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Big law's relentless diversity problem - what firms need to do now

Nicholas Gaffney writes, "Why is it so difficult for large law firms to attract, retain, and advance non-white attorneys, even as law schools continue to enroll record numbers of minority students? Year after year, law firm diversity rankings continue to show that little progress is being made, despite the increasing popularity of diversity trainings, mentorship programs, and other seemingly well-intentioned efforts. What are firms doing wrong? And more importantly, what should they be doing? This month’s roundtable discussion brings together a diverse group of attorneys to address these critical questions.

NG: Minority law school enrollment is at an all-time high, yet the percentage of minority lawyers and partners in large law firms remains low. What is a possible explanation for this?

DH: Sometimes the diverse attributes that minority candidates bring to the table are not appreciated for the strengths that they are. Diversity of knowledge, thought, experience, and problem-solving abilities, to name a few, only lead to better solutions, arrived at more quickly. Yet when it comes to hiring, these characteristics are often overlooked or viewed negatively. In some cases, a lot of talented, diverse candidates don’t get the opportunities that they deserve because they aren’t the right “fit,” which is a term that I’ve heard used at some firms and which I deplore. Whenever I’ve heard this term used in the past, it was always in reference to a diverse candidate. If a firm is truly looking to improve low numbers of minority lawyers and partners, one important step is to ensure that everyone involved in the recruiting process—on-campus interviewers, recruiting committees, law firm recruitment departments, etc.—understands that it is diversity of talent, not “fit,” that leads to more capable legal teams and work product.

RW: So many things have to go right to build a great a career and advance at a firm: landing in the right environment where you can feel part of the team and focus on your work; getting on the right assignments and getting access to good clients; getting strong mentors who will advocate for you when you are not in the room and expose you to clients; having some transparency around what is needed to advance and make partner and effective business development support. Overall, while there are exceptions, the urgency to do better isn’t there, because firms are still making money without making meaningful changes to promote diversity. When, as is happening more and more, the clients don’t just ask questions but demand diverse lawyers and actually start moving work to other firms, there will be more of a course correction."

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