Rethinking the Partnership Model to Foster Inclusion

My law firm experience, as a woman and a mother, has been overwhelmingly positive. Generous mentors and sponsors have provided me with opportunities and motivated me to seek my own. As a young associate, I saw a partnership that had not only had space on the team for somebody who looked like me, but would enthusiastically welcome my contributions. And when it came time to build my own practice, I was given the resources, latitude, and encouragement to do it. As a result, my partnership has been one of tremendous professional fulfillment and growth.

There is no magic to my experience. My partners don’t have a secret playbook, and neither do I. Everything my partners did to foster my success can be replicated in any law firm, anywhere. And yet, particularly among diverse attorneys, my story remains atypical.

The numbers tell the tale. While law school graduates and first-year associates are increasingly diverse (non-white, non-male, non-straight, and/or non-cisgender), law firm partnerships remain predominantly white and male. And the number of diverse partners is not only frustratingly low, it is frustratingly stable, recalling an era when partnerships were fraternal clubs and calls for diversity were so faint as to be imperceptible.

Source: Law Firm Diversity Database (

But the calls for diversity are louder now, and increasingly coming from our clients. Clients know that diverse leadership produces better business outcomes. Clients also want their service providers to reflect their own values. Now, more than ever, improving partnership diversity is a moral and competitive imperative. But it is also a challenge that most law firms have yet to meet.

Now hold on, you might say. Law firms do more than ever to develop and attract diverse partners. We recruit, retain, and promote diverse attorneys. We support affinity and awareness groups, mandate bias awareness and inclusion training, and help attorneys balance professional and personal demands. We have robust mentorship, sponsorship, and allyship programs, commit to pro bono work for underserved communities, and speak publicly on social and legal justice issues.

All of this is true, and these efforts are important and necessary. After all, talented and ambitious associates are far more likely to succeed at firms that acknowledge and address institutional barriers. But these efforts also are not sufficient, because lasting progress remains elusive. How many diverse associates have “beaten the odds” and become partners, only to remain (or feel) functionally excluded? How many have found themselves just outside the room where decisions are made, serially relegated to roles of lesser influence? How many have never been trusted to navigate client relationships without supervision? Or, how many have seen their peers promoted to partner but still sensed a lack of engagement and decided that partnership was not “for” them?

Firms cannot work solely on improving associate diversity and expect diverse and engaged partnerships to follow. We must also consider what we as partners model, to not only create space for diverse participation, but to motivate it. And we can start by reflecting on the following principle:

Our partnerships are not vestigial clubs. They are teams.

Why do we need “teams,” rather than “partnerships?”

Words matter. They frame our worldview, condition our behavior, and promote our ideas. Words can foster diversity and acceptance, or homogeneity and exclusion.

“Partnership,” as an indicator of character or quality, it is too vague to be useful. While it has a legal meaning, it suggests little beyond an association of people around an area of common interest. It says nothing about a partnership’s composition, how it functions, its goals, or its values. Every partnership determines its own attributes and decides whether or how those attributes are communicated to the larger firm.

Many partnerships treat their attributes as long ago established or not particularly relevant. Some assess their goals and objectives as a part of their business planning processes, but few attach them to overarching values or communicate them to the rest of the firm. Without constant attention and careful messaging, a prospective partner’s only understanding of a partnership’s character will come from limited personal observations or historical or cultural references.

Unfortunately, partnership as a “club” is the stickiest of those references, and the one most readily validated by a lack of diversity. It implies, among other things, that partnership is determined by affinity or common attributes. Attribute-centered clubs, by their nature, enjoy a high degree of social cohesion. Many have initiation rites or rituals (broadly defined) that foster tight bonds. But attribute-centered clubs can also engender a false sense of entitlement when its privileges are conferred, rather than earned.

A partnership “team,” on the other hand, has more inclusive associations. The success of any team depends upon the various contributions of its members. An athletic team, for example, has players with an array of skill sets. Each player also has different strengths, weaknesses, temperaments, backgrounds, and perspectives. But the team nonetheless bonds through respect and the pursuit of excellence, and its members are confident in their belonging because their contributions are evident to all.

A winning coach doesn’t pick a team based on the social sameness of its members. Instead, she finds the best players for each position, demonstrates respect for each player’s skills, models and expects adherence to shared values (e.g., sportsmanship), and rallies the team behind a set of common goals. A team composed of talented and ambitious players will always generate some friction, but the best coaches know how to channel that friction and spur their team to greater performance.

In law firm partnerships, a team orientation could be similarly beneficial. Within and across practice groups, successful partnerships need leaders, relationship-builders, managers, teachers, legal theorists, strategists, and businesspeople (among others). Some partners will be strong in several of these areas, some will be strong in only a key few, and other partners’ strengths will develop and shift over time. But on top of having members with the appropriate education, training, and talent, successful partnerships require a variety of perspectives borne of each person’s unique life experience. Academic studies have shown that well-led diverse teams produce better results than homogeneous ones. So why would a law firm allow social or personal preferences to hinder their partnership team? No competitive law firm would.

How do you “model” a partnership team?

To employ a team model, law firms must first develop a consensus around their needs. In smaller firms, partners may achieve this consensus organically. In larger firms, it may require a management team’s guidance. And if a firm’s partnership does not yet reflect the diversity that it seeks, it may have to reach beyond its own confines to make its needs assessment more robust (because no group can know what its individual members do not know).

With its needs identified, the partnership can lay out its goals and objectives, revealing the spaces created for people with different skill sets and perspectives. If the results of this process are shared within the firm, there will be a cascade of tangible benefits. Motivated associates could start thinking creatively about ways to contribute. They could view their partnership potential more concretely and offer their own ideas and plans. Partners would provide those associates with the encouragement, resources, and latitude needed to develop that potential because it would ultimately serve broader firm goals. And newly named partners would be confident in their belonging because their unique contributions were recognized and valued.

Why focus on contribution?

Individual and reciprocal contribution, even among a disparate group of people, fosters respect. At first, it is the bridge between a group’s members. Later, it becomes the glue that holds them together. This is true of every productive group of lawyers, large or small, on the same or opposing sides of a dispute. Even where there is initial discord, suspicion, or distrust, contribution engenders respect. Respect, coupled with shared experience, leads to mutual appreciation. In the end, everybody is stronger for having been exposed to different perspectives and methods of working.

Contribution is also critical to a diverse partnership because it is additive rather than reductive. In many law firms, partners approach promotion decisions with a zero-sum mindset. Because every new partner affects a firm’s profits, existing partners can view them as a personal financial risk (or worse, a risk to the firm’s profit-per-partner rankings). In this way, reductive thinking leads partnerships to make “safe” partnership decisions, minimizing perceived risk rather than maximizing potential.

Reductive thinking is most clearly revealed when firms use business generation as a prerequisite for partnership. They not only ignore the barriers that homogenous business networks pose for diverse attorneys, but eschew any role in making those networks more accessible. In addition, it is nearly impossible for an attorney to develop business without the imprimatur and endorsement of “partner,” creating a classic chicken-and-egg scenario.

But a focus on contribution allows partners to be confident that new members will immediately augment the firm’s value. Their knowledge, skills, and leadership qualities would all have been assessed in light of the firm’s articulated needs and goals. Partners would want to introduce new colleagues to their contacts to increase business generation overall. And all partners could be spurred to greater levels of creativity as new perspectives emerge and the firm continues to grow.

A contributive construct can also reduce reliance on easily measurable but often less critical proxies of partnership readiness. To illustrate this point, let’s look closely at the concept of “time served.”

Many associates’ careers are interrupted by events that require extended time away from work, including family obligations, personal illness, or other circumstances. Consider this common hypothetical: Associate A and Associate B are both eighth-year associates and up for partnership. They are competing for the same partner slot because the thinking is reductive – the firm can only risk one additional partner. Both associates have approached their path to partnership in a traditional way: they have cultivated relationships with influential partners; worked hard; and taken on increasing levels of responsibility. At decision time, Associates A and B are working at the same functional level. The only measurable difference is that Associate A worked the equivalent of eight years, and Associate B took two parental leaves and worked the equivalent of seven years.

Who gets the partnership? Associate A, nine times out of 10. Why? Because she has put in more time. In this scenario, the reductive construct favors “traditional” candidates – those who are able to subordinate large portions of their personal lives to their jobs.

With a team orientation, the analysis would be different, because partner candidates would be ready to immediately advance the firm’s goals. There would be less temptation to designate an arbitrary number of partnership “slots” or rely upon time served to differentiate associates. Instead, Associate A would have spent her eight years becoming a student of the firm and its clients, using her background, strengths, and talents to fill a need on the partnership team. Associate B would have done the same in her seven years to fill a different (but equally important) need. The positive contributions of Associates A and B would not be comparable in any meaningful sense, but both would be highly valuable to the firm. How would partners choose between the two? They wouldn’t have to, because both associates could be welcomed as partners. And in the process, Associates A and B would not have been pitted against each other to see who could best conform to a set of tacit expectations—they would only have been expected to develop their own contributive potential.

Finally, a focus on contribution could transform the way that firms communicate with new associates. In a reductive construct, a “welcome” message might as well read: “Greetings, associates! We’re so glad to have you. We hope you can tolerate your time here and bill a lot of hours, even though most of you have no hope of becoming a partner. Good luck!” If you’re a diverse associate seeing very few diverse partners, it’s an especially deflating message. Spending thousands of hours pursuing partnership seems unattractive at best, foolish at worst.

Firms with an emphasis on contribution, however, could send a meaningfully different message: “Greetings, associates! We’re so glad to have you. We’ve hired you because we think that each of you has the potential to make important contributions and we want you to succeed.”

Associates then could be oriented to the firm’s team focus and encouraged to think creatively about how they might contribute. When associates take an active role in directing their own careers, their motivation, performance, and job satisfaction all increase. Ownership mentality in associates also benefits the larger firm, improving the contributions of partners that it elevates and attracts.

Should firms really be abandoning past practices? Is all of this change required?

The suggestion that a firm should change its approach to partnership is bound to cause concern. Law firms are businesses after all, and their partners are fiduciaries, to each other as well as to clients.

The most visceral concern is the fear of the unfamiliar, sometimes expressed as hostility toward “change for change’s sake.” Some partners become suspicious that standards are being lowered. Others resent that today’s associates appear to need assistance that they (the objecting partners) did not.

It is important to recognize a fundamental truth: nobody ever became a law firm partner without assistance. Historically, non-diverse attorneys have benefitted from homogenous business networks. While access to those networks was not a guarantee of partnership, to argue its irrelevance would be delusional. In addition, many male associates were not only relieved of day-to-day familial responsibilities; they were never expected to have them in the first place.

Contrast this with the challenges facing today’s associates, and by diverse associates in particular. Access to historically homogenous networks continues to be difficult, and is a privilege that must always be earned. Today’s associates are also more likely to have significant familial responsibilities that are difficult to reconcile with 24/7 availability.

In many ways, a team orientation requires more from successful associates, not less. In addition to being good lawyers and working hard, they need to be problem solvers on a broader level. They need to take an active interest in the firm’s business, find opportunities for contribution, and think creatively about demonstrating their potential. They need to seek out opportunities and actively engage in designing their careers. If any aspect of the associate experience is made easier by a team orientation, it is that the partnership is open to their potential, and has committed to removing arbitrary barriers to advancement. How can any of us object to that?

What about culture?

A healthy culture, which is crucial to a partnership’s long-term success, develops when partners agree to act according to a shared set of inclusive values. While every partnership’s recitation of those values may differ, it should not be controversial to suggest that the list include:

  • Contribution
  • Creativity
  • Dedication
  • Diversity
  • Excellence
  • Fairness
  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Teamwork

These values can be shared by everybody on a partnership team, no matter their background, identity, or personal characteristics. Social homogeneity and “fit,” however, cannot be.

A healthy team culture will not allow for social homogeneity as a core value. It disfavors diverse candidates by design (thus hampering the team’s success) and sends a clear message that diverse team members are less valuable. “Fit,” as an evaluation criterion, is similarly problematic. On the one hand, it is natural and accurate to say that a partner who does not act according to a firm’s values does not “fit.” On the other hand, any person with different attributes than the majority of their other partners can also be described as somebody who does not “fit.”

A partnership culture that prioritizes social considerations also tends to entrench institutional barriers to diversity. When evaluating candidates for promotion, people naturally identify with others that they think are like themselves. This can be a useful shortcut when handicapping another attorney’s potential to be a successful partner. But it will almost always impede the diversification of a partnership.

Firm policy and practices will always be an expression of the preferences and experiences of its partners. Successful associates are either comfortable with (or can figure out how to work within) the established framework. Ambitious associates who want to make partner will turn themselves inside out to conform to the values modeled by the partnership. Is it any wonder that the associates who successfully navigate such a minefield exhibit an astonishing (and often physical) resemblance to the majority of existing partners?

On the contrary—it is practically a guarantee. Without an alternative construct, decision-makers tend to default to easily cognizable but relatively unimportant considerations. Reductive thinking ensures that Associates A and B are evaluated on anything but their contributive potential. And Associates C, D, and E, who might have been the team’s best players, never saw the point in suiting up.

What about the stability of the partnership?

A team construct does not require, rely on, or expect career-long commitments from partners. This can only be advantageous in today’s legal climate, because skilled and productive partners will always be desirable to other firms. Partners now switch law firms at unprecedented rates, drawn by opportunity, money, title, or the promise of influence. Ignoring this truth will not make partner defection less frequent—it will only make firms less able to recover when defections occur.

A team orientation, however, could provide a stabilizing ballast. By aligning the firm’s practices with inclusive values, contributing team members would be less likely to leave the firm and the firm would be more attractive to other desirable candidates. The partnership could better respond to clients’ needs for leadership diversity, which would increase the firm’s overall success. And because the partnership would have been actively managed to its stated goals and objectives, the firm would be in the best possible position to fill any void left by a vacating partner (and likely could do so from a more diverse candidate pool).

Attrition is inevitable. Why fight it?

Many law firms begin each fall with diverse associate classes and the best of intentions. Then, over time, disproportionate numbers of diverse associates are lost to “attrition.” In the law firm context, attrition is considered as inexorable as it is unavoidable. And to be fair, it is a sentiment consistent with a common definition of the term: “A gradual, natural reduction in membership or personnel, as through retirement, resignation, or death.” R.I.P., diversity.

But there is another more common definition of attrition: “A gradual wearing away or rubbing down by friction.” When it comes to the experience of diverse associates and partners, isn’t this definition more apt? The person who experiences friction in an organization is the one who sticks out, even a little bit. A partnership that commits to a team orientation has an appropriate and constructive context for dealing with that friction. Instead of alleviating it by allowing the outlier to be ground down, partners can model respect for different perspectives and channel that energy toward achieving shared goals.

Friction rooted in intolerance or disrespect will never serve a good end— it will only create divisiveness and crippling inertia. A constructively channeled friction, on the other hand, could spur a team’s creativity and problem-solving abilities. Think again about athletic teams and their players. Very few great players are content with the status quo; they always question their coaches, training, and game plans. In truly constructive situations, there is an overarching appreciation of contribution that allows for respectful disagreement. But without an organizational commitment to valuing diverse contributions, friction engendered by personal differences can easily turn destructive, even if (or especially if) it is not openly expressed.

Law firms often view a certain amount of attrition as desirable because leverage cannot be maintained if every associate is made a partner. It is true that making every associate a partner is unrealistic, and the benefits of a team orientation are not contingent on it. There is no reason to think that every associate will want to pursue partnership or that every associate who demonstrates contributory potential should become a partner. But a team orientation may allow partnerships to prioritize contribution over less meaningful attributes and guard against exclusionary processes. It is not about making every associate a partner; it is about ensuring that any associate with contributory potential could become a partner.

Doesn’t this mean more work for partners?

In a word, yes. Passive management will not bring meaningful change; lasting progress can only be made with the consistent commitment of the partnership. And deciding to model a partnership team is only the first step toward better aligning a firm’s actions with inclusive values. Business planning cycles could provide openings for in-depth discussions about value alignment. The partnership could review each of the firm’s objectives and consider how increased diversity would support them. It could examine industry benchmarking, which increasingly features partnership demographics, to internalize their impact on business development and recruiting. It could also critically evaluate past diversity initiatives to understand how far those programs advanced the firm’s goals.

If leadership can effectively convey the link between partnership diversity and long-term success, institutional inertia should start to give way. This could lead to important conversations in a number of areas, including:

  • Business planning: Can the partnership make an accurate assessment of its own strengths and weaknesses? Does the firm define its goals and objectives in a way that allows for creative solutions? Is the firm motivating diversity by making it an intrinsic part of its values system?
  • Internal communications/messaging: Are the firm’s values, goals, and objectives consistently modeled to the organization at all levels?
  • Talent development/training: Are associates grounded in the expectation of contribution? Are they encouraged to think creatively about their path to partnership?
  • Case/personnel management: Are partners intentionally building and managing teams that value the contributions of all members?
  • Recruiting/interviewing/evaluating: Are reviewers defaulting to “fit” as a proxy rather than seeking evidence of creativity and initiative?
  • Marketing/branding: Are the firm’s values and team orientation the foundation for all marketing collateral and the proud touchstone of the firm’s brand?
  • Compensation: Does the firm’s compensation system incentivize the diversity of contributions needed for the firm to grow and thrive?

Each firm’s self-assessment would be unique, requiring varying levels of attention and realignment. But if a firm’s partners commit to a team orientation, not only would the need for adjustments become more apparent, improvement would become more achievable.

It comes down to this.

Modeling, leading, and managing a partnership “team” may be challenging, at least at first. But would it be more challenging than managing a steady loss of talent and business?

There is no longer any question that partnership diversity is a competitive imperative. Firms that fail to embrace diversity will fail to fulfill their clients’ needs. My personal story does not need to be an anomaly in the industry. A strong team orientation and a focus on contribution could go a long way toward fostering the diversity that will ensure firms’ continued growth and achievement. As partners, business owners, lawyers, and people, this is something that we should all be able to support.

About the Author

Rachel Adcox is an antitrust partner at Axinn and a member of its Executive Committee. She is based in Washington DC.

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