I’ve been gobsmacked by how many managing partners and firm practice group leaders tell me, “Mike, we’re having trouble recruiting a homogenous, non-diverse stable of lawyers; we want to grow our numbers but we can’t seem to break the cycle of onboarding lawyers who all look very different from each other and represent different life experiences, ethnicities, geographies and genders. Can you help us address this human capital challenge?” Alright . . . so I’m not hearing that! As you might assume, I’m hearing quite the opposite. Outpacing all other law firm laments- by a wide margin- is the frustration firms express about not being able to recruit successfully enough diverse and minority lawyers.
Why can’t firms win more than their fair share of recruiting battles for diverse lawyers, and why is this important? For one thing, culture matters to all lawyers- both diverse and non-diverse lawyers. Lawyers want to work in eclectic, stimulating environments. Non-diverse lawyers are a flight risk if they are denied the affirming experience of working with colleagues who represent true diversity. Moreover of course, corporate law departments for some of the same reasons want to work with a more diverse stable of providers and advisers.
The legal business is a human capital business. With GDP growth at 6x-7x normal rates reducing to “only” 3x-4x normal rates as the economy recovers, demand for commercial legal services will remain brisk for a long time. The challenge law firms face in recruiting diverse lawyers is in some respects a more acute form of the challenge they face in recruiting all lawyers. What diverse lawyers want to see in a firm to which they commit their career in many respects is what all lawyers want to see in a firm worthy of career commitment. Compensation of course is important, but what else should firms support to more reliably attract the most desirable lawyers to their firm?
Career Long Commercial Success
Make an explicit and detailed commitment to helping your diverse lawyers be successful commercially. Many firms view the path-to-partnership as a 10-year fraternity hazing experience- “we want autodidacts who can figure out success on their own- that’s our partnership readiness KPI.” What if you were simply better than your peers at teaching your diverse stable of layers the functions and vocabulary of business so they will have an easier time engaging with client prospects? What if you taught them from inception how to cultivate relationships, convert opportunities into paying engagements, and cause third parties to become introduction generators for their pipeline? I encourage my clients to demonstrate with concrete, tangible and packaged deliverables what their competency building experience at their firms would look like in these areas- you must show that you are as intentional and serious about building in them these skills as you are about building in them technical legal skills.
Help Them with Life
Committing to a law firm career = committing to an imbalanced life. Help your diverse lawyers- particularly if they’re new to the community- build their supportive personal scaffolding so they can be even more effective at building their career. Get to know them and help them manage some of the non-work dimensions of their life that are rendered more complicated because of work. Do they want to send their kids to private school? If so, put them in touch with other partners who know something about that process. In what activities outside of work do they and their spouses/partners like to engage? Put them in touch with others who engage in those activities. How are they trying to build out their personal and professional network? Put them in touch with other firm lawyers who know people who would be interesting to them. Listen and learn, and then be helpful- pretty simple, huh? You should document what the firm does in these areas, and package it up (promote, educate others, and document) so that diverse recruits see that it is part of the firm DNA.
Educate Them with Expectations and Possible Roles
Many firms offer multiple paths and have cracked the code on how each flavor of lawyer can generate firm profits. Very few younger lawyers have a granular view of success over time at a law firm. We all know law firms can support thoughtful long term tracks for non-equity partners, fractional lawyers, and lawyers moving into business roles. Success in a law firm career is less binary and more complicated now. Firms expect to generate profits from all lawyers, no matter what title they have. All lawyers- including diverse recruits- need to understand what those roles look like and how they could be successful in each one.
Stop Being Cryptic
Many firms aren’t very open about what life will be like at a firm as a senior partner, or even as a young partner. AmLaw rankings may provide transparency into the financial benefits, but even those numbers don’t tell the whole financial story; e.g., amount of capital contributions, spread between highest and lowest compensated partners, what are the “doing my part” expectations at each stage. Also, be open about what people earn and why. You have much a better chance of convincing a desirable recruit to defer near term compensation gratification if they see a pathway to great financial security and reward down the road- but you must be specific and transparent here!
Most lawyers care very deeply about blunting the imbalanced nature of law firm lawyering over a career by seeking control over what they are doing. “If I’m going to have to work this hard, I want to be able to do it on my terms . . . “ At bottom this means they need to see how they will build a client base of their own. How else could your firm help diverse lawyers establish control over their career- both long term and day to day?
If your firm is like 90% of the AmLaw 200 law firm that can’t throw more money at diverse recruits than your competition, then you have to be more thoughtful and holistic, if for no other reason than because your most desirable minority and diverse recruits bring their own thoughtful and holistic lens to these issues. Meet your human capital where they are, and give their long term career aspirations an intellectual bear hug- then you will begin winning more of these talent battles.