Overcoming the Challenges of a Non-Traditional Career for Minority Attorneys

When I was approached to write this article, I saw it as an opportunity to highlight some of the unique challenges encountered by minority attorneys practicing in non-law firm environments. Corporate entities and other non-law professional firms have come to appreciate hiring attorneys for positions that have long been considered non-traditional attorney roles. However, minority attorneys have not necessarily benefited broadly from these job opportunities.

Minority attorneys in corporations and other non-legal professional firms face many of the same challenges as our colleagues in the law firm environment. However, we must overcome some additional unique challenges in order to ascend to the managerial level in these companies and firms.

As a trusts and estates attorney with many years of experience outside of a law firm, I have a unique perspective on the career challenges facing a minority attorney in corporate entities and non-legal professional firms. As I look back on my career, the challenges started from the very beginning. When I decided to go to law school, I was working for a well-established wealth management firm, which had previously paid for employees to attend law school while continuing to work for the organization. Thinking I was similarly situated, I applied for the same program once I had my law school admission letter in hand. Twenty plus years later, I still did not get a yes or no answer from management on my request. Last I remembered, the request was sitting on the president’s desk awaiting his approval. To avoid losing my spot in the admission class, I had to give up on waiting for an answer and pursue my law school education on my own. What this process taught me is the need to become more self-reliant, a trait that will come in handy in your quest to ascend the corporate ladder or becoming a partner in a professional firm.

Congratulations! You have graduated from law school; passed the bar exam and have that feeling of accomplishment. What’s next? You believe you can quickly get a job and start paying-off that mortgage-sized law school loan you have amassed. Then reality hits. The job market is tighter than that new pair of shoes you just bought for your first interview. So you broaden your search and hope for a non-traditional law job, or, like me, head back into the classroom to pursue a graduate law program. Either way, you are not in the hiring class of the well-known local law firms. This typically leads to a disproportionate number of minority attorneys opening up their own practice right out of law school, or taking what is commonly referred to as “non-traditional” employment.

Minority attorneys find their way to professional firms after several years of gaining experience and proving themselves, either in their own practice or as an attorney at one of these non-traditional employers. For clarity, I use the term “professional firms” to denote law firms and accounting firms, as I do not consider a tax attorney working in an accounting firm to be non-traditional. However, for a minority attorney in these non-law firm positions—via direct law school hiring or as an experienced hire—the challenges are similar.

First, like all attorneys in non-traditional jobs, they must convince their non-attorney colleagues that they have consciously chosen that particular career path and that they are fully vested in the success of the organization. Management must be convinced that the position is not a temporary landing spot for the attorney until a law firm opportunity presents itself. Convincing management that you are in it for the long-term is necessary so the employee/attorney can properly be considered when the firm is making its strategic decisions and long-term plans. Second, minority attorneys (and I do believe this is faced by most diverse attorneys) must prove to management that creating a diverse and inclusive culture is a worthy long-term investment and makes business sense.

Today, diversity and inclusiveness plays a very meaningful role for leading businesses, as my firm would say in an effort to “build a better working world.” This is exemplified by some of the programs/of many of these organizations. For example, my firm has several initiatives that support a diverse and inclusive environment, such as the establishment of several professional networks for diverse employees, diversity mentoring programs, and making diversity and inclusion (D&I) a global business priority embedded in everything the firm does.

Certain organizations are achieving tremendous industry acclaim for their efforts in recognizing the benefits of supporting a diverse team culture. Not too long ago, minority attorneys on client teams were relegated to helping to prepare the client deliverables, presentations, and proposals. However, these same attorneys were not always included in the client meetings or on presentation teams. As a result, they had little opportunity to meet the clients and develop relationships, which could help advance their careers. Consequently, these highly qualified and hardworking attorneys were not able to build relationships with the client’s other advisers, which often lead to future business referrals. Cultivation of such relationships is very important to career advancement in any organization.

The real disconnect occurs between the firm’s programmatic approach to D&I and the number of minority professionals in leadership positions. Without a true culture shift of the front-line leadership of these firms, we will continue to see the divergent statistic of increasing minority representation at the lower ranks, but a disproportionately small amount of these new hires making it to leadership positions or to the partnership ranks compared to normal progression in any organization.

Eventually, the frustration from not being recognized for advancement due to the perceived lack of these marketing and networking skills often leads to the exodus of these talented professionals. Winning the battle for the few leadership positions in a company or at the partnership level in a professional firm is highly dependent upon one’s ability to attract business to the organization. Many minority professionals are forced to leave very good careers behind because they are not armed with the requisite tools to break through the proverbial glass ceiling.

How does one overcome these obstacles and achieve that dream they thought their law degree promised them? The problem must be addressed with a two-pronged approach. First, organizations need to continue the current trend of making D&I an important aspect of the organizational strategy. However, they cannot stop at the point of creating great programs to attract minority and other diverse professionals to their organizations. They must fundamentally change how they promote a diverse and inclusive environment where each professional is valued and feels appreciated for their differences, and is rewarded for contributing to the organization’s success.

The second prong must come from within each professional. In order to overcome some of the other roadblocks to a successful career, one must become more self-reliant. As noted above, one of the keys (if not the key) to advancement in any firm or organization is the capacity to drive revenue to your organization. If you are not going to be able to build a professional network the traditional way with your organization’s assistance, you must seek other ways to create that network that will enable you to attract business to your organization and in turn increase your chances for advancement.

As a professional, your job in whatever work environment you find yourself is to not only help build your organization’s corporate brand, but also your own personal brand. I have found that joining one or more bar associations is a great place to start building that brand. The key to success here, however, is not just joining an organization, but being active on committees and attending events. These organizations offers unique opportunities to hone your public speaking and writing skills that will serve you and your organization well as you progress in your career and may help lead to a breakthrough to upper management. Additionally, seek mentors and sponsors, within and outside of your organization. Your mentors will be valuable in providing career advice and help support you as you advance in your career. Your sponsor(s) however, is an individual you have developed a deeper professional relationship with that understands your goals and objectives, and is willing to use their power and influence to advocate on your behalf.

At the end of the day, minority attorneys have to continue proving themselves, whether they are in a law firm or in any other work environment. The key to success is to continue working to improve your personal brand. Opportunities to build that personal brand exist within your own organization and externally as well. Total reliance on a firm’s conscience regarding diversity and inclusion is not prudent. Having a self-help approach to building your career is a necessary ingredient to success.

As some organizations have recognized, attorneys provide a source of professional employees that bring great value to their organizations. Minority attorneys provide an addition benefit of helping the organization to create client teams that are reflective of society and future clients. Many business organizations still have some ways to go in fully taking advantage of the benefits of creating a better working environment, where diversity and inclusiveness is the standard instead of the exception. Getting there will require the organization to employ the same efforts to retain these hard-working employees as they do during recruiting process when attracting diverse candidates. There must be improvement in supporting these professionals by assigning them to appropriate client-facing roles and on engagement teams. Support must be given to their alternative network building process as they get involved in professional organizations that can lead to business opportunities for the organization.

Finally, I recognize that diversity and inclusiveness continues to be a work in progress that will require some self-help on the part of the employee, and a continued culture change at all levels of the firm or organization. Build it and it will come – a successful professional network coupled with a self-reliant mentality leads to a successful professional career.

About the Author

Samuel Hercules is a senior manager in the New York office of Ernst & Young LLP, focusing on trust and estate planning matters. He can be reached at 212.773.2255 or Samuel.Hercules@ey.com.

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