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September 7, 2018

How Firm Culture Affects the Success of Attorneys With Diverse Backgrounds

This article originally ran in The Legal Intelligencer on September 7, 2018.

 

It’s not easy being a young attorney of a diverse background. Much like Rocky was an underdog fighter with hopes of making it in the boxing world without much support, so too do many minority attorneys struggle to find their place in the legal market today.

 

Since I began law school about a decade ago, diversity has been a hot topic among law firms and legal departments. Partially in response to a demand for diversity by clients in corporate America and partially recognizing the benefits of diversity themselves, more law firms have been investing in diversity initiatives. Many law firms, for example, participate in diversity job fairs for the opportunity to recruit minority and other diverse students. It was through one of these job fairs that I interviewed with Conrad O’Brien and hired as a summer associate. I was ultimately offered a full-time position, which I accepted, and I remain with Conrad O’Brien today, more than eight years later. But my experience is not typical.

 

Indeed, despite the efforts of law firms to recruit attorneys with diverse backgrounds, many firms continue to struggle to retain those attorneys, especially at the partner level. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), black attorneys in 2017 only made up 1.8 percent of law firm partners. Asian, Latino and minority women attorneys do not fair much better, representing only 3.3 percent, 2.4 percent and 2.9 percent of law firm partners, respectively. Numerous articles have been written on what firms can do to help retain attorneys with diverse backgrounds, including a focus on how work is assigned, the evaluation process and the implementation of mentoring programs. While all of these steps can certainly help, I believe that the single most important reason why I remain at Conrad O’Brien and why I have been successful here is the firm’s culture.

 

It is true that many firms are now committed to recruiting and retaining attorneys with diverse backgrounds, but it is also true that not all firm efforts are successful. Implementing an assignment model that ensures an equitable work-assignment process is helpful, but only initially. Many law firm associates have found that regardless of what work-assignment policy is in place, as time goes on partners, especially rainmaking partners, often select the associates based on existing relationships with them. It’s inherent in the firm culture at many firms.

Studies have shown that people tend to select and mentor those who remind them of themselves. For minority attorneys, and attorneys with diverse backgrounds, that is bad news given how under-represented they are at the partner level. That  means that even if diverse associates are initially receiving interesting and challenging work assignments, without more, they do not develop the partner relationships they need to continue receiving those assignments, thereby impacting their ability to grow and improve their skills as an attorney. If that happens, the result will often be a vicious cycle that dooms the associate’s potential to make partner or justify  staying on with the firm.

 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

Based on my experience, the reason for a firm’s success at retaining attorneys with diverse backgrounds is the fact that the firm’s partners and leadership take a sincere interest in their associates and the associates’ professional development, including (and perhaps particularly) associates with diverse backgrounds. For example, in addition to ensuring that all associates receive an equal opportunity to work on complex and challenging assignments, in my case, partners at my firm took the time to mentor me—a female immigrant with different religious beliefs—to ensure my success at the firm. That mentorship went beyond a regularly scheduled meeting to address concerns or challenges I may have been facing. It consisted of partners taking the time to talk out case strategies and assignments, provide feedback, and to look at my mistakes as an opportunity to teach me, rather than write me off as an attorney.

 

I have found that the communication and feedback I received while working on a case contributed most to my development as an attorney. It not only provided me the opportunity to learn from each partner about his or her thought process and experience, but it also helped build the long-lasting relationships with these partners that ensured I continue receiving challenging and complex assignments. Indeed, it was because of the development of these sincere bonds that I felt comfortable enough to ask questions when necessary, and they likewise took an interest in seeing me achieve my career goals. It has been a very healthy cycle that all firms should hope to achieve for their minority attorneys.

 

In short, in order to retain diverse attorneys, efforts must go beyond implementation of policies for initial work assignments and forced mentorship programs. There must exist a firm culture wherein true bonds can be formed between the partners and the diverse attorneys of the firm, regardless of how different their backgrounds may be. Partners and senior associates must take a genuine and vested interest in mentoring and developing these associates so that the associates—and in turn, the firm —can succeed.  After all, as everyone in Philadelphia knows, every Rocky needs a Mickey.

 

Aya M. Salem is a senior associate at Conrad O’Brien. She focuses her practice on representing Am Law 100 and regional firms in legal malpractice cases and other civil liability matters. She also concentrates on representing companies in products liability actions, defending toxic tort environmental exposure litigation. 

 

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