Chapter 9: Challenges Law Firms Will Continue to Face Despite Being Diverse |

Chapter 9: Challenges Law Firms Will Continue to Face Despite Being Diverse

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A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes
Retention Issues

Many diverse attorneys feel like a “mark” follows them inside firms that makes it more difficult for them once they are hired: they are not trained as thoroughly, their mistakes are judged more harshly, they are given less sophisticated work, they are rarely taken to pitch meetings or allowed significant client contact, and so they move on.
Many top law firms remain suspicious that diverse attorneys were educated, gained job experience, and were hired simply to fill diversity quotas rather than on their merit. Because of this presumed inferiority, diverse attorneys are given poor assignments and have a difficult time getting mentors. The routine mistakes young attorneys make are more costly to diverse attorneys because they confirm existing prejudices in the firm. When diverse attorneys are not provided challenging work, are not mentored, and become discouraged, they tend to leave law firms where they are unhappy.[1]
Almost all law firms and attorneys I spoke with admitted to having serious issues with retention of diverse attorneys. Retention is difficult despite the facts that clients want to see diversity and demand it and diversity in law firms is carefully tracked.
For various reasons, some based on the limiting preconceptions firms have about them, others based on law firm culture, diverse attorneys face retention issues at law firms. These impediments to doing the work long term are interrelated, so the more firms address false preconceptions, for example, the better mentorship opportunities will be for diverse attorneys. The better their mentorship, the better the retention of diverse attorneys will be. The better their retention, the fewer false preconceptions there will be about diverse attorneys to derail diversity efforts and prevent law firms from experiencing the full benefits of a diverse workforce.
How an attorney is treated, how an attorney views life in a law firm, and how confident an attorney is about belonging in a firm significantly affect that attorney’s legal career as well as law firms’ ability to do business.
Many diverse attorneys join law firms and then end up leaving within a few years.[2] This often occurs because they feel isolated,[3] do not see upward potential,[4] and do not receive the best assignments and believe their skills would be more valued elsewhere.[5] Diverse attorneys give various other reasons for leaving their firms:
  • Feeling like they do not belong
  • Feeling left out
  • Lack of access to inside information
  • Inability to get enough work (hours)
  • Not being given substantive work
  • Feeling like tokens
  • Inability to get adequate sponsorship, mentoring, and training
  • Inability to generate enough business
  • Inability to form relationships with influential partners
  • Lack of positive feedback
  • Lack of role models for their diverse group
  • Family considerations
  • Geographic considerations
  • Major market versus smaller market considerations
  • Feeling uncertain about the future

Feeling Like They Do Not Belong

Diverse associates often feel isolated when they notice that few of their colleagues or superiors share their background.[6] Many diverse attorneys report feeling like they do not belong. They may feel like their contributions are not valued as highly as those of nondiverse attorneys and that they do not fit in with the other attorneys they are working with, either because their values and beliefs differ or are perceived to differ. Diverse attorneys may be perceived as lacking commitment to work as a result of their family obligations. They report not being invited to informal functions, not being viewed as potential leaders, and that the focus is on their gender or minority status instead of on their skill.[7]

Feeling Left Out

Many attorneys from diverse backgrounds report feeling left out in law firms. They feel like they are not included in activities, they are not asked out for lunches, and they are not made part of social groups and activities that occur with firm employees outside of work. Diverse attorneys also report feeling like they exist on their own “island.” In a study conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association regarding minority attorney experiences at law firms, participants discussed the “acute isolation minority attorneys can experience, such as exclusion from ‘peer camaraderie, socializing, and support that make the first few years [at a law firm] more tolerable.’”[8] These “forms of workplace inequity are frequently embedded in an institutional structure that preserves exclusion, even if it prohibits more deliberate exclusion.”[9] As lawyers attempt to implement “remedial decrees designed to eliminate the effects of systems that have deliberately subordinated workers, they find themselves dealing with issues of organizational norms, culture, and structure.”[10] Subsequently, “if the new associates are unable or unwilling to conform their lifestyles and values entirely to the firm’s culture conflict ensues, leading to the large-scale departure of nontraditional associates.”[11]

Lack of Access to Inside Information

One of the more important ways to get ahead in law firms is by having access to inside information, such as knowing about the strengths and weaknesses of various attorneys and partners, client relationships, and work distribution within the firm. This sort of information can make attorneys feel like they are part of the group and enables them to make correct career decisions. Many diverse attorneys report a lack of access to this sort of information, which affects their ability to advance in the firm.

Inability to Get Enough Work (Hours)

The most important contribution young attorneys make to law firms is their ability to work lots of hours. A major concern of all attorneys is getting enough hours to succeed. Hours are the lifeblood of attorneys—both partners and associates. Without billable hours, attorneys’ careers are often short-lived.[12]
In law firms, work can be distributed in a variety of ways. Some law firms use central assignment systems, where all work for associates is assigned to a central person and then distributed fairly among them. Assignments that come through central assignment systems tend to be short-term work, and central assignment does not necessarily result in attorneys getting a lot of hours consistently over a long period.
A law firm can be a very isolating place for an attorney. It can be even more isolating when an attorney does not have work to do or when the work the attorney is given is unimportant. Workflow has a great impact on an attorney’s career. When there is not a lot of work to go around, associates are at constant risk of upsetting partners. If you’re not productive, you’re not essential to the firm.
To get lots of hours, attorneys need to work on long-term assignments and form relationships with attorneys in their firms who have access to long-term work. Most tasks that lawyers do are not on huge matters. The majority of work in large law firms comes from individual lawyers giving work to each other and associates. Partners develop relationships with other attorneys they like working with and feel comfortable with. Most law firms distribute work informally in this way: partners give work to the attorneys whose work they like best, who they believe their clients like best, and who they are most comfortable with.[13]
The problem with partners assigning work is that it creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop of partners supporting the careers and advancement potential of associates who are like them and not assigning work to attorneys they don’t identify with.[14]
Recently, I spoke with an attorney who has practiced law at the same major law firm for the past twenty years. He not only has been able to survive for two decades in one of the most competitive and demanding law firms in the country but also made partner there. He said he went to work each day and never left without “making his hourly target for the day,” and he has lived his life like this for twenty years. “As long as you are making your hours, you’ll always be okay,” he told me. “It’s only when your hours stop that there are issues.”
Many attorneys agree that tallying billable hours is one of the most harrowing aspects of practicing law in a firm. To this day—almost two decades after practicing as an attorney—I still have nightmares that weeks have gone by and I haven’t billed any hours. In my dreams I know I am committing professional suicide by not billing hours.

Not Being Given Substantive Work

Many diverse attorneys in law firms report that they are not given substantive work. They believe that partners have lower tolerance for their mistakes than for the mistakes of nondiverse attorneys and thus will not give them important work to do. Attorneys without important work have limited prospects for advancement. Few minority associates “are classified as potential ‘stars’—young lawyers who should be cultivated as future firm leaders—in the firm, and therefore few minorities get . . . challenging assignments . . . [leaving] minority associates . . . to be stuck with routine work leading nowhere.” In addition, they are not given appropriate feedback on their assignments that enables them to improve their output; law firms end up giving them nonsubstantive work instead. “Even when internal mobility is available uniformly . . . organizational leaders may ‘track’ individual employees, informally grooming them for success (or failure) by controlling their access to choice work assignments.”[15] Minority attorneys report that not being given substantive work is also discouraging. It leads many to leave the firm long before they are formally passed over for partnerships.[16]

Feeling Like Tokens

Many minority attorneys report they are put on important matters to make the law firm look diverse when really they are given only small, unimportant assignments. Or they are highlighted on law firm websites so the firm is perceived as diverse, but then are forgotten about later. This tokenism is problematic. Black attorneys in particular experience this.[17] Women and other minorities report being asked to attend functions or award ceremonies, to speak to law students of color, to pose for publications, but never to have had contact with partners in power other than at those events. Furthermore, they report meeting with clients only when race or gender diversity was an advantage to the firm, for example, when a client specifically requested a diverse legal team or when a client is a minority.[18]

Inability to Get Adequate Sponsorship, Mentoring, and Training

To get ahead in most law firms, attorneys need sponsors who support them to partnership.[19] They also need mentors who show them the ropes along the way and train them. An attorney without a sponsor has an extremely difficult time advancing and making partner. Attorneys sponsor junior attorneys when the junior attorneys impress them and when they can identify with them. Because sponsors tend to sponsor those who are most like them, attorneys from various diverse backgrounds often have an issue getting a sponsor when there are not many attorneys like them in the law firm. A self-reinforcing feedback loop arises, where diverse attorneys fail to get sponsored and thus do not advance to a position where they can sponsor others like them.
Similarly, according to a study by David B. Wilkins and G. Mitu Gulati, white mentors tend to feel more comfortable in working relationships with other white men, in turn making it “difficult for blacks to form supportive mentoring relationships.”[20] Also, because of the lack of women and minorities at the senior partner level, fewer women and minorities are mentors.[21]
To be most effective, attorneys need lots of training from more senior lawyers. When attorneys are not trained by more senior attorneys, their work does not develop the way it must for success. This training is nearly constant, and attorneys need feedback constantly, too.
If the law firm and its partners do not believe a given attorney has potential, they will stop giving the attorney meaningful work and will leave the attorney on his or her own. Once that happens, the attorney’s advancement ceases and peers move ahead rapidly.[22]
The difficulty diverse attorneys have in finding mentors, and therefore in gaining access to the training they need, is a primary reason they leave large law firms and in the earlier stages of their careers.[23]

Inability to Generate Enough Business

For an attorney to stay employed in a law firm permanently, business generation is extremely important.[24] Attorneys who want to become partners and have a say in the future of the law firm must develop a book of business.
One issue diverse attorneys face is that clients tend to develop business with attorneys who are similar to them. One article found that “all Michigan alumni are disproportionately likely to serve same-race clients.”[25] It is more difficult for attorneys to get business from others who do not share their background. Most CEOs, general counsel, and others who generate business tend to be heterosexual white males. Because diverse attorneys are most likely to attract business from attorneys of their background, they have a smaller universe of potential clients to draw from than white attorneys do.
Firms with high billing rates make it difficult for young attorneys to bring in business, too.

Inability to Form Relationships with Influential Partners

The inability to form meaningful relationships with influential partners severely limits the careers of diverse attorneys in law firms. Partner contact and mentoring is increasingly recognized as a key process for the success of attorneys. “Disparity in social contacts with partners and mentoring experiences with partners, rather than disparities in merit and performance, can explain the ‘paradox’ of high rates of minority lawyers’ dissatisfaction and departures after being hired into large law firms.”[26]
One writer notes that social relationships leave “some black lawyers at a distance from their white colleagues.…For the most part, they don’t go to church together on Sunday enough, they don’t have dinner together enough, and they don’t play enough golf together to develop sufficiently strong relationships of trust and confidence.”[27]

Lack of Positive Feedback

Many diverse attorneys report their work is criticized more than the work of their peers. Black associates frequently report being judged more harshly than their white contemporaries on similar mistakes. There is a perception in many law firms that the diverse attorney may not be “up to snuff.” Because of the expectation that minority associates perform only average or acceptable work, any mistake they make confirms this initial perception and forms a vicious cycle. On the other hand, absent a compelling reason to think otherwise, “mistakes by whites are more likely to be dismissed as . . . ‘growing pains’ since these associates are presumed competent.”[28] The severity of criticism leveled against them leads many diverse attorneys to leave law firms, which compromises their ability to do the work long term.
The lack of positive feedback diminishes diverse attorneys ability to improve, get more meaningful work, and fully participate and advance in law firms. Because their work is more harshly criticized, mainly because of the erroneous and outrageous preconceptions discussed earlier, diverse attorneys understandably long for an environment where they receive positive feedback on their work so that they know what they are doing right and can do more of that.[29]
A few black attorneys I worked with told me they felt more comfortable working in government legal departments than in the law firm environment. They said they received positive feedback on their work, the environment was more egalitarian, and they knew they could advance if they did good work. They commented that law firms were not as welcoming of diversity as the government was.[30]

Lack of Role Models for Their Diverse Group

Young diverse associates are more likely to join a law firm when they see diverse attorneys in positions of power in the firm. Having diverse attorneys on the management committees of law firms likely improves retention of diverse attorneys. Having a role model demonstrate how it’s possible to succeed in the firm increases the odds of retaining diverse attorneys.[31]
Minority attorneys report there is a self-reinforcing feedback loop inside large law firms, and many attorneys leave because they find no appropriate role models to look up to and follow. In large law firms, there may not be many women, gay, black, or other diverse partners. The number of black attorneys at AmLaw 100 firms, for example, generally can be counted on one hand, even though the average firm on that list has more than doubled in size in the past twenty years.[32] In addition, in a Law360 survey of more than three hundred firms, women made up a little less than 20 percent of equity partners.[33] Furthermore, a January 2017 bulletin from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) indicated that 1.89 percent of partners overall identify as LGBT, which does not match that group’s proportion in society.[34]
Most management committees are composed of the attorneys with the most business. For reasons discussed earlier (lack of mentorship and training, lack of substantive work, lack of meaningful relationships with senior attorneys), lower numbers of diverse attorneys have the most business in a firm. And when diverse attorneys are appointed to management committees without the necessary book of business, it is perceived as tokenism.
On the other hand, studies demonstrate that the mere presence of a diverse judge on a panel can influence the way decisions are made:
  • In sexual harassment and sex discrimination cases, judicial panels “with at least one female judge decided cases for the plaintiff more than twice as often as did all-male panels.”[35]
  • One study indicated that a panel of two white judges and one black judge was more likely to decide cases upholding affirmative action outcomes than was an all-white panel.[36]
The presence of a diverse person on a management committee can influence the committee’s decisions, including decisions about diversity-related matters.

Family Considerations

Women attorneys at law firms may have family obligations that they cannot abandon. In society, women are traditionally the family caregivers, not men.[37] In most circumstances, women are considered responsible for children.[38] Women attorneys who desire a family are held back in their careers by these gender-specific expectations, which law firms perceive as incompatible with a career in a firm.[39]
Work in a law firm often involves assignments that are time pressured: trials in a large case, deadlines for transactions, papers that need to be filed by a certain time. These deadlines are often nonnegotiable.
Negative consequences are accorded to attorneys who are not around to make sure legal work is done properly and in a timely manner. Attorneys’ family obligations sometimes compete with their ability to be constantly available to the law firm. Attorneys who cannot fully dedicate themselves to the job are often believed to be ineligible for partnership or advancement because they can’t be there to meet the demands of the law firm’s clients.
Flex-Time Lawyers releases an annual list called the “50 Best Law Firms for Women.” Most of these firms allow attorneys who work reduced hours to be eligible for equity partner promotion. In 2014, only one lawyer at those firms received that promotion; in 2013, no one in that category was promoted to partner.[40] Evidently, even at these more lenient firms, attorneys find it hard to advance without fully committing to the job. “Individual partners continue to point to women’s child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities to explain the lack of women lawyers in leadership positions, despite significant literature to the contrary.”[41]
Because of these preconceptions, many women attorneys face difficult choices.[42] They often choose to leave the practice of law (or the law firm) because they believe they will not advance at a firm that prejudges them and holds them back because of their current or future family obligations.[43]
  • Due to family obligations, a woman attorney might ask for part-time hours. “In a survey of three thousand women in the nation’s largest law firms, sixty-seven percent of the respondents reported that part-time work results in lesser opportunities.”[44] Furthermore, in a 2007 study of Massachusetts lawyers at the top 100 firms, “women who [work] part-time stay in law firm positions longer than women who remain fulltime, but are less likely to make partner than the fulltime women who do remain.”[45]
  • In that same study, women who left law firms did so because of “difficulty integrating work and family/personal life.”[46]
  • “Programs and policies that are available only to women are susceptible to the dreaded ‘Mommy track’ label and therefore likely to be perceived as a path for second-class citizens.”[47]
  • In a 2016 Issue of OC Lawyer Magazine, a survey was published in which four hundred men and women across the United States were asked why they left the law profession. Of the respondents, 84.7 percent were women, and their responses are listed in Table 9.1.[48]
The primary reason I left my firm was… Percent
I wanted to spend more time on other pursuits 0.7
Bias or discrimination ( e.g., due to race, gender, parental status, etc.) 1.3
Lack of opportunity, training, and/or support to develop a book of business 2.3
Lack of opportunity to advance 3.7
My compensation was too low 4.0
I felt disrespected 4.0
I had to leave due to family reason (e.g., spouse's job, military service, etc.) 4.0
Lack of opportunity to do the type of work I wanted to do 4.3
The work was not meaningful 4.7
The job was too stressful 7.3
Lack of flexibility regarding hours 9.6
The job demanded too much time 17.6
Toxic work culture 18.3
I wanted to spend more time with my family 18.3
Table 9.1 OC Lawyer Magazine Survey: Why Women Respondents Say They Leave the Law Profession
The second choice many women attorneys face is whether to have a family at all. Many choose to remain single and do not have families because they fear that would limit them in the law firm. This unfortunate choice occurs far too often. “Studies suggest that women lawyers are less likely to be married or have children than their male counterparts.”[49]
The third choice is whether to remain at their law firm and risk asking for flex time or other arrangements to accommodate a reduced schedule. This exposes them to the risk that the law firm and partners will perceive them as uncommitted to their career and unable to do the work long term. Law firms do not like to compete with other priorities in attorneys’ lives.
Because the law firm is so demanding, women often feel that they cannot be part of the law firm environment while contemporaneously having children. To retain women partners, change is needed to ensure that they remain. Policies that allow women to have just as much power over the trajectory of their careers with alternative scheduling are important.

Geographic Considerations

In areas of the country that are not diverse, law firms have a more difficult time retaining diverse attorneys than they might have in the most cosmopolitan cities. This phenomenon often is more pervasive in the Midwest, suburbs, and towns outside of major cities.[50]
Several diverse attorneys indicated to me that they wanted to live and work in areas where there were other diverse attorneys and professionals with whom they could socialize. This is especially so for young attorneys who want to meet others. One attorney from Portland and one from San Francisco said they preferred living in areas like their respective cities rather than in smaller cities because they felt like their diversity was accepted and there were other people like them they could socialize with. Another diverse attorney in a small Southern town said she was having trouble breaking in to the social scene at her firm as well as in the town. She was leaving the firm to move to a larger city where there was a more active social scene for single people.
Partners in law firms in areas of the country with low diversity indicated they often have issues retaining diverse attorneys. One said that her firm in Florida had a difficult time retaining black attorneys because the area did not have a lot of African American professionals. She said that the most recent African American attorney she hired ended up leaving her firm and moving to Atlanta to be closer to more professionals similar to her.
In these instances, the geographic area influenced the legal market and prompted diverse attorneys to stay at their firm when they felt comfortable in the area or to leave because they felt out of place where they were working.

Major Market versus Smaller Market Considerations

The largest law firms in the largest cities are the most likely to attract the most diverse attorneys, but, ironically, they have the hardest time with retention—whether or not an attorney is diverse. These law firms are much more “sink or swim.” They may expect extreme hours from attorneys and may make associates feel like commodities; mentors may be unavailable, and the amount of business needed to make partner can be exorbitant. Attorneys often need to bring in large, institutional clients. In general, these highly competitive firms can be pretty unwelcoming places for all attorneys.[51]
Law firms in smaller to midsized markets do not have the same turnover as larger markets, and attorneys in them seem to make it work for everyone. Partners often retire later, associates who stick around make partner, and most attorneys have few options other than staying with the firm and making it work.
Attorneys, diverse or not, leave the most competitive firms in the major markets more than they do smaller firms in smaller markets. These firms make it hard for everyone—regardless of diversity—to have long-term careers in them.
Because most qualified diverse attorneys are most likely to be hired at the largest law firms in the largest cities where it is more difficult for them to make partner, the cycle may be self-reinforcing: attorneys go to firms where there are not a lot of opportunities, get discouraged, and leave.

Feeling Uncertain About the Future

Many diverse attorneys often note that they do not feel confident about their future in a law firm, which impedes their ability to cultivate a long-term outlook for staying at a firm. It should be noted, though, that all kinds of attorneys report feeling uncertain about their future in a law firm.
The pressure to achieve high billable hours may be felt disproportionately by women associates “with competing family responsibilities and among those who anticipate such responsibilities.”
Additionally, attorneys might doubt whether advancement is achievable in their law firm when they see a dearth of diverse partners at the firm.[52] (In 2015, the NALP found that just 7.52 percent of partners at major law firms were minorities.)[53] Another reason for the uncertainty is lack of mentorship. “Minority lawyers leave before becoming senior associates because they are neither receiving meaningful training and mentoring nor believe that they have a realistic chance of becoming partners.”[54]
This consequently leads to dissatisfaction, uncertainty about whether advancement in the profession is achievable or even desirable, and eventually to attorneys leaving law firms.[55]

Lack of Mentors

One thing that helps attorneys stick with and succeed in the practice of law is having a good mentor. Without a good mentor, many associates fail at law firms. Mentors offer associates profound career advantages. Nowhere is mentoring more important than for the diverse attorney who may feel alone in his or her organization.
A mentor helps an attorney understand the unstated rules and politics of the law firm, get the best assignments, develop marketing skills, bond with decision makers in the firm, and feel supported in the development of his or her career. A mentor is most often an attorney who is older, has had similar experiences, and is available to provide advice and counsel.
The most successful attorneys—regardless of their diversity—had the benefit of a mentor. Mentors can be from within an attorney’s firm or outside the firm; sometimes an attorney’s mentor is his or her parent who is an attorney. Attorneys with parents who are attorneys grew up watching the parent and witnessing the parent’s level of dedication. They will have a realistic understanding of what it means to be an attorney. This type of parent mentor can discuss issues and give advice to the attorney.

Why Mentors Are So Important

Throwing new attorneys into the law firm environment with no support or guidance is unwise because it squashes the attorney’s chances of being able to do the work long term, to the detriment of both the attorney and the firm. Attorneys need to know countless things to get ahead in a law firm.[56] Every law firm has an unstated set of rules that people follow, and certain things are important in one firm and not another. A mentor can guide an associate in the right direction. A good mentor can help a mentee in so many ways it is difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship. Here are just a few of the ways a mentor can be an invaluable resource for an attorney—and all the more so for a diverse attorney, who may feel marginalized in a firm.
  • A mentor can help an attorney avoid certain partners. Some partners may be on the way out; may be ungrateful or disorganized; may give cryptic instructions for difficult assignments; may not have good work; and may consistently give poor reviews to attorneys who work for them. A good mentor can help a mentee avoid these sorts of partners. Working with a toxic partner can be career suicide, a morale killer, and discouraging to young attorneys. When an attorney is told which partners to avoid, the attorney can make better decisions about where to invest effort.
  • A mentor can help an attorney know which partners to get on the good side of. In every law firm, there are certain partners it pays to please. They may have access to the best work, may be rainmakers with a lot of business, may be connected within the law firm, or may be on important management committees. If an associate curries favor with one of these partners, it can be beneficial to the attorney’s career. A good partner can make sure an attorney always has work to do, can help the attorney advance to make partner, and can take the attorney along if they leave the firm. Some mentors protect their mentees through their entire careers. Many senior attorneys in large law firms—and even junior ones—are where they are because a mentor has protected and helped them along the way. Some attorneys can work their entire career without having to generate business because they got in good with the right partners. A mentor likely has access to information about who does and does not like the mentee and why they feel this way. Attorneys may need to impress people they are not impressing and may need to do more work with people who like them. When attorneys understand who their friends and enemies are, they are far more likely to be successful.
  • A mentor can take an attorney on business development meetings. Good mentors take mentees on business development meetings and inform attorneys of the requirements in terms of business development. Watching the older attorney can help the mentee learn the skills necessary to succeed in business development. Mentors also introduce mentees to a network of contacts that the mentee can draw on later. Knowing how business is generated is important for attorneys and can provide them with more employment security. Attorneys who attend business development meetings with their mentors gain skills and contacts.
  • A mentor can tell an attorney what he or she is doing right. Many attorneys may not realize what they are doing right and what they are doing better than other attorneys. The law firm environment is filled with all sorts of doubters and puts people on the defensive constantly. Attorneys tend to hear much more about what they are doing wrong than about what they are doing right. Constant negative feedback can take its toll and is one reason so many people leave the practice of law. This is especially so for diverse attorneys. Good mentors encourage attorneys by making them aware of their strengths and building on them.
  • A mentor can tell an attorney what he or she is doing wrong. Good mentors also tell attorneys what they are doing wrong. Many times, young attorneys do not even realize what they are doing wrong, so it is important for them to get this feedback from a mentor. Mistakes can be related to their attitude toward the work, taking too long or not enough time on assignments, asking for too much direction, not socializing enough with other attorneys outside work, being careless with details, or not doing what is expected of them. Having a mentor looking out for them and pointing out mistakes enables attorneys to correct these faults before it’s too late.
  • A mentor can help adjust an attorney’s expectations. Many attorneys—associates and partners alike—have inflated expectations about the quality of work they should be doing, their compensation, advancement, and the challenges they should be given at various points in their careers. Mentors can act as sounding boards and temper high expectations. Also, an attorney needs to be aware of the hours of work that are expected. In some firms, 2,500 hours may be needed to be competitive with other associates, and in others, that number may be 1,800. A mentor can give an attorney insight into how his or her hours stack up to those of other attorneys in the firm. Lawyers can get into trouble by not billing enough hours, and they also can also get in trouble by billing too many hours.
  • A mentor can provide insight on who to emulate. Every law firm has an unwritten behavior code. Mentors can help attorneys realize what behavior is considered admirable. When attorneys know who is doing well, they can observe that attorney’s behavior and model the positive aspects of it. They can associate with attorneys who are succeeding and avoid attorneys who are on the way out.
  • A mentor can explain how the firm is doing financially. Law firms can be risky places to work because they go through so many economic ups and downs. When the firm is doing poorly, a good mentor can help an attorney understand when it may be time to look for a job (before the attorney is laid off) and when it may be time to look extra busy and indispensable. When the law firm is doing well, a good mentor can point out the opportunities for advancement.
  • A mentor can advise an attorney on how to overcome adversity. Mentors who share similar characteristics as the mentee can be very helpful in helping the mentee overcome difficulties related to diversity that the mentor encountered. Mentors demonstrate that it is possible to succeed in the face of challenges. Having someone to identify with is an important source of encouragement and helps attorneys pull through when things get difficult. Relating with stories is one of the best ways to teach people.
  • A mentor can guide an attorney in managing his or her personal life. The personal lives of attorneys working in law firms can become difficult. Attorneys are argumentative with each other, which causes stress; the hours are long, which causes stress; the amount of travel required is often unreasonable, which causes stress; and deadlines pile up day after day, which causes stress. Attorneys are not home most of the time, but when they are, they usually are not “present,” and this is not pleasant to be around. Many attorneys do not excel at nurturing relationships or raising children. A good mentor can show a young attorney how to find balance and succeed in the practice of law and in life outside of work. Many attorneys leave the practice of law because they cannot manage their personal lives, and many attorneys who do not manage their personal lives properly end up extremely unhappy at work.
  • A mentor can provide contacts. Good mentors share their contacts from in-house, other law firms, government, and other places. I have known countless attorneys whose mentors assisted them in transitioning into new careers by putting the attorneys in touch with the right people. It is much easier to get a new position or to find the information they need with the help of a mentor’s network.

Why Diverse Attorneys Face Difficulties Getting Mentors

Lack of mentorship is a key reason why diverse attorneys do not do better in law firms. It’s hard for diverse attorneys to find mentors in law firms for various unfair, incorrect, or prejudicial reasons.
Partners only mentor associates they believe are the smartest or the most likely to stick around. They are interested in mentoring only attorneys they believe are the best qualified and likely to do the work long term. As discussed earlier, diverse attorneys are often perceived as not being qualified or as unable to do the work long term, so partners may not choose to mentor them.
Women face difficulty getting mentors because they are perceived as lacking in long-term commitment to the firm or the practice of law. Partners often believe women will not stick around or that they will grow less committed to work because of family obligations.[57]
To meet their diversity goals, firms must confront preconceptions they have about diverse attorneys and create formal mentoring arrangements for them.
Click Here to Reach Chapter 8: Diverse Attorneys Will Still Face Challenges
Click Here to Reach Chapter 10: And the Legal Beat Goes On
Click Here to Reach Introduction/Table of Contents

[1] See, generally, Judge John Hack, “Diversity Quotas: Would They Be Legal, Would They Make a Difference?” Legal Cheek, November 4, 2014, which finds that attempts to force law firms and chambers to recruit a specified percentage of a certain type of applicant is destined to fail quickly.
[2] See Leonard and Levine, The Effect of Diversity on Turnover: A Large Case Study, 13,
[3] See Creating Pathways to Diversity: A Set of Recommended Practices for Law Firms (Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 2017), 17, .
[4] See, generally, Staci Zaretsky, “The Best Biglaw Firms for Minority Attorneys Who Want to Make Partner,” Above the Law, August 22, 2017,, which explains that “while more than 30 percent of law students are minorities, only 15 percent of lawyers and less than 9 percent of partners are attorneys of color.”
[5] See Creating Pathways to Diversity, 18–19, .
[7] See Charlotte L. Miller, “Checklist for Improving the Workplace Environment (or Dissolving the Glass Ceiling),” Utah Bar Journal 9 (1996): 6–9; Government of New Brunswick, “Employer Checklist on Workplace Environment and Satisfaction,” Wage Gap Reduction Initiative,
[8] See Creating Pathways to Diversity: A Set of Recommended Practices for Law Firms (Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 2017),
[9] Susan Sturm, “Lawyers and the Practice of Workplace Equity,” Wisconsin Law Review 2002 (2002): 277, 285; Tiffani N. Darden, “The Law Firm Caste System: Constructing a Bridge between Workplace Equity Theory and the Institutional Analyses of Bias in Corporate Law Firms,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 30, no. 1 (2009): 85–132.
[10] Sturm, “Lawyers and the Practice of Workplace Equity.”
[11] Richard H. Sander, “The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm,” North Carolina Law Review 84 (2006): 1755, 1766.
[13] Ibid.
[14] “Reinforcing feedback loops, or positive feedback loops, occur when an initial change is reinvested to further that change in the future.” “Reinforcing Loop,” Systems & Us, (last visited September 18, 2017).
[15] See Chambliss, “Organizational Determinants of Law Firm Integration,” 688–689.
[16] Sander, “The Racial Paradox of the Corporate Law Firm,” 1755, 1766.
[17] See David B. Wilkins and G. Mitu Gulati, “Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms? An Institutional Analysis, California Law Review 84 (1996): 493, 571; Jean E. Wallace and Fiona M. Kay, “Tokenism, Organizational Segregation, and Coworker Relations in Law Firms,” Social Problems 59, No. 3 (2012): 389–410.
[18] LeeAnn O’Neill, “Hitting the Legal Diversity Market Home: Minority Women Strike Out,”  Modern American, 2007,
[19] See David L. Harris, “I Just Looked Around and They Were Gone: Retaining the Minority Lawyer,” New Jersey Lawyer 149 (1992): 25; Beth Hawkins, “Law Firms Struggle with Recruiting and Retaining Minority Lawyers,” MinnPost, December 2, 2011,
[20] See Wilkins and Gulati, “Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms? An Institutional Analysis,” 569.
[21] See Creating Pathways to Diversity: A Set of Recommended Practices for Law Firms (Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 2017), 18,
[22] Ibid.
[23] See Root, “Retaining Color,” n.235.
[25] Richard O. Lempert et al., “Michigan’s Minority Graduates in Practice: The River Runs Through Law School,” Law and Social Inquiry 25 (2000): 395, 401; Elizabeth Olson, “Many Black Lawyers Navigate a Rocky, Lonely Road to Partner,” New York Times, August 17, 2015,
[26] Lempert et al., “Michigan’s Minority Graduates in Practice.”
[27] Ibid., n241.
[28] See Wilkins and Gulati, “Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms? An Institutional Analysis,” 571–572.
[29] See, generally, Ginene A. Lewis, “Turning the Corner on Diversity to Push Boundaries on Retention,” Legal Intelligencer, August 10, 2017,, which articulates the importance of one-on-one honest feedback from diverse attorneys.
[30] See, generally, Wilkins and Gulati, “Why Are There So Few Black Lawyers in Corporate Law Firms?” 493, 502–505, which discusses that a far higher percentage of black lawyers are in roles as supervisors in government and very few are partners in large law firms.
[31] Ibid.
[32] See Julie Triedman, “The Diversity Crisis: Big Firms’ Continuing Failure,”  American Lawyer, May 29, 2014,
[33] Bell, “The 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report,”
[34] “LGBT Representation among Lawyers in 2016” (press release), National Association for Law Placement, January 2017,
[35] Jennifer L. Peresie, “Female Judges Matter: Gender and Collegial Decisionmaking in the Federal Appellate Courts,” Yale Law Journal 114: 1759–1790,
[36] See Jonathan P. Kastellec, “Racial Diversity and Judicial Influence on Appellate Courts,” American Journal of Political Science 57 (2013): 167.
[37] See Linda L. Lindsey, “Gender Roles in Marriage and the Family,” in Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective (New York: Pearson, 2016), 221–227.
[38] In households where both the mother and father work full-time, more than half of the women came home to do housework, whereas only 20 percent of the men did the same. Bryce Covert, “Why it Matters That Women Do Most of the Housework,” The Nation, April 30, 2014, Moreover, women are spending more than twice the time of their male counterparts on child care each week.
[39] See, generally, Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,”, which articulates the discrepancies between men and women in top positions and notes that, although every male Supreme Court justice has a family, two of the three female justices are single with no children.
[40] See Deborah L. Jacobs, “At Law Firms, Mommy Track Still Holds Women Back,” Forbes, August 5, 2014,
[41] Linda B. Chanow, Actions for Advancing Women into Law Firm Leadership: Report of the National Women’s Association of Lawyers (Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association, July 2008),
[42] See Timothy L. O’Brien, “Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?” New York Times, March 19, 2006,
[43] See Kathy Caprino, “Gender Bias at Work—Why Men Call Forceful Women ‘Hysterical’ and Try to Silence Them,” Forbes, June 15, 2017,
[44] See Theresa M. Beiner, “Not All Lawyers Are Equal: Difficulties That Plague Women and Women of Color,” Syracuse Law Review 58 (2008): 317, 325.
[45] Anna Bookman, Cynthia Thomas Calvert, Holly English, Mona Harrington, and Joan C. Williams, “Advancing Women in the Profession: Action Plans for Women’s Bar Associations,” MIT 5, June 11, 2007; see Mona Harrington and Helen Hsi, Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership: A Report of MIT Workplace Center Surveys on Comparative Career Decisions and Attrition Rates of Women and Men in Massachusetts Law Firms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Workplace Center, 2007).
[46] Ibid.; see Beiner, “Not All Lawyers Are Equal,” 321.
[47] Karen Hirschman, “Making the Practice of Law Work for Women,” The Advocate (Texas) 49 (2009): 51, 52.
[48] See “Survey Results: Why Are Women Really Leaving Firms?” Montage Legal Group, March 7, 2016,
[49] See Beiner, “Not All Lawyers Are Equal,” 322.
[50] See Beth Hawkins, “Law Firms Struggle with Recruiting and Retaining Minority Lawyers,” Minnesota Post, December 2, 2011,
[51] See, generally, Maureen Lynch, “How to Get More Diversity with Better Job Adverts,” Silicon Republic, January 31, 2017,, which discusses what attracts diverse candidates to a law firm.
[52] See Wilkins, “Five Reasons Why Law Firms Are Not Making Progress on Diversity,” CBA Record 13 (1999): 23; Olson, “ Many Black Lawyers Navigate a Rocky, Lonely Road to Partner,”; Olson, “Women and Blacks Make Little Progress at Big Law Firms,”
[53] “NALP Diversity Infographic: Minorities,” National Association for Law Placement, 2016, (last visited August 31, 2017).
[54] Wilkins, “Five Reasons Why Law Firms Are Not Making Progress on Diversity,” 20, 23.
[55] See Jaffe et al., Retaining and Advancing Women in National Law Firms,
[56] See Kenneth O. C. Imo, “Mentors Are Good, Sponsors Are Better,” American Bar Association,
[57] Deborah L. Rhode, The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession (Washington, DC: ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, American Bar Association, 2001), 15,

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog,, and, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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