partnership ranks. Compensation should not be punitive, but supplemental recognition through significant bonus dollars. Money talks and is the currency of our system.” 9. Think young. Most of the decision-makers in firms are the most senior and seasoned lawyers in the firm. Firms should look closely at who is making policies. These lawyers may not be in the best position to set policies concerning work-life balance or work environment issues or to challenge the ingrained systems in the firm. Include minority and nonminority associates in firm leadership and on firm committees to provide fresh new approaches to firm management and operation. FRONT LINES Ultimately, the most credible recommendations come from the diversity professionals who work in law firms and law departments. They are on the front lines and behind the closed doors dealing with the day-to-day realities of the legal profession. In preparation for this article, we asked several diversity directors and others who lead diversity initiatives in law firms and law departments, the following question: “What one thing would law firms and law departments do if they were serious about diversity?” Some of the recommendations are listed below. • Focus on ensuring that the diverse lawyers they already have (or are proposing to hire) are perceived to be “valuable business assets,” which means that they have responsibility for significant work and relationships of the firm or department. Everything else that is important for increasing diversity, such as training, mentoring, or retention, would flow from success with that focus. • Change the billable hour paradigm. First, as generational diversity increases in law firms, younger professionals are unwilling to accept this paradigm that equates value exclusively with time and that demands an ever-increasing amount of time to establish value. Second, it operates to the distinct disadvantage of women and minority attorneys. Women are often unable or unwilling to meet billable hour demands because of family or childcare obligations. Minorities are often unable to meet billable hour demands because they often do not have access to the informal workflow channels where the choicest assignments, both in terms of quantity and quality of work, are distributed. • Elect and appoint leaders to influential firm positions who are truly committed to taking action on diversity issues. So if a firm is really serious about improving diversity, its partners would vote out or fire leaders who have made no progress on diversity and replace them with leaders who will make progress, or at least more aggressively pursue results. These recommendations represent an entirely new paradigm in how law firms could operate. Dramatic change efforts might be the key to drastic improvements in creating a legal profession that is truly reflective of the society it serves.
Virginia G. Essandoh is a senior consultant with the legal management consultancy, Altman Weil Inc. She also advises on diversity initiatives and best practices in private law firms, corporate law departments, and government agencies.

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