Law firms are doing an embarrassingly bad job of retaining and promoting diverse lawyers. According to the National Association for Law Placement, representation of African-Americans at the associate level has declined every year since 2010, and Hispanic representation has increased only one half of 1% since 2009. Although Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans now constitute about a third of the population and a fifth of law school graduates, they make up fewer than 7 %of law firm partners and 9% of general counsels of large corporations. In major law firms, only 3% of associates and less than 2% of partners are African Americans. So, what’s going on?
To their credit, most firms have recognized the need to diversify their lawyer ranks for many reasons, not the least of which is increasing client demands. And these efforts have been effective in improving the number of diverse candidates recruited and hired. Yet while casting a wider net and being more creative in attracting diverse candidates increases the pool, if these people don’t join the firm or stay, what difference does it make?
Recruiting is Preserved in Amber
Let’s be honest, law firm recruiting looks just about the same today as it did 30 years ago. Large firms participate in on-campus recruiting at the same set of Tier 1 schools they always have, with some region-specific schools thrown in; lateral hiring is as dependent upon traditional credentials—school, GPA, etc.—as ever; and potential partners are evaluated based upon their books of business. But these measures tell us very little about an individual’s chances for success within the firm. And as all firms quickly learn, there’s a world of difference between a new hire who’s correctly matched to their job and the firm, and one who is not.
This “recruit by numbers” approach is even more feckless when it’s expanded to include more diverse candidates. If no effort is made to correlate an individual candidate with the firm’s criteria for future success, what is being accomplished in seeking out more diverse candidates other than goosing recruiting statistics?
Define Your Firm’s Hiring Values
Since traditional recruiting doesn’t yield great results generally, I have to question the wisdom of just expanding an approach that hasn’t translated to success in retention simply to capture more diverse candidates.
Perhaps it’s time for firms to adopt a different model for hiring, rather than relying on potential legal aptitude alone. Corporate America long ago realized that culture and fit are as important to an individual’s success within an organization as credentials. They have integrated behavioral factors into their recruiting approach to identify who will thrive in their unique environment. This takes recruitment well beyond the traditional signifiers like grades and school, and hones in on the characteristics that your firm specifically values. Greenberg Traurig’s approach is a case in point.
In 2005, Greenberg began targeting students who would fit its culture, which they define as non-bureaucratic and entrepreneurial. While it still seeks high achievers (i.e., good GPAs), Greenberg now also look for candidates with an affinity for business or business experience, a proven ability to take initiative, think creatively, and solve practical problems. With this in mind, the firm’s interview questions are designed to elicit information that speaks to these factors, what they refer to as “3-D” hiring. The firm now thinks about hiring strategically instead of tactically, and seek to identify the right Greenberg candidates, not just good candidates.
Create Your Success Profile
A first step to identifying these success factors in your firm is creating competency models for attorneys in each practice area and at each level. This exercise forces a firm to think long and hard about what qualities, skills, and abilities it sees as necessary for success in the firm. The competencies should reflect careful thought as to the roles individuals are expected to fill, the skill sets they’ll need, and the personality attributes that are important to performing at a high level. This may sound fairly basic, but I have yet to see a law firm put pen to paper and define the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of an attorney at that firm.
In addition to defining competencies, it’s important to develop a “success profile” of the ideal candidate who will be critical to the execution of your firm’s strategic business plan. This might include assessments of the firm’s top performers to identify any skills and attributes that are common to this group. Using this information, a profile can be developed to assist in selecting the candidates most likely to succeed in the firm. In making hiring decisions, consider relevant experience that would differentiate one applicant from another. A reminder—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell if you’ve found a good match if you’re not matching candidates against a specific profile.
What Does a Success Profile Have to Do with Diversity?
Just getting diverse people in the door isn’t a strategy; it’s a tactic without an end goal. Success profiles are strategic, as you have a defined goal: Getting the right people in the door.
It is no secret that cultural challenges for diverse lawyers are pervasive in firms. In a 2011 survey of diverse partners conducted by the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, the following barriers to success for diverse lawyers were cited:
- limited opportunities to develop business
- limited access to clients/prospective clients
- lack of meaningful work assignments
- lack of inclusion/integration
- unfair evaluations
- limited relationships with others in the firm
- lack of mentoring
- lack of training.
The number of factors listed here that directly correlate to culture and fit is staggering. The creation and use of a success profile for your firm will systematize your recruiting and hiring approach so that candidates are vetted against criteria that correlate to success in your environment. If all candidates are assessed this way, then diverse candidates also will be measured based upon a greater likelihood of cultural fit, just like everyone else. And if there is a better fit, the likelihood of long-term success is exponentially greater for all new hires, including diverse ones.
About the Author
Susan Brooks is an attorney and management consultant with over 25 years of experience in law and legal administration.