Law firm “diversity” is such a hot topic right now that a good number of law firms place their diversity policy right in the center of their web pages.
One of my greatest pleasures is working with job-search candidates who face diversity challenges and helping these attorneys find ways to make diversity issues work for them rather than against them. Over the many years I’ve been representing these candidates, I’ve learned a few things that I hope will benefit both candidates and firms in our common goal of promoting personal and institutional diversity.
How do you feel about diversity in law firms, schools, and other places? What progress have you seen? Share your thoughts in the comments below the article.
The Importance of Diversity
I get it. I really get it. Diversity is incredibly important. Not including people because they are diverse is just plain wrong. People should be hired and advanced based on accomplishment and on their contribution to a diverse environment.
How would you feel if your opportunities in society and your chosen profession were limited because of your race, sexual orientation, handicap, religion, background and so forth? People are entitled to be the people they are and want to be—and should be proud of who they are. It is just plain wrong for anyone to be discriminated against and held back because of who that person is, what they believe or the person’s life choices like parenthood.
To see BCG Attorney Search’s diversity policy, please see our Commitment to Diversity page.
To cure past wrongs involving societal and institutional prejudice, many elite educational institutions have in the past decades gone out of their way to admit people from diverse backgrounds. These institutions seek to rectify historical imbalance and prejudice in society, and it is the right thing to do.
More recently, law firms have joined the movement and issued ringing endorsements in favor of law firm diversity. Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that law firm diversity policies are too often a “promise to the ear, broken to the hope.” A true commitment to diversity would require that these firms actually appreciate and hire people who are truly diverse. However, I have been in this business for many years and time and time again I have witnessed law firms hire candidates who conformed to law firm norms and fail to hire candidates who did not conform to those norms.
Why do you think law firms are not as diverse as they claim to be? What would help remedy this situation? Share your thoughts below.
Theory Versus Reality in Law Firm Hiring
When it comes to diversity, there are good intentions on the one hand and business realities on the other hand. As this article explains, what law firms say about diversity and what they do in practice are sometimes two completely different things.
At the outset, please understand that I am not the one making these rules; I am someone trying to get people jobs. I am exposing the reality of the situation so that people will have the correct information they need to get the jobs they want.
Over the years, I worked with numerous candidates with diversity challenges, including race, sexual preference and parents returning to the work force after child-rearing. They all came to me after months or years of job searching. Despite their diversity and excellent qualifications, they all got fewer interviews and fewer job offers than non-diverse candidates with similar (or not as good) qualifications. After a career seeing this pattern over and over again, I can only conclude that law firms really do not appreciate diversity that much. (Or, even if firms do appreciate diversity, they do not appreciate diversity so much that it motivates them to deviate substantially from risk-averse behavior that compels them to hire non-diverse candidates over diverse candidates).
Are law firms justified in not hiring attorneys that express their diversity openly such as the ones above? Why or why not? Share your answer below in the comments.
One recent example comes to mind of a young partner in a major American city who is gay. He has $2,000,000 in business after less than ten years of practice, which is enough to get a position in most law firms. He has good educational qualifications from top schools but has never been able to get a position in a major law firm. There is nothing whatsoever to indicate he is gay on his resume. He got a ton of interviews—why would he not? But firm after firm met him and passed after doing so and most simply said nothing about why they were passing.
When he did not get job offers after numerous interviews, he told me he wanted to promote his “diversity” on his resume. So we tweaked his resume to highlight his leadership participation in gay-rights organizations and so forth. I wrote enthusiastically about his interest in LGBT groups to firms and highlighted his interest in LGBT issues. When we did that, the interviews simply stopped.
I thought a lot about this situation and how to help this candidate get hired. I came to believe that he would have been hired by many of the firms with which he had interviewed if he had been more discrete about his gayness. So I did the unthinkable. He had one more interview coming up and I asked him something along the lines of the following when he indicated he felt law firms were discriminating against him because he was gay:
“If you were to not act gay, what do you think would happen?”
He did that and what do you think happened? He got an offer—from a top firm.
Do you think this example represents the legal industry as a whole? Why or why not? Share your response below in the comments.
I have example after example of this. Years ago, I was working with two women who were both from the same law firm. They had gone to the same law school and had similar grades. They were both in the same practice area and looking for a position in the “bastion” of liberalism: San Francisco. One was white and the other was black. The black woman had on her resume that she had been a national leader of the Black Law Students Association and was active in promoting diversity in her law school. I thought she was a great candidate.
She did not get a single interview and the white woman got several interviews and job offers.
What is going on here? Deep down, I really do believe that law firms want to do the right thing—to be diverse and to hire diverse candidates. But at the same time, law firms are risk averse and seek to avoid problems. This means that when push comes to shove, they feel threatened by people who seem “too” diverse and they prefer to hire non-diverse people whom they feel will more readily adhere to the norms of life (and work, work, work) that define the modern law firm.
Do you think a racial bias exists in law firm hiring? Why or why not? If so, what should be done about it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
One Reason Law Firms May Not Achieve Their Diversity Goals
Why do law firms keep hiring non-diverse people over diverse people, despite their diversity policies and best intentions? One answer may lie in the deeply-embedded law firm culture of homogeneity, risk aversion and the economic pressures necessitating ever-increasing billable and billed hours.
The “working mother” is a perfect case in point. Because law firm salaries are so high in major law firms, it has become increasingly common for many women to work and husbands to stay at home. Despite this arrangement, many women still want a day off per week, some flexibility to work at home, the ability to have flexible work schedules that allows them reduced hours, flexibility to take children to school and the doctor, and other accommodations.
Seems reasonable, right? After all, a diverse work environment has all types. Working mothers, single fathers raising children and so forth.
While these arrangements are something that most law firms will certainly tolerate for people already employed with them, their feelings towards such arrangements become crystal clear once the working mother tries to find a new job offering such flexibility. In general, it does not matter if she was at the top of her class at Harvard Law School or coming from a top firm. Law firms have little interest in flexible working arrangements when hiring laterally. The same rules apply: Similarly situated people (one who is a working mother, the other who is not) will experience profoundly different treatment and one will get interviews and get hired and the other will not.
This happens all the time. People who make an issue out of how they are different or that they need some sort of special treatment will not be hired and those who fit the mold will be hired.
What are some law firms that allow for flexible work schedules? What can other law firms learn from them? Share your responses in the comments below.
But here is the good news for anyone who is interested in getting a job at a law firm—law firms will hire diversely as long as diversity is consistent with the firm’s prosperity and growth. The firm will give you what you need and want as long as you show the firm that you will give the firm what it needs and wants.
So how does the woman who wants to work a reduced-hour schedule or take time off to raise her kids fit into this reality? Not so well—and not because there is anything inherently wrong with raising kids—but because it does not fit the model of a client and economics-driven law firm that demands loyalty to the firm above all else. But with dedicated and conscious effort by both the firm and the attorney, both can achieve their goals.
Over a decade of enthusiastically representing attorneys with all sorts of diversity challenges—and steadfastly believing in and wanting diversity—has led me to become a devil’s advocate. So take it from the law firm’s perspective. Law firms are businesses and they are driven by the needs and wants of their clients. This means that to get a job in a law firm you need to be the sort of attorney and person that a law firm client wants as well. That is a fact. And what type of person is that? It is someone who will put his or her head down and get the work done. In other words, always be who you are, but always remember to show that part of who you are is an attorney who wants to be at that firm, doing that work, for those clients, at the highest level possible.
Have you faced or do you know someone who has faced discrimination because you wanted to work a reduced-hour schedule or take time off to raise your kids? Share your experience below in the comments.
Here is another story to help illustrate this point. Not too long ago I was representing an attorney who had some of the most amazing qualifications imaginable. This attorney not only graduated from a top law school, but she did very well there. She was a minority and had qualifications that easily exceeded those of just about every top firm she was considering. She interviewed at one particular firm and the firm loved her and was exceedingly thankful to me for finding her. The firm was prepared to make an offer to her, but then she told the firm she did not want to be a partner.
Big mistake if her goal was to get the job!
“Why?” the firm asked her—probably stunned that anyone would say such a thing and acting as if they had never heard such a thing.
“I just would like time for a life and to do other things. Being a partner is not important to me.”
Just like that everything fell apart. The law firm called me and said they were no longer interested in her.
“Why?” I asked the firm—stunned that everything would go south so fast after the firm was so obviously interested in hiring her before.
“Because if we have a single person here that does not want to make partner then it destroys our culture. We want everyone to work hard and want to be a partner. We want everyone here to be hungry and excited about advancing. We need to be able to give people work on the weekend and when it is needed. Clients and partners need to be able to contact the attorney whenever they need to. We’re not sure your candidate would be willing to meet those needs.”
The firm droned on and on and I got it. They wanted control and they wanted people to be constantly motivated and committed. They did not want any “baggage.”
Back to a working mother wanting reduced hours. This is the same sort of thing. A law firm fears it cannot control her or call her whenever they need to. The firm worries that the attorney will not be as motivated. So, rather than figuring out a way to make both the attorney and the firm happy, the firm will simply hire someone without that “baggage” because then the law firm will be confident it will not need to deal with these issues.
It does not matter what city the attorney is in. It could be San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, or Charleston. Law firms will only accept and embrace diversity when the firm comes to understand that diversity does not interfere with the firm’s own needs and goals.
Why are many law firms so intent on controlling the attorneys they hire? Does it have to be this way? Why or why not? Share your thoughts below.
One of the biggest misperceptions of attorneys is that they are in control of their careers. They want to believe that they can practice law on their own terms and also be the person they are most comfortable being—all the time and without limits. By the same token, law firms want their attorneys to place as high a value on the firm’s institutional needs as on the attorney’s personal needs. The hopes and expectations of both are unrealistic. Diversity suffers when neither side modifies its expectations to encompass the needs of the other.
Diversity is a great policy for law firms. All law firms should be diverse, and most really want to be, despite pressures pulling them in the opposite direction.
You can get into a good law firm being “diverse” and, in my opinion, it may actually help you a great deal. I place a great number of diverse candidates and it is the part of my practice of which I am most proud because I do believe that our society and its institutions should be more diverse.
My challenge to both candidates and law firms is this: Be the change you want to see in the world. Candidates, present yourself in a way that shows every potential firm that an integral part of who you are is a professional who can and will deliver what the firm and its clients want and need: top notch work that meets or exceeds the firm’s standards. Firms, diversity policies are great, but diversity practices require real work, thought and a willingness to embrace differences that strengthen rather than diminish the firm’s growth and prosperity.
- See Why Upper and Lower Class Attorneys Rarely Succeed in Law Firms: How Race and Class Often Hinder Law Firm Success for more information.
What law firms and companies are good examples of diversity?
How can greater diversity make law firms better than they currently are?
Share your responses to the above questions in the comments below the article.