Embracing Diversity

Beyond Statistics

Embracing Diversity
Gary Sasso

Gary Sasso

March 31, 2016 12:00 AM

Discussions about diversity in law firms (or any business) often center on statistics—whether diverse employees mirror their percentage in the pool of qualified applicants. This focus can lead us to miss the forest for the trees. A law firm might have great statistics even though diverse attorneys are not highly successful, as long as it continues to replace those who fail. The goal of any law firm, however, should be to create an environment where all attorneys can be highly successful, not merely to maintain statistical conformity to a given percentage.

Most law firms have diversity managers, committees, recruiting policies, procedures, and programs. The best law firms have a top-down commitment to diversity. All of these practices are important, but they may not be sufficient.

“We have to reach across cultural differences to make diverse attorneys feel welcome in ‛our house,ʼ figuratively and literally.”

What drives success at any law firm? It is all about the work: getting challenging and meaningful assignments for key clients and performing them well. This is where the “rubber hits the road.” To ensure that our diverse attorneys enjoy the greatest chances for success, therefore, we must focus on those who control and perform the work. Specifically, we must ask the internal gatekeepers of career-building assignments, our client relationship managers (CRMs) and team leaders, to support and invest in diverse talent. At the same time, it is crucial for our clients, the source of all work opportunities, to get to know the attorneys on their outside counsel’s teams, including diverse attorneys, and to provide law firms with the feedback we need to make good decisions about them. Finally, our diverse attorneys themselves must strive to exceed expectations with every professional opportunity.

Law Firm Gatekeepers

Law firm managing partners or CEOs have the authority and bully pulpit to promulgate and promote policies and strategies, but we cannot and should not micromanage the staffing of thousands of client relationships and matters in our law firms. Practice group leaders are closer to the action, but face some of the same limitations. By contrast, CRMs and team leaders can and do make staffing choices and work assignments on a daily basis that profoundly and directly control the opportunities of diverse attorneys in law firms. We must influence their decisions.

Accepting that CRMs act in complete good faith and with the best intentions, they are human nonetheless and will default to their comfort zones. This means they tend to work with associates and more junior partners they have “raised from the cradle” or tested in battle over the years—regardless of whether they are diverse. This is natural, understandable, and may arguably serve our clients’ best interests. But this can also preclude or limit opportunities for diverse lawyers, ultimately disserving our clients’ best interests in having access to the best talent and the many benefits of diverse teams.

To be truly inclusive, CRMs must make a conscious effort to involve more diverse attorneys on their teams. It will not happen by accident. I have seen this proven repeatedly in many contexts in our profession, even within the best-intentioned groups. After all, diverse attorneys do make up a minority of the attorneys in most law firms. As a result, selecting persons randomly will omit diverse candidates from consideration most of the time. This problem is exacerbated if we “lock in” a team for assignment after assignment that was not diverse at its inception.

So what should CRMs and team leaders do? They must range outside their comfort zones by considering adding new players to their client teams, purposely to diversify them. Of course, every team member must have the requisite skill set and other attributes needed for success. Diverse candidates may not always be available for any given matter or assignment, but they are available more often than we might now think. Further, considering these issues should encourage our CRMs and team leaders to become more aware that they may need to recruit diverse attorneys to fill gaps in their lineup.

Team leaders have opportunities to integrate new personnel into client teams or discrete assignments every day. So they need not displace current team members necessarily. Nor must they take risks they do not already take on a daily basis. They must, however, be more open-minded when selecting teams, and move outside their comfort zones to test new talent.

They could consider adopting a variation on the “Rooney Rule.” Advanced by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney when he became chair of the NFL’s diversity committee, it requires team owners at least to interview diverse candidates for head coaching positions. Developing this habit forces gatekeepers to open their eyes to all the talent in their organizations and to give diverse attorneys a fair shot.

Gatekeepers must also take pains to make all attorneys feel truly welcome on their teams. Too often, diverse attorneys feel socially isolated. They may not be invited to informal lunches, dinners, or other events. Even when inadvertent, this inevitably leads to perceptions of bias, making matters worse. We have to reach across cultural differences to make diverse attorneys feel welcome in “our house,” figuratively and literally.

In-House Counsel

How can our clients move the dial? Many corporate legal departments have programs and initiatives to foster diversity on the part of their outside counsel. These measures may include gathering statistical data from outside counsel, recognizing firms that have good numbers, and encouraging or pressuring outside counsel to use more diverse attorneys on their teams. The most effective programs are true partnerships, more collaborative than coercive.

In-house and outside counsel can partner most effectively by communicating more frequently and more directly about using diverse teams. Too often, clients tend to rely on general statistical information about the diversification of their outside law firms. Aggregate statistics may be useful, but they are insufficient. In-house counsel must know exactly who is on their client teams and should work to develop a relationship with all team members, not just the CRM. They should talk frankly with CRMs about diverse attorneys at the law firm who might be good candidates to represent the client. Then they should agree to work with the CRMs to invest in these candidates and support their professional development, giving them opportunities for meaningful roles on client teams. This process occurs whenever new members are selected for client teams. Striving for more diverse teams requires only that we introduce diverse attorneys more consciously as opportunities arise.

Equally important, clients must provide frank feedback about diverse attorneys (and all team members, for that matter). If a diverse attorney is not a good fit, the client should say so, and everyone can go back to the drawing board. When the opposite is true, and diverse attorneys do great work, in-house counsel should say so—in writing. Sending a note or email to the CRM with a copy to the law firm’s managing partner gives law firm leadership powerful information that we can use to make retention and promotion decisions.

Diverse Attorneys

How can diverse attorneys improve their lot at their law firms? Like all successful attorneys, they must perform at the highest levels consistently. This requires a combination of persistence, patience, and passion. While diverse attorneys may face more obstacles than their majority or male counterparts, they must view the challenge as a driver of success, not cause for despair. If you start with the belief that you cannot succeed, you will likely prove yourself right! Personally, I have always enjoyed being the underdog or fighting against long odds. It is a motivator. Ultimately, law firms and their clients can confer opportunities, but they cannot confer success. That must always be earned.

Related Articles

Protecting Small Business Owners: Trial Experts Connick Law LLC Notoriously Successful with Fire Litigation

by Justin Smulison

When small business owners become the target of insurance companies in fire-related lawsuits, hiring a firm with a reputation for understanding the science of fire suppression trials can save their livelihoods.

Gold Indoor Sprinkler Heads on Red Background

Anna Inventing: The Importance of Diversity in Innovation

by Emily C. Peyser

A patent from 1887 by female inventor Anna Connelly not only revolutionized fire safety, but highlighted the need for diversity in innovation. Our world is facing big problems that need diverse voices at the table to find solutions that work for everyone. Building diverse teams and encouraging diversity in innovation is a beneficial step forward in resolving our collective challenges.

Diversity in Innovation and Technology

Will Recent Boeing Settlements Create Tailwinds In Corporate Law?

by Justin Smulison

Prominent litigation against Boeing is setting a precedent of accountability, professionalism and commitment among company boards as well as ushering ESG further into the courtroom to help monitor and prevent safety issues.

Recent Boeing Settlements and Corporate Law

Colorado's Best Lawyers 2022

by Best Lawyers

Our 2022 Colorado's Best Lawyers publication features top-ranked legal talent in Boulder, Denver and Western Colorado.

Colorado's Best Lawyers 2022

Newly Launched COVID-19 Litigation Project Offers Open Access To Pandemic-Related Court Judgments From Over 70 Countries

by Sara Collin

A worldwide database of COVID-19 cases is uniting more than 70 countries as judges, lawmakers and lawyers continue to navigate pandemic related litigation and the ways in which it’s evolving amid year three.

COVID-19 Worldwide Litigation Project

Memphis Bar Gets First Black Female President

by Anissa Cordova

Best Lawyers is celebrating listed lawyer Tannera George Gibson who has become the first ever black female president of the Memphis Bar Association.

First Black Female President for Memphis Bar

Look for the Zoom Label

by Anne R. Yuengert and Matthew C. Lonergan

Will the virtual platforms that got such a boost during the pandemic replace how you interact with your employees, unions, and lawyers?

Virtual Platforms Replacing Work Interactions

Discovery in the Time of COVID-19

by H. Barber Boone

The pandemic has affected the vital process of legal discovery in ways both good and bad. Which changes are likely to become widely accepted in the years ahead?

The Impact of COVID-19 on E-Discovery

Busting a Trust

by Joseph Marrs

The rules governing trusts and asset distribution are often much more flexible than many might assume. Here’s a primer.

Rules Governing Trusts and Asset Distribution

The Next Chapter

by Patrick M. Shelby

Among its uncountable other disruptions, the pandemic upended U.S. bankruptcy procedures. Congressional relief, legislative changes, amended legal provisions: What lies ahead for those looking to file?

COVID-19's Impacts on Bankruptcy Procedures

Phoning It In

by Alyson M. St. Pierre, Ashley C. Pack and Crystal S. Wildeman

It’s not easy for employers to weigh requests from employees to work from afar, even in the wake of the pandemic. Considerations include COVID-19, vaccinations, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the nature of the job itself.

Employer Considerations for Teleworking

Compelled to Compete

by Ashish Mahendru

Courts and legislatures—and now the White House—are taking an increasingly dim view of noncompete employment agreements, a development the pandemic has quickened. What can employers do to protect their confidential information?

Protection for Employers Beyond Noncompetes

Meeting Halfway

by Julia B. Meister

To resolve family and business disputes including wills, trusts, estates and more, mediation is often a more effective, gentler and cheaper option than litigation.

Mediation to Resolve Wills, Trusts, Estates

Look Out Below

by Mary Jo Larson

Employee 401(k) and other pension plans that include company stock can be a financial minefield. What’s a responsible fiduciary to do to lessen the risk of a plummeting share price—and the risk of a subsequent “stock-drop” lawsuit from aggrieved workers?

Navigating Employee 401(k) and Pension Plans

Family Law – Sometimes All in the Family

by Justin Smulison

Led by a father-and-son team of Family Law lawyers and trial advocates, with the support and assistance of family members, Blevans & Blevans, LLP continues its tradition of excellence serving the Northern California Bay Area in 2020 and beyond.

Blevans & Blevans

Achieving Justice For Essential Workers

by Justin Smulison

Patrick Regan of Regan Zambri Long describes how the recent resolution of a corporate negligence case brought closure to survivors of a fatal 2016 apartment building explosion.

Patrick Regan Best Lawyers 2021

Trending Articles

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power

by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

The U.S. Best Lawyers Voting Season Is Open

by Best Lawyers

The voting season for the 31st edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and the 5th edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America is officially underway, and we are offering some helpful advice to this year’s voters.

Golden figures of people standing on blue surface connected by white lines

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

by Best Lawyers

The 2021 Global Issue features top legal talent from the most recent editions of Best Lawyers and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch worldwide.

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset

Best Lawyers Voting Is Now Open

by Best Lawyers

Voting has begun in several countries across the globe, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Below we offer dates, details and answers to voting-related questions to assist with the voting process.

Hands holding smartphone with five stars above phone

Inflation Escalation

by Ashley S. Wagner

Inflation and rising costs are at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we enter 2023. The current volatile market makes it more important than ever to understand the rent escalation clauses in current and future commercial lease agreements.

Suited figure in front of rising market and inflated balloon

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide

by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide is now live and includes recognitions for all Best Lawyers family law awards. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Man entering home and hugging two children in doorway

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots