Recently, The National Law Journal reported that, for the first time in more than 17 years, NALP noted a decrease in the number of minority and women associates in its member employers, when compared to the previous year. The decreases are less than 1% from the previous year and perhaps to be expected during hard economic times. When combined with reports of firms reducing their professional development staff and related expenditures, however, the decreases are troublesome signs that the recession, lowered attorney hiring rates, downsizing or lack of adequate training may undo years of small incremental gains made through diversity initiatives.

It is impossible to predict when legal hiring will improve and enable the profession to counter and reverse the decreases. However, firms can maintain their diversity efforts, even with shrinking budgets and lowered staffing, by ensuring that the right culture is in place to retain the diversity candidates who were brought in. A retention program is the crucial second element in building a successful diversity initiative, the first element being recruiting diverse candidates and the third being advancing diverse candidates to partner status. A successful retention program not only helps a firm maintain its diversity numbers but also preserves the firm’s investment in those hires. Successful retention also helps a firm gain a competitive edge in recruitment by demonstrating to candidates that the firm has the right kind of environment for them to develop their careers. Lastly, successful retention can help with business development by demonstrating to clients that the firm is a valued diversity partner that should continue receiving their business.

Diverse associates will stay when a firm can provide an inclusive and supportive environment — one that has significant numbers of diverse peers and a culture that allows for growth, opportunities to develop and advancement to partner. It is safe to assume most firms have taken steps to create such an environment. However, are those steps enough? Do those diversity plans need to be adjusted?

Resignations provide an opportunity to gather useful information to answer those questions. An associate’s resignation should lead to a frank discussion on the reasons for the departure as well as any insights on how well the diversity plan is working and what needs to be changed. An exit interview should be an integral part of the administrative processes in place when an associate resigns, and if human resources or professional development staff is low, a member of the firm’s diversity committee should meet with the individual to discuss the reasons for leaving, under what circumstances the individual would have stayed and what changes the individual might suggest at the firm. Not all the reasons for the resignation nor all the suggested changes will be relevant to diversity or retention issues. But when departing associates do cite issues at the firm as the cause for departure or indicate a problem at the firm, pay attention. A regular pattern of such casual reasons should suggest the problem lies within the firm, not with the individuals.

Apart from exit interviews, there are plenty of assessment, training and development opportunities that exist once a diversity candidate is brought on. Mentors can provide guidance on the firm’s culture and norms, on mistakes to avoid and steps to take to progress in the firm and in the profession. At the same time, mentors can provide a safe sounding board for associates to ask questions or to turn to for guidance. Other initiatives can include developing an associate’s legal or business-generating skills, with plenty of room for a new attorney to make and learn from mistakes.

Perhaps the first few depositions or marketing efforts will be a certifiable failure. Is there a culture that would help a struggling associate realize where the mistakes lie and provide further opportunities for growth? Although there is value in new attorneys pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, there is also significant satisfaction and return on investment in showing the path to success to a young attorney.

None of these options are easy to implement, particularly because, under anti-discrimination laws, providing such initiatives for minority or women attorneys would most likely require similar approaches for nondiversity associates. In addition, addressing retention problems may require working with senior attorneys or convincing them to try a new approach when working with associates. Thus, the true measure of whether an organization has a culture that supports diversity and retention efforts is how much it is willing to change and adapt itself to work through the new problems posed by the diversity initiatives. Savvy organizations already understand the benefits and pressures that require diversity issues to be taken into serious consideration. The continual challenge will be to work toward an organizational culture that will retain and further the gains made through diversity recruitment efforts.

Nilesh Patel is a J.D. adviser at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He has served on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Diversity Outreach Committee from 2003 to 2008.