Recruit. Develop. Promote. The mantra of every college athletic department in the country. Recruit the talented blue-chipper, coach him up on skills and fundamentals, and gradually promote him from benchwarmer to second team to starter to … you get the picture. Law firm leaders can learn a thing or two from college coaches when it comes to running their diversity and inclusion programs. No athletic program can succeed without doing all three, and neither can a law firm. By now, just about every firm interested in making its workplace more diverse and inclusive has some sort of diversity program. The problem, however, is that too many firms focus on just one aspect of diversity, namely recruitment, and don’t pay enough attention to development and promotion of their diverse attorneys. But a successful diversity program requires a holistic approach that addresses recruitment, development and promotion. Here is the playbook for success.
The recruitment of talented diverse attorneys is typically the focus of most firms. It’s for good reason. Getting talented attorneys in the door is essential. In college athletics, recruitment is all about relationships and visibility. It’s how a college in Lawrence, Kan., can routinely recruit the best basketball players from places as far away and different as New York City and Los Angeles. It’s how a college in Central Pennsylvania can recruit the best women volleyball players from the beach towns of California and Florida. They are able to do this by creating and maintaining relationships with recruits and by making themselves as visible as possible. Recruiting talented law students is really no different. While it is true that a select group of law firms can attract the best and brightest just by name (or salary), the majority of law firms do not have this advantage. Yet, there are countless law firms with seeming disadvantages, whether location, salary or size, that consistently attract talented diverse attorneys. They are able to do this not just because they participate in minority job fairs, or are members of organizations such as the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group, or sponsor various diversity-related events. They are able to do this because of the individual efforts of their attorneys. Attorneys who actually get to know and mentor students and young attorneys, attorneys who are active and are leaders in affinity bar groups, attorneys who by their conduct, accessibility and visibility leave no doubt of their commitment to diversity in their firm and within the bar. They are relationship builders. Off the top of my head, I can rattle off a number of attorneys who fit the bill, and it is no coincidence that they are all at firms that routinely recruit the best and brightest diverse attorneys. If you are a firm leader and cannot think of anyone at your firm who fits the bill, you should make it a priority to address this deficiency. The combination of institutional support and individual effort is a powerful recruitment tool that any firm serious about diversity must have.
Every great team has an excellent head coach and great assistant coaches. The head coach creates the vision and philosophy of a team, but the assistant coaches are the ones who coach up the players on fundamentals, develop their skills and mentor them on a daily basis. Without proper coaching, even the most talented student athlete is bound to fail because the jump from high school to college athletics is substantial. A high school athlete really cannot appreciate the speed, complexity and pressures of the college game without experiencing it firsthand. Of course, it’s not all that different for newly-minted lawyers. The old saying that law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer has proven to be bogus. Law school doesn’t teach you how to think like a lawyer; it teaches you how to think like a law student, which is generally not helpful. It takes time and lots of training to undo the law-student way of thinking and to develop someone into a competent lawyer. While the challenge of adjusting to firm life is stressful for any young lawyer, it is oftentimes daunting for a diverse attorney who may also be dealing with feelings of isolation and the general unease of being different from everyone else. Thus, it is critical that the firm not only have in place an attorney development program (which most firms do), but also to have its practice group chairs, partners and senior associates (the equivalent of assistant coaches) buy into the firm’s diversity vision and become accountable for the development of diverse attorneys. Those who are in a position to train and teach young attorneys must believe that it is important to the firm and to themselves to develop diverse attorneys so they have the opportunity to succeed and to be promoted. This means not only teaching skills and fundamentals, but also mentoring, fostering social inclusion and, of course, providing opportunities to work on meaningful assignments. A popular and effective way to learn about and implement such a support system is to undergo formal diversity and inclusion education by a consultant. While the value of diversity education should be assessed by each firm based on its unique circumstance, there should be no dispute about the need to ensure development of diverse attorneys.
No coach recruits a student athlete thinking the recruit will one day make a fine backup. Neither does the student athlete. Everyone wants to see the field. Everyone wants to be a starter. Everyone wants to be captain. Of course, in reality, not everyone can be a starter or a captain, but the coach must provide opportunities for fair competition so that every student athlete has a shot at being promoted. For law firms, having impressive diversity numbers in the associate ranks is simply not enough. Everyone wants to be counted as more than a number. This means that law firms must provide a pathway to promotion for their diverse attorneys — from junior associate to senior associate, from associate to partner, from partner to positions of leadership and decision-making. As discussed above, this requires having an attorney development program that specifically addresses the concerns and issues of diverse attorneys. Beyond that, law firms should make an attorney’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion a criterion for promotion. For associates, one’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion should be a specific criterion during annual associate reviews. Moreover, an associate’s body of work in promoting diversity and inclusion should be a specific criterion in whether the associate is promoted to partner. Making one’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion a meaningful consideration in the promotion of attorneys (for both diverse and non-diverse attorneys) is the final piece in building a championship diversity program. •
Phil Cha is a partner and chairman of diversity and inclusion at Archer & Greiner. He is a former executive committee member of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania and past chairman of its law student outreach committee. Cha practices in the areas of environmental litigation, toxic torts, oil and gas and brownfields development.