Monday, January 18, 2010

Diversity, Promise, Reality

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day--a shopping day, or a meaningful day to reflect on the promise and the reality of advancement by minorities in the legal profession? The latter, I think.

The National Association of Legal Career Professionals (NALP) published a terrific summary of best practices in 2006, the Diversity Best Practices Guide. Although retaining law professionals does not seem to be much of a problem these days, retaining and advancing the careers of minorities remains more critical than ever. I'm not aware of any studies yet that show the diversity characteristics of those who have been laid off in the past 18 months, but I'll be quite surprised, and happily so, if the statistics show that layoffs did not land disproportionately on minorities. And even for those who remain in the profession, this new era of competitiveness in the legal market will almost certainly make it more difficult for minorities to advance.

In any event, it's a good time to re-focus on diversity efforts, and to hold law firm leadership accountable. Here are some of NALP's best practices for retention:

__ Analyze existing systems and policies for unintended and/or historic bias, including the firm’s work allocation system, the process for inclusion at firm events, the internal training programs, and the committee appointment process.
_ Require annual reports by practice area leaders on goals and efforts to diversify practice groups.
_ Make firm leaders accountable for meeting diversity goals, including achievement of diversity goals as a factor in the compensation process.
_ Encourage all firm members to participate in women and minority bar associations and minority counsel programs. Sponsor memberships in these bar associations and fund participation at these events; support lawyers in leadership roles in professional organizations.
_ Institute anonymous upward reviews, with diversity competence as a component.
_ Promote work/life balance via equity/non-equity partnership options, on-site day care and free emergency child care, a sabbatical program, and part-time/flex-time options that maintain partnership eligibility.
_ Develop and support internal diversity networks/affinity groups.
_ Institute reverse mentoring, whereby senior attorneys are paired with junior diverse attorneys to learn about the challenges junior minority attorneys face.
_ Periodically reevaluate practice area assignments to assess fit.
_ Mandate equal access for diverse attorneys to quality work assignments, marketing efforts, formal and informal events, and clients.
_ Conduct annual internal conferences for women and minority lawyers, including sessions and panels on business development, leadership development, presentation skills, billing practices, etc.

Given all the challenges facing law firm management these days, it seems easy to let diversity efforts drift into little more than lip service posted on a web page. Let's not forget that the challenge of attracting, retaining and advancing the careers of diverse legal professionals is as important a goal as marketing, strategic planning, risk management, and, of course, getting those billable hours up!

Cynthia

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