Diversity: a Core Value and a Strategic Investment
As the latest "Jobs & JDs” report from NALP makes clear, today’s lawyers face a challenging job market. Widespread layoffs, reduced summer programs and other recruitment-related cutbacks raise particular concern for those tracking diversity in the legal profession. Even before the recession, progress in this area, particularly at the law firm partnership level, had been slow; now, many worry that the economic fallout will have a disproportionate impact on attorneys of color and other under-represented minority groups.
It may be commonplace for employers to voice their support of a diverse workplace, but making diversity a reality rather than simply a refrain requires work, planning and, to some extent, money. When there’s less cash to go around, budgets for programs that ostensibly represent only a company’s conscience rather than its fiscal responsibility may be the first to shrink. However, diversity is not simply an ethical imperative, it is also a strategic endeavor. A company or law firm with a long-term strategy needs a well-rounded and able workforce to preserve and grow its business. The cultivation of talent, diverse in experience, culture and outlook, represents an investment in a firm’s future. It is not a distraction from, but a contribution to, a law firm’s fiscal health.
Moreover, if you look at both the tools that promote diversity and the effects that a diverse staff has on a work environment, it’s clear that they provide broad benefits to the business as a whole.
1. Retention and development tools benefit all associates
Naturally, law firms need to be strategic and focused in their spending. But some of the most successful measures when it comes to diversity require little, if any, extra spending — mentoring, monitoring the progress of attorneys, and ensuring they have equal access to significant opportunities and clients in order to move forward in their careers.
The real hurdles may be less financial than philosophical. The legal profession is famously slow to institute significant structural change and law firms in particular hew to traditional systems of hiring, advancement and compensation. But the inherent limitations in the up-or-out pyramid model, lockstep salary system and trial-by-fire training are coming to the surface as more legal professionals consider alternative frameworks for compensation, assignment, advancement and development — frameworks that are merit-based, but focused more on evaluating than judging, developing than criticizing.
While many of these new models are discussed specifically in the context of improving retention among minority and women attorneys, the truth is these approaches should help all lawyers succeed. Consider these examples:
- Effective frameworks based on core competencies
- Solid, practical training programs
- High-quality mentoring, in which mentoring is treated as a valuable contribution to the firm rather than a pro-forma obligation
- Regular and substantive feedback regarding performance and expectations, rather than cursory annual reviews that take associates by surprise and offer little guidance
- Recognition that there can be more than one effective approach to a given task
These are tools that benefit all associates and, by extension, the firm itself. Having a cadre of confident, well-trained and high-performing lawyers should be every law firm’s goal.
2. Everyone shares the benefits of an inclusive culture
This Friday, Vault and MCCA will be holding their fifth annual Legal Diversity Career Fair, giving diverse law student and lateral candidates and legal employers an opportunity to meet. As a prelude to the fair, Vault will be hosting a special breakfast to announce its 2011 Law Firm Diversity Rankings and honor the law firms who were the most highly rated by their own associates for their commitment to hiring, retaining and promoting diverse attorneys.
It seems no coincidence that the law firms that receive high marks for their commitment to diversity in our annual Law Firm Associate Survey include many of the same firms that are rated highest for firm culture and professional development. Of the top 20 firms in overall diversity this year, more than half were also ranked among the best in firm culture and for formal training and/or informal training and mentoring.
As an associate at one of the top-ranking firms noted in response to our survey: “The firm makes a conscious effort to recruit attorneys from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and it makes for noticeably better, more well-rounded case teams. I am continually amazed and impressed by the experiences my colleagues bring to the table.”
A law firm that keeps minority and women lawyers challenged, engaged and optimistic about their careers likely offers a welcoming environment and professional development opportunities to all of its attorneys. Having a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and insights represented among employees not only makes for a livelier, more interesting workplace, but it also produces better results.