Within the last decade our diverse partnership has doubled, almost exclusively as a result of lateral movement, and we are encouraged about our growth in this area. We thought that this would enable us to retain larger numbers of associates of color but so far, that has not been the case. We particularly want to have more of our summer associates rise through the ranks to be on partnership track and we are curious as to any strategies that have generated success.
Recruiting associates of color, definitely doable. Retaining associates of color, not so much. But the folks at Dewey & LeBoeuf recently elevated four associates of color to partnership and, guess what? Three rose through the summer associate ranks and one has been with the firm since the second year.
Frank R. Adams, a partner with the firm and co-chair of its diversity committee, explains that he and the firm’s chairman, Steven H. Davis, view diversity as an ongoing facet of the firm’s business and engage concrete initiatives to make sure that diversity is woven into the structure of the organization.
While Adams acknowledges that retention is an ongoing challenge, he attributes much of the firm’s recent success to a reconfiguration of its diversity function. Instead of one standalone diversity committee, the firm now has four subcommittees: recruiting, retention, outreach and promotion, each of which reports into the firm’s diversity executive committee. Each subcommittee is charged with specific tasks related to the firm’s diversity goals and, with the exception of the promotion subcommittee, which is comprised exclusively of partners, each group is staffed with both partners and associates.
This administrative structure targets specific activities and creates greater enthusiasm among subcommittee members who can put focused energy into their area of interest.
For example, the recruiting subcommittee created a group denominated the Law School Ambassadors. These individuals visit area law schools to meet with diverse law students and provide them an early opportunity to be exposed to the firm. The recruiting subcommittee also works closely with the firm’s internal recruiting function to make sure that the firm delivers a seamless and coherent diversity message.
Recognizing the vital importance of mentoring, the retention subcommittee developed a mentoring subcommittee that continually evaluates best practices of successful mentoring programs. As a result, the subcommittee developed an initiative, Connecting Across Differences, which is specifically aimed at diverse third- and fourth-year associates to ensure that they are actively engaged during these critical developmental years.
The retention subcommittee also has developed a task force of Attorney Resource Networks, commonly referred to as affinity groups, to create internal events that celebrate, support and value diversity.
While each of the subcommittees contributes mightily to the firm’s diversity mission, Adams views the promotion subcommittee to be of special importance as it gives focused attention to the pool of diverse attorneys available for partnership consideration. The process enables the firm to spotlight who is in the pipeline and allows for direct communication about prospects with the firm’s executive committee and chairman, key players in the decision-making process.
Law firm leadership must take the reins when diversity is on the line. Execution is the natural and necessary next step. Congratulations to the new partners, and continued success to the firm!
Like many New York law firms, we seek to recruit and retain women attorneys and specifically would like to increase their number within our partnership ranks. Although women are well represented in our junior and mid-level associate classes, the numbers decrease and change dramatically at the partnership level.
Considering the number who make up our entering classes, we think our partnership numbers should be much higher. What should we do to increase the number of women associates who stay and become partner?
There isn’t a magic wand, but one thing is clear: It’s absolutely crucial for law firms to possess leadership that understands the vital importance of natural, informal mentoring and are prepared to provide platforms that teach techniques for mentoring across differences.
Marissa C. Wesely, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, is one such industry leader. Not only is Wesely a highly regarded corporate attorney, but she also is an extraordinary woman who boasts an outstanding track record of ensuring that women associates have fair and meaningful access to partnership opportunities.
First, Wesely reminds us that we have come a long, long way ladies (and gents). During the last five years the pace of change has accelerated.
In 2006, women represented 29.1 percent of new equity partners. While encouraging, this percentage should not make us complacent. With nearly 50 percent of law school graduate classes consisting of women, Wesely concedes that many in the legal industry simply figured that greater associate numbers would yield significantly greater women partners. But when the overall percentage of women partners still hovers around a steady 17 percent, it becomes apparent that more than mass is needed.
In order to retain greater numbers of women associates, Wesely emphasizes that there are many pieces to the puzzle, the biggest and possibly the most challenging being finding natural mentors.
Formal mentoring programs are effective mechanisms for introducing the skills necessary for developing networks and maintaining connections. But the pot of gold lies in the informal, natural mentoring relationships that provide the esoteric nuances that help transform women associates into partners.
While it sounds simple enough, Wesely acknowledges that the process is riddled with complexities, since barriers exist to mentoring across differences. Simply stated, people feel more comfortable with people with whom they share similarities, and may even possess unconscious biases against those they perceive as different. A convergence of these dynamics serves to stifle the development of informal mentoring between men and women and thus diminishes opportunities for women associates to access key partnership track development.
Law firms that wish to retain talented women associates should give serious consideration to developing best practices and training programs that focus on mentoring across differences, especially when the leadership of the firm is mostly white and male. Women associates who want to become partners need to learn how to be mentored across differences and be prepared to develop a team of internal and external mentors.
In an increasingly global economy, Wesely stresses that it is of paramount business importance that diversity of all kinds be represented in law firm leadership. Women partners in particular bring different world views many of which can help diffuse the “locker room” mentality that can emerge when homogenous male leadership controls the message delivered to clients.
Law firm excellence demands that women partners be at the table. Not one, not two and not 17 percent. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but, the journey continues.
Katherine Frink-Hamlett, a graduate of New York University School of Law, is president of Frink-Hamlett Legal Solutions, Inc. and can be reached at email@example.com.