Four Things Law Firm Leaders Can Do About Diversity

The evidence is clear: organizations with greater diversity, particularly in their leadership ranks, outperform other organizations. Despite the case for diversity, the percentage of law firm partners who are minorities or women has barely budged.

The National Association of Law Placement 2016 survey reports “marginal” progress over the past 24 years, with the percentage of partners who are minorities or women.  In 1993, minorities accounted for 2.55% of partners, and women accounted for 12.27% of partners. In 2016, the respective percentages were 8.05% and 22.13%. If we use a definition of diversity in leadership based on proportionate representation in the population, we would expect, for example, that 50% of law firm partners would be women.

Despite its elusiveness, we cannot ignore the importance of pursuing diversity. The continuing attrition of women and minorities in the talent pipeline, heightened competition for legal services, and increased client insistence on diverse legal teams demand our attention and creativity.

What follows are four steps, grounded in legal practice and psychology, that law firm leaders can take to promote and support meaningful diversity. The first two underline mistakes to avoid; the second two point to strategies to implement.

Reject the two-hour quick fix.

An AmLaw 100 firm experienced an all-too-common problem with associate turnover, especially with women and people of color. The problem grew critical when the firm received complaints about insensitive and potentially discriminatory comments made by a top junior partner to women associates, along the lines of, if you have children, your career will never be the same.

Josh was a popular partner with a well-deserved reputation for accessibility to associates and spending time mentoring them. These alleged comments didn’t fit his reputation or his memory. He is a person of color with a high-powered working wife and a new baby. He remembered making no such comments.

The firm was at an impasse: the associates insisted he had made offensive comments (and expected action), while Josh adamantly denied having made them. The firm sent him to a brown bag lunch on diversity in hopes of quickly resolving the problem.

Like the other busy attendees, Josh multi-tasked throughout the seminar. Since no follow-up action commitments, measures of success or accountabilities were discussed, he walked out and never gave the program or the issues further thought.

Even though his minority status might have suggested a heightened sensitivity to potentially discriminatory comments, Josh saw the world through the eyes of men and partners. He was genuinely distressed by the allegations, but did not know how to correct something he didn’t remember doing, especially since the message delivered to him lacked specifics to protect the accusers.

When the associates insisted that the insensitivity persisted, the firm hired me to coach Josh. Hurt and self-protective, his immediate reaction was to minimize contact with associates. While understandable, that interfered with getting work done efficiently and well, and impeded important coaching and mentoring conversations.

The breakthrough came when an empirical assessment identified specific ways in which Josh’s style inadvertently had an unintended negative impact on others. This rang true, as Josh could easily explain challenging work relationships with men and women using this data.

That broke the ice. Suddenly, Josh saw the relevance of style and unconscious perceptions on behavior. Over time, we worked on how to address people problems on the job, developing concrete steps to modify his impact on others. His work relationships improved. No further incidents occurred.

The lesson from Josh’s experience: No two-hour program can address a complex diversity problem. Don’t take the easy way out and expect that quick seminar will change anything. It won’t.

Avoid “homosocial reproduction.”

I spent a few hours in an airport hotel lobby recently. I sat away from others so I could work, but shortly after I sat down, two white men sat down at a nearby table and began a several-hour conversation that I quickly realized was a job interview.

Their conversation was too loud and animated to ignore. I noticed how often the interviewer signaled the “correct” or desired answer to the candidate. To my ears, the interview involved an excessive amount of bonding and relatively little hard-hitting examination of the younger man’s track record or relevant skills.

I was struck by how many bad answers the young guy gave, and how the older guy not only telegraphed the answers he wanted to hear, but cut him plenty of slack when his answers were not good. For example, when the interviewer asked for his college GPA, the candidate said it was 2.0, then went on to talk at length about how hard a partier he had been. They laughed and proceeded, comfortable and seeing themselves in each other. By the end of the interview, it was clear that the candidate got the job.

As someone who does selection assessment and interview coaching for a living, I found myself thinking, “This is the white boys’ network in action,” doubting that women or minority candidates would have received such an easy reception or interview. I couldn’t help but think that a person of color or a woman would not likely have been given such leeway for a poor interview performance, and he or she probably would not have gotten the job. The young guy got points for honesty (and a job!), but in my book, for little else.

This interview was Exhibit A of “homosocial reproduction,” a term coined by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a distinguished Harvard Business School professor, to describe the well-documented human tendency to gravitate toward people just like us. We are comfortable with them. We prefer to hire them, promote them, mentor them and sponsor them. Like seeks like. The obvious problem with this tendency is it perpetuates non-diverse organizations where white men dominate the leadership ranks.

How do we combat such an unconscious and universal tendency? On the hiring side, the tendency toward homosocial reproduction begs for the use of interview teams, including HR professionals, not just interested partners, and diverse teams with women and minorities. It also argues for the use of standard and behavioral questions where answers can be compared across candidates.

Since we know that firms do a better job of hiring than retaining diverse attorneys, programs that attempt to level the playing field by providing intensive development (such as the program described below) are a critical tool for developing and retaining diverse leaders. Career and leadership skills are not built overnight nor are playing fields leveled quickly. Both take time, and are boosted by longer-term focus that builds, sustains and applies skills on the job.

Teach career skills to level the playing field.

Studies have documented other obstacles to diversity in law firms, among them a tendency to judge diverse candidates’ performance and style more harshly, and to provide them with fewer coaching and job opportunities. Moreover, there are individual contributions, such as the observed tendency for women and minorities to display less facility for self-promotion and to exhibit less self-confidence which firms and clients expect.

These factors are often related. The perils of tokenism can include being subject to harsher standards and greater scrutiny that can lessen self-confidence. Studies that point out that the same behavior that is viewed as aggressive and commanding in a male associate is viewed as pushy and obnoxious in a female associate, is but one example of this phenomenon.

Many firms genuinely want greater diversity but are perplexed by how to achieve it. An important clue comes from the field of psychology: The empirical evidence clearly shows that adults learn and grow through intensive one-on-one focus, with small measurable steps over time.

Translated to a law firm, based on my own experience coaching many women and minorities, we promote success over time by developing, practicing, and modifying the communications and behaviors that are the basis of effective careers, self-promotion, and leadership.

This has included creating a career plan to direct career moves strategically; developing objective career tools like competitive advantages to bolster confidence and compete for greater opportunities at the firm; presentation coaching on how to speak with greater self-assurance and presence; identification of and requests for career-building opportunities; and correcting problems with interpersonal style and leadership before they become career derailers.

The list is not exhaustive, but the examples share a real-time, behaviorally-focused approach to developing new habits and behaviors to maximize career skills and potential. This  results- and job-focused efforts over time convey the firm’s serious and lasting attention (not lip service) to the development and retention of diverse attorneys. The result? More effective and longer-term performance that benefits the firm and the diverse associate or partner.

Measure and reward diversity targets.

Years ago, I designed an elaborate program to select and develop associates for an AmLaw 100 firm. No other firm offered a program like this. The firm was so enthusiastic that it used it as a recruitment tool to attract the best first-year associates.

The program was never launched, because it required partner involvement. The CHRO said partners were so busy that they never did anything without compensation. I proposed they make participation part of the compensation system. The program never went beyond the discussion stage.

Firms must ask what it is costing them to not fix the diversity problem. Unwanted turnover, client loss, and group-think are among the costs of not investing seriously in programs that promote diversity. Firms do a better job of recruiting diverse hires than developing or retaining them once they are hired, but the cumulative costs are substantial.

Corporations have a much longer tradition of tying leader compensation to diversity targets. A fundamental truth from psychology:  You get what you reward. To move beyond lip service, attach financial consequences to success.

Diversity is a complex challenge. The preceding four diversity steps are designed to raise often-overlooked approaches based on the findings in law firms and psychology to address an issue that affects us all. What will you do now to promote and sustain diversity?

About the Author

Rachelle J. Canter is president of RJC Associates, a leadership, career, team and executive coaching firm in San Francisco. Contact her at

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