Without an understanding of how diversity impacts the bottom line, diversity programs are short-lived, inadequately funded, and not taken seriously by either the firm management or those responsible for implementing its initiatives.
In January 2001, MCCA launched the Creating Pathways to Diversity: Law Firm Diversity Recommended Practices project with the objectives to provide a database and profile of current law firm diversity planning, implementation and representation; qualify and illuminate the recommended practices for the design and implementation of diversity initiatives in law firms; identify the business case for diversity in law firms; and outline a strategy, programs and metrics that law firms can use to increase the recruitment, retention, and promotion of minority and women attorneys.
Here, MCCA reports the results of the first phase of a three-year effort to study how law firms can better design, implement, and monitor effective diversity programs. It is based on qualitative information gathered from four focus groups of attorneys from all backgrounds conducted nationwide on the topic of diversity as well as the quantitative information gained through an extensive survey of the diversity of major law firms.
In 2001, MCCA conducted an extensive diversity benchmark survey on www.eLawForum.com in addition to four focus groups in major regional cities, including Chicago, Ill.; San Francisco, Calif.; Washington, DC; and Houston, Texas. All law firms in the MCCA database were invited to send three to five attorneys in one of the four cities.
Each focus group was asked the same set of 18 questions that focused on several areas of diversity, including existing initiatives within their firms that focused on the recruitment, retention, and/or advancement of women/minorities, challenges and barriers to creating a diverse and inclusive law firm, and recommended practices that could benefit other firms. Most of the questions in the interview were open ended, which provided a depth and richness of data not otherwise possible.
A total of 141 attorneys participated in all four cities, with 33 white men, 35 white women, 37 women of color, and 36 men of color.
MCCA, in collaboration with www.eLawForum.com, administered an extensive survey to law firms about their diversity efforts. Through letters and telephone calls, MCCA law department members encouraged their outside counsel to complete the survey online or by fax and submit it to MCCA for analysis. The survey consists of 20 questions about the firm's demographic representation from 1999–2001, as well as the structural components and activities that address recruitment, retention, career development, and attrition.
Analysis of survey results included voluntary turnover or attrition, structural components of the diversity program, and demographic change over the last three years (1998 – 2000). The responses to the benchmark survey were analyzed and reported in the aggregate, without identifying information.
More than 104 firms participated in the survey, with 77 online and 27 submitting paper versions via fax. It is important to note that not all firms who submitted a response participated at the MCCA focus groups.
In the May 2001 issue of Diversity & the Bar, I wrote "law firm diversity is an oxymoron." That was the introductory sentence of a description of the Creating Pathways to Diversity: Law Firm Diversity Recommended Practices study that we conducted this year.
At the time, I was referring to the extremely high attrition rates (shown in Figure 1) of all associates, which cut into firm profits by its disruptive effect on client relationships and breeded cynicism in the work environment.
Figure 1: Law Firm Attrition (Year 1-8)
Source of Data: Miles to Go 2000, ABA Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession
MCCA's research project proved us both right and wrong: some law firms are trying to increase the numbers of minorities and women of their staff by recruiting qualified diverse candidates from the same set of schools they always recruited and with the same unclear criteria. In essence, they are doing the same thing they have always done but expect different results. However, their sincerity and methods remain questionable and reflect the lack of understanding about diversity as a business strategy that will benefit all attorneys, not just minorities.
Participants in all 16 focus groups were asked to rate their firm's current situation with respect to diversity and inclusion on a 10-point scale that incorporated MCCA's evolutionary stages of compliance, diversity, and inclusion illustrated by the Pathways concept. The results are shown in Figure 2.
|City||Attorneys of Color||White Attorneys||Averages|
|San Francisco, CA||5.8||5.0||6.5||8.5||6.5|
|Combined Group Average||4.9||6.0||5.4|
Figure 2: How Attorneys Rate Their Firms on Diversity
The overall average for all 16 focus groups was 5.4 with a high of 6.6 (white male attorneys, Washington, DC) and a low of 3.8 (male attorneys of color, Chicago). As a group, white men had the highest average rating—6.0, followed by white women -5.9, men of color – 4.87; and women of color – 4.84. These ratings show that white men rate the firm's inclusiveness the highest while attorneys of color felt differently.
Inclusiveness could be considered to also be a measure of how comfortable and utilized each attorney feels within their work environment. Judging by the results, white men feel that their firm provides developmental opportunities, career satisfaction, and the chance to maintain their family and work commitments, while attorneys of color still think that more can be done.
Despite differences in city and size of the law firm, focus group participants made one point very clear: change that will affect profits will drive the case for diversity in law firms. Without an understanding of how diversity impacts the bottom line, diversity programs are short-lived, inadequately funded, and not taken seriously by either the firm management or those responsible for implementing its initiatives.
Barriers to Success
The most common challenges to the diversity program are:
- Little understanding between diversity and the bottom line or its connection to strategic business initiatives.
- Myth of the Meritocracy—a cultural bias that conceptualizes diversity as coming at the expense of quality of legal service instead of because of diversity.
- Revolving Door for Incoming Attorneys of Color—the diversity at the associate level is not reflected in the senior partnership or management of most firms.
- Lack of senior partner commitment and involvement in the planning and execution of diversity initiatives.
- Insufficient infrastructure and resources for diversity programs.
- Attrition of women attorneys driven by lack of viable work/life programs.
- Negative stereotypes and assumptions about ability and work ethic, which become self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Emphasis on entry-level recruitment instead of lateral hires who can provide role models and mentors for young associates.
- Good intentions but little willingness to examine specific issues of each firm historically.
- External consultants design and implement a training program that is not owned or understood by the firm's senior management
Critical Success Factors
The critical success factors of an effective diversity program are:
- Understanding of the Business Case for Diversity—To ensure senior partner commitment and firm-wide buyin, it is important that a law firm develop a written plan that elucidates the business case for diversity, including an analysis of the costs of not taking the issue of diversity seriously and of the interest of clients in having diverse legal counsel represent them. Hence, law firms commit to becoming diverse because their future, market share, retention of talent, continuation of existing relationship with corporate clients, and performance depend on understanding and anticipating the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce and marketplace.
- Senior Partner Commitment—The diversity program is directed by a senior partner who is held accountable for the success of the initiatives and who is entrusted with the level of authority and resources to build and implement a firm-wide diversity program. The presence of management in the diversity program ensures that adequate resources will be committed and allocated to the effort and that the implementation is monitored on an ongoing basis.
- Collaboration between Partners, Staff and Knowledgeable Experts—Successful programs are the result of planning between external diversity subject matter experts and internal staff, including an advocate who is part of senior management. An internal team of staff members, including senior management, are tasked with the implementation, evaluation, and follow-up for the diversity program.
- Firm-wide Ownership and Participation—Ownership is shared by the entire firm for the results and implementation of the diversity initiatives, similar to the firm's involvements in other firm activities. Resources are committed, allocated, and spent in a way that facilitates the entire firm's involvement and ownership in the diversity program.
- Confidential Resources for all Attorneys—Each firm should have resources that allow all attorneys to voice their concerns, doubts, and ideas in a confidential or even anonymous forum where there is no fear of retaliation or retribution from senior management. Firms that are receptive to the issues raised by all attorneys will be able to change their culture, policies, or practices, while those without confidential forums will be hampered by reticent and unhappy associates who may depart as soon as another opportunity presents itself.
From the December 2001 issue of Diversity & The Bar®