Taking Firm Diversity to the Next Level
Despite efforts to increase diverse representation in the legal profession, there still is much work to be done. Here are some ways to step up your firm’s opportunities to support and advance underrepresented attorneys.September 2019
Earlier this year, 170 general counsels and chief legal officers at major corporations that spend hundreds of millions on legal services annually issued an ultimatum to law firms: hire, retain, and promote diverse lawyers who better reflect the demographic composition of entering associate classes, or risk losing the companies as clients.1
This wasn’t the first push to bring greater diversity to law firms. In 2016, two dozen general counsels from large corporations established the American Bar Association’s Resolution 113, in which they vowed to spend a larger percentage of their budgets on minority attorneys.2 The Mansfield Rule, established in 2017, called for more diversity in law firms’ leadership and governance roles.3
Many firms have expressed support for these diversity initiatives, at least in theory. But they have fallen short in putting actions into practice to create true change. Nearly one-third of U.S. law school students are minorities, yet only 8% of equity partners at law firms are minority attorneys.4 Women face similar challenges. More than half of law students in the country are female, but only 35% of graduates work as attorneys at law firms and barely one-fifth are equity partners.5
Clearly, much more work is needed to improve diversity within the legal profession. Taking steps to create change shouldn’t be difficult. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I have found that to successfully hire and retain minority and female attorneys, efforts must be intentional and focused at every level of an attorney’s career—from the current law student to the seasoned veteran.
I believe the key to this is “out of the box” thinking and a culture that is continuously refined and shaped—which I have seen at my own firm, Beasley Allen. It is a culture that not only recognizes the unique backgrounds, experiences, and personal achievements of minority and female lawyers but also celebrates those inimitable qualities and incorporates them into the firm’s character. It is a powerful, intentional approach that benefits our attorneys individually and the firm. It’s not only the right thing to do—having attorneys who more accurately reflect the clients we serve and the jurors we are in front of makes us better representatives for our clients. Here’s what I’ve learned from my firm’s efforts to increase diverse representation in the plaintiff bar.
Identify and Nurture New Talent
Minorities have backgrounds and perspectives that add value to any law firm, and for this reason, firms should actively seek ways to identify, recruit, and invest in these talented groups. For example, for several years I served as the Alabama State Bar’s Minority Pre-Law Conference chairman. This program seeks to address the shortage of minorities in the legal profession and increase diversity in the bar. The conference provides high school juniors and seniors a better understanding of our civil and criminal justice systems through seminars, an interactive panel of speakers from the legal profession, and hands-on activities such as mock trials. My law firm sponsored many of these conferences, knowing it would be a good investment in future law students and new lawyers.
My firm also identifies minority talent by participating in a summer internship program that pairs minority law students with participating law firms. The program is run by our state’s minority lawyer association, the Alabama Lawyer’s Association. We give the students a good balance of substantive work and practice experience by having them attend trials, hearings, meetings, and social functions. While we are not always able to offer them permanent jobs, our attorneys continue to be mentors as the students embark on their careers. Local bar associations for underrepresented groups are a great place for firms to identify similar internship programs and talented law students.
Foster an Inclusive Environment
Building diversity in law firms hinges on establishing a culture of inclusion and a work environment where all employees are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities, and can contribute fully to the firm’s success. When goals are set that encourage and require everyone to succeed, an inclusive environment follows. I often have law partners in other practice areas or sections who offer assistance or encouragment on cases that I’m working on because they care about all of our clients, along with recognizing that when I do well, they do well too (and vice versa).
One valuable expression of inclusion is through mentoring. Establishing a formal mentoring program for women and people of color will help your firm ensure the success of its diverse attorneys. “Having an influential mentor who can serve as a cheerleader or who assigns associates to desirable assignments is critical to making it to the next level.”6 Formal mentoring programs can be done in creative ways that not only benefit the mentees but also further a firm’s business goals. For instance, have young female attorneys attend conferences or CLE programs with senior female partners to observe firsthand how to network and build relationships with other attorneys and firms.
It is more difficult for minorities to find mentors informally, especially in white-male-dominated firms because senior managers tend to be more comfortable with people like themselves. Support opportunities that may work to advance diverse attorneys’ careers—it signals your firm’s willingness and commitment to develop and promote minority lawyers.
My partners and I know that any ideas or suggestions we make to expand diversity through formal or informal means are welcome. While they may not always be immediately implemented, we have the freedom and support to transform our ideas into palpable, workable solutions.
For example, a partner at my firm who strives to help lawyers connect realized that female lawyers in Alabama needed a better way of networking. She helped create a Facebook networking group exclusively for female lawyers. The group takes traditional mentoring concepts and uses them within a modern platform that allows female lawyers to easily refer cases, post and seek job opportunities, and encourage each other. Other partners at my firm are now working to expand this to minority lawyers.
Provide Opportunities for Meaningful Advancement
In 2016, my firm’s leaders thoughtfully established a diverse, five-person executive board, charging its members to help lead the firm into the next generation. The board identifies new areas of the law in which the firm will become involved and recommends processes for the growth of the firm. But it does much more; it helps maintain the firm’s focus on diversity and preserves our inclusive environment. Understanding that every leadership opportunity can open the door to others, my firm positions its minority and female attorneys for such occasions. It works to strengthen our lawyers’ profiles by developing their leadership skills and experiences both in and outside of the courtroom and by removing the obstacles that often block minority and female lawyers’ success.
As an African-American attorney, I’ve personally seen how a firm that embraces diversity allows all of its attorneys to achieve their maximum potential and better serve their clients. Two years ago, my firm decided to open its first remote location in Atlanta and tapped my law partner Chris Glover and me to establish the firm’s physical office. It was a huge honor and responsibility. The firm’s leaders, knowing our abilities and experience helping to lead other professional groups, trusted that we would do our best to succeed. This opportunity was available partly because of the firm’s inclusive culture and proactive approach to find opportunities for its diverse group of attorneys to help the firm grow. Giving your attorneys chances to try something new and contribute to the firm’s growth will let them rise to new challenges and help diverse attorneys move into leadership roles and experience career advancement.
Carve Out Niche Areas for Flexibility
Another example of “out of the box” thinking is allowing lawyers to carve out niche practices. A couple of decades ago, my firm’s leaders realized that if attorneys could focus on certain areas of law, the firm could better carry out its mission of “helping those who need it most.”
Expanding this concept, the firm has allowed lawyers, at times, to concentrate their practices even further. This allows the firm to benefit from a lawyer’s honed and focused skillset and provides flexibility to lawyers who seek a work-life balance but still desire to maintain their law practices.
One of my law partners now leads the team that handles brief writing for the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability Section and is the section’s lead appellant attorney. Her team handles complex briefing, from defending our experts to complicated discovery issues. Many of the firm’s attorneys are on the road a significant amount of time. Crafting a succinct brief while traveling isn’t always possible, so having someone in the office dedicated solely to this job gives the team that is on the road the support it needs.
Practicing law requires us to adapt to the changes and obstacles we face. Carrying this mindset into developing our firms gives us the flexibility to shape and reshape our human capital to meet our clients’ needs while giving our colleagues the room and resources they need to grow and succeed. When you appreciate the diverse world we live in, you can see how attorneys can better relate to the diverse nature of our clients and the diverse makeup of many of our juries. For firms to achieve a higher level of success, they must position their attorneys and staff in roles that allow them to reach their full potential and be the best they can be.
Navan Ward Jr. is a partner at Beasley Allen in Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Michele Gorman, GCs’ Open Letter to Firms Serves As Ultimatum on Diversity, Law360 (Jan. 28, 2019), https://tinyurl.com/yydmnn34.
- Diversity Lab, Mansfield Rule 2.0, https://tinyurl.com/ya9g88ew.
- Jacqueline Bell, The Best Firms for Minority Attorneys, Law360 (June 17, 2018), https://tinyurl.com/y4dyzpgc.
- Cristina Violante & Jacqueline Bell, Law360’s Glass Ceiling Report, By the Numbers, Law360 (May 28, 2018), https://www.law360.com/articles/1047285.
- Minority Corporate Counsel Ass’n, Creating Pathways to Diversity®—The Myth of the Meritocracy: A Report on the Bridges and Barriers to Success in Large Law Firms (2017), https://tinyurl.com/y5qlrgfb.