Troubleshooting Law Firm Diversity Efforts

The legal profession is attracting a growing number of people from diverse backgrounds: Women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ and people with disabilities. Despite this, representation among industry leadership still lags.

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s January 2017 Report on Diversity at U.S. Law Firms, women account for nearly half of summer associates, while minorities comprise nearly a third. But those numbers take a dive when we look at law firm partners: Less than a quarter are women, and just 8% come from a minority group.


Many firms actively embrace diversity with a comprehensive list of programs. The problem is that we often miss the forest for the trees. Through my years in practice and now as a coach working with associates and law students, I’ve seen firms pursue individual initiatives while failing to connect the dots. Here are six common pitfalls and how your firm can pivot to grow its diverse talent.

1. The Right Hand Does Not Talk to the Left

Silos create barriers that can be hard to break through. From hiring and professional development to women’s leadership, firms have a committee for everything. But each group pursues its mission with minimal communication from one to the other, and misses the common threads that impact everyone.

Connect your diversity program closely to recruiting data, so you can meet the specific needs of your incoming class.

Law school professors can quickly name the characteristics of each class: The gunner class, the anxious class, the quiet class, etc. Each one is distinct.

Firm diversity initiatives, on the other hand, often stick with programs based on their reviews and high praise in the past—regardless of whether they’ll resonate with a new group. Imagine a program cemented by last year’s extroverted class, now delivered to a more timid group whose immediate training and support needs may be very different from their predecessors.

Instead, initiatives should be developed and revisited every year in close consultation with the firm recruiters and hiring committee. They are knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of the incoming class and can help you as you plan both new and repeating program.

Diversity programs should be fully integrated with professional development and evaluations.

Stress for new associates knows no prejudice: They aren’t confident about what they’re doing or what’s expected of them. In addition to learning how to do excellent legal work, they are figuring out the business dynamics, politics and culture of firms, and how to be a professional. What every associate can benefit from is training that will better prepare them to manage their day-to-day tasks.

This experience is amplified for diverse (especially first-generation) lawyers who may need even greater support to develop these lawyering skills. Providing them with substantive skills training through your diversity program can reap better benefits for their growth and retention than social activities.

It’s just as important that any common or individual performance concerns from diverse associates, or about them, be reported to the diversity committee so they can budget and plan programs to address them as quickly as possible. The sooner you offer the help they need, the less you risk having a great associate get disheartened and leave.

2. Your Program is Not Adequately Individualized

Substantive training seminars and social events are beneficial, but individualized coaching and mentoring are more effective and popular with our new generation of lawyers. Typical law firm mentoring programs have two weaknesses: How people are matched, and whether associates have access to outside help.

Mentors should be matched for personalities and ambitions, not ethnicity and gender.

The reality is that women and minorities will find each other and form friendships on their own. Success, however, is shaped by many different factors.

Thoughtful matchmaking should take a holistic view of an associate’s strengths and weaknesses, pairing people based on multiple success factors that aren’t limited to one facet of a their story. For example, a brilliant but timid first-year female associate from Southeast Asia can learn much from a white male partner who grew from a shy associate into a rainmaker.

External coaching has all the benefits without the risk.

In the law firm context, associates coming from different backgrounds may miss relevant information or fail to ask the right questions. Beyond that, they may not feel comfortable asking someone within the firm how they should respond to a situation. First of all, it’s intimidating. Second, nobody likes to admit they don’t know what’s going on—especially to someone with seniority and power over their career.

External coaches can offer objective experience and solutions in an environment that doesn’t have the same perceived risks.

3. You Do the Same Thing But Expect Different Results

New innovative thinking and strong partnerships are strongly needed to move the diversity needle forward.

Upgrade your recruiting mindset to avoid eliminating tremendous diverse talent.

When we approach something on a large scale, we tend to look for commonalities. In the world of recruiting, school rank and grades typically top the list. Unfortunately, this means you risk overlooking stellar future attorneys.

Someone who is the first college graduate in their family, has lived in a series of foster homes, endured years of discrimination, or been on their own from a young age may not be able to tick standard checkboxes. Just getting to college can take years of sacrifice, persistence, ambition and fierce dedication. These qualities can contribute to becoming a top-notch lawyer, but that path may not start with top grades at a top law school.

Thinking beyond school ranks and grades does not mean you have to absorb all the business risk of hiring diverse talent. For example, you can work with consultants to design a more consistent interviewing strategy or even a practical test for potential candidates.

Invest your diversity budget in true partnerships instead of one-off sponsorships.

Firms often spend a large portion of their diversity budgets on activities based on who’s advocating for them in a given year, then don’t fully rethink or follow-up to measure how effective or meaningful the activity was on the development and retention of their diverse talent.

In addition to the ROI of each investment, you should consider investing most of the diversity budget in programs and vendors that offer a true partnership to solve the diversity gap instead of one-off financial contributions.

4. You Aren’t Focusing Enough on Inclusion

As expert Verna Myers said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” We don’t always get as far as dancing together.

Inclusion starts when you have diversity programs, events, and coaching programs that everyone participates in.

Statistically, white men dominate nearly every part of the legal profession. That doesn’t mean they’re any less engaged in or committed to diversity efforts. True diversity celebrates differences, so to the extent possible, invite everyone to benefit from the firm’s diversity programming. Most importantly, involve everyone in the discussion about representation, why it matters, and how to create change.

5. You Aren’t Training the Management

Your partners and senior associates are the ones who evaluate and decide which associates get what opportunities. To do this well, in a way that doesn’t undermine your diversity efforts, they need to have the right skillset and mindset.

Managers should understand their implicit biases.

Everyone has implicit biases. The question is whether we’re aware of them and how to minimize their impact. For example, if a manager thinks a female associate is good at managing cases while her male counterpart is good at writing briefs, they should have the skills to recognize their bias and avoid locking either one into that particular role.

Teach your managers how to “code switch.”

Identified by the Harvard Business Review as one of the top skills needed by 21st century managers, “cultural code switching” is the ability to adjust your presentation—from how you speak and your body language to the overall management style you adopt—to fit different cultural norms or expectations. It’s an essential part of communication and effective management for everything from collaborating on assignments to assessing and providing feedback to associates.

6. You Forget the Sugar

Long hours, demanding internal and external clients, and the responsibility to deliver quick yet accurate work product make the legal profession challenging. The first few years of practice are even more grueling on diverse junior associates who may have fewer role models at work and home.

The evaluation process, skills training, raising awareness of diversity and women’s issues, and mentors who stress the development of certain benchmark skills are invaluable but not enough.

As Maya Angelou said, “It’s not what you do or say. It’s how you make people feel.” Make praise and encouragement a strong component of your diversity program. Encourage your talent to stick it out during the hard years. Tell them on a regular basis that you believe in them and think they have amazing potential to one day make partner. Promise them that you’ll look for good opportunities for them. Inspire them to pay it forward. And groom them to become the future diverse leaders we desperately need.

About the Author

Niki Khoshzamir Moore is an entrepreneur, attorney, and career coach. She is the CEO of the LegalEd startup PracticePro and the creator of its Diversity Scholar Program. Connect with her at

Send this to a friend