Image of Patricia Brown Holmes and Leslie Davis

Patricia Brown Holmes and Leslie Davis

/ "Women in the Law" Spring Business Edition 2017

The millennial generation, known for switching jobs more frequently than previous generations, has started to influence the legal profession. Taking a cue from the younger generation, more senior attorneys are using lateral transitions to enhance their careers as well. For a variety of reasons, diverse attorneys change jobs at higher rates than other attorneys.1 But while lateral transitions are generally beneficial for both the attorney and the new law firm, those firms are now charged with finding more effective ways to quickly integrate lateral attorneys, particularly as those attorneys become more diverse. While most firms purportedly have an integration plan for laterals, these plans might benefit from a fresh approach that addresses the complexities of integrating diverse lateral candidates. Any subject involving race is always difficult to discuss; the integration of diverse lateral partners into the fabric of a large law firm falls within this category.

Nonetheless, the subject deserves exploration; it is critical to the bottom line.

According to the American Bar Association, in 1993, 8.3 percent of law firm associates and 2.5 percent of all partners were diverse.2 Today, approximately 20 percent of associates and 8.4 percent of all partners are diverse.3 This shift, while seemingly small, poses a unique set of challenges for the legal profession, which has historically lagged behind other professions in terms of diversity.4 In order to remain competitive, law firms must work to address the barriers that have inhibited the successful integration of diverse lateral attorneys, particularly as the numbers steadily increase.

The racial makeup of attorneys is not the only change to be navigated. Women now make up 36 percent of the legal profession, including 45 percent of law firm associates and 18 percent of equity partners. Similarly, women account for almost 25 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels.5 These rising numbers of diverse and female attorneys represent an untapped opportunity for law firms to grow their books of business by reaching out to the social networks of the burgeoning numbers of diverse and female attorneys. In fact, it is our experience that approximately 40 percent of the decision-makers with whom our firm does business are women and approximately 24 percent of those are diverse. Of the remaining 60 percent of male decision-makers, 25 percent are diverse. It would not be wise to ignore relationships that diverse or female laterals may have with diverse in-house counsel, thereby potentially ignoring opportunities. This by no means indicates that diverse in-house attorneys are the only source of business for other diverse attorneys. It is only one factor in a complex analysis regarding untapped potential frequently ignored when proper integration of diverse lateral partners is ignored.

Lowering diverse lawyer attrition and enhancing lateral success is financially beneficial for law firms.

Typically, it takes between three and 12 months before a firm recoups the initial costs of a lateral partner hire and longer for a lateral to become profitable.6 Focusing on successful integration of diverse laterals may expedite a firm’s return on its investment and ensure that expensive diverse lateral hires don’t flee the firm because of an unsuccessful onboarding experience. While successful lateral integration can be challenging in general, successfully integrating women and diverse lawyers requires strategic planning, innovation, and continuous evaluation. A determination to succeed in the integration process will have a positive impact on the financial bottom line for all involved.

STRATEGIC PLANNING

For female and minority attorneys, strategic planning is a crucial but sometimes neglected element of lateral integration. Welcoming a newcomer into a firm can be tricky. Without a formal plan, a new lawyer may arrive in a firm and feel out of place in its set culture, often contributing to the lateral’s inability to “catch on.” And if the lateral is female or diverse (or worse—both!), the feelings of isolation may be even more pronounced. Stereotypes and implicit biases may get in the way of the integration goal. This is, of course, counterproductive.

It may seem like common sense, but many firms often fail to take advantage of the new synergies and contacts to be gained from adding a new diverse or female lateral partner. The increasing numbers of diverse and women lawyers in the profession mean increasing opportunities to connect both in-house and outside counsel in meaningful relationships. It would be critical, therefore, to sit down with any lateral, and particularly a diverse or female lateral, to discern relationships they may have, activities in which they may have participated, and skills they honed during their career. Creating opportunities for a diverse lateral to interact with existing members of the firm in both casual and formal settings is essential. Making a concerted effort to get to know a diverse attorney on a personal basis can help ease their transition into the new workplace environment. These informal meetings are important ways of gauging the new attorney’s strengths and professional focuses in order to include the new lawyer in client introductions, RFPs, and client meetings. When we fail to get to know our lateral colleagues on a personal level, we may miss opportunities to strengthen the workplace and ultimately add to the bottom line.

Assessing diversity concerns is paramount to the strategic planning. As black female partners, we know first-hand the extensive and diverse network of lawyers and businesspeople that represent new opportunities to develop client relationships. Law firms can assist diverse lawyers in cultivating these relationships by alleviating concerns about origination credit and other forms of recognition. Acknowledging up-front that members of the firm may have relationships already with many of the same people that the new lateral partner has is an important first step. Embracing these relationships is extremely important―fostering them, even more so. Supporting the skillset of the lateral attorney is also critical when the lateral is a diverse attorney. Trusting that the diverse lateral lawyer adds value to existing matters helps the firm showcase talent, which in turn may lead to additional opportunities with existing and prospective clients.

INNOVATION

While there are a variety of ways to successfully integrate laterals, flexibility, teamwork, and inclusion are paramount to integration success. It is essential that law firms seeking to hire female or diverse attorneys implement ways to combat implicit biases and unequal distribution of work and credit. One way to accomplish this goal is to de-emphasize the billing hour, origination or billing credit, and realization rates. This would incentivize attorneys to help each other and place the success of the firm equally on all shoulders. An added benefit is that diverse attorneys are not penalized if it takes them slightly longer than other attorneys to get “up and running” in the new environment.

Also within the innovation spectrum is embracing the notion that diverse and women attorneys tend to engage in more nontraditional business development opportunities. Golf and other sporting events tend to be the norm for non-diverse attorneys. Shopping sprees, spa outings, beer or wine tastings, book clubs, pro-bono activities, or child-friendly events are all the rage among women and diverse attorneys. Support of these ideas for diverse and women laterals is often essential to their success and impact on the bottom line.

CONTINUOUS EVALUATION

Lateral moves are definitely a two-way street. Best practice for successful integration should also include the firm and the lateral constantly conducting self-reviews, the firm soliciting feedback from the diverse lateral, and requiring other attorneys to evaluate their own participation in the integration process. The law firm should track whether diverse laterals are included in client meetings, introduced to existing or prospective clients, included in brainstorming opportunities, and invited to business and personal networking and social events. Neglecting these actions can inhibit the integration process. Continued assessment provides an instant opportunity to make necessary adjustments in a timely manner.

While time-consuming, continuous evaluation is time well spent if it results in better integration and success. When diverse attorneys are included in the essential elements of the firm, it necessarily follows that the firm will reap the financial benefits of a more diverse, stable, and focused law firm environment.

It is no longer just good business practice to fully integrate diverse attorneys, but a business imperative to do so to compete in the marketplace. Successful lateral integration is absolutely possible, and legal employers that address the challenges inherent in the process for women and diverse laterals will have a better chance of enjoying a boost in both the bottom line as well as in office morale.

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1 Karen Hester, Mentoring Diverse Attorneys, NALP Bulletin, (December 2016),
http://online.qmags.com/NALP1216?sessionID=43A60A44BF0894E7A85EC942E&cid=2784819&eid=20093#pg6&mode1.

2 Aviva Cuyler, Diversity in the Practice of Law: How Far Have We Come?, 29 GP SOLO (2012), http://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2012/september_october/diversity_practice_law_how_far_have_we_come.html.

3 Jacqueline Bell, U.S. Law Firms Fail to Move Needle on Racial Diversity, LAW360, (May 15, 2016), https://www.law360.com/articles/794900.

4 ABA Section of Litigation, DIVERSITY IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION: THE NEXT STEPS 17 (2011).

5 American Bar Association, A CURRENT GLANCE AT WOMEN IN THE LAW 2–3 (2017) http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/marketing/women/current_glance_statistics_january2017.authcheckdam.pdf.

6 Edwin Reeser, Pricing the Purchase of Lateral Talent, San Francisco Daily Journal, June 18, 2012, at 8; Amy Kolz, Building a Better Lateral, The American Lawyer, February 1, 2013.