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Diversity Scorecard 2010: Beyond the Numbers | Emily Barker | The AM Law Daily

For the first time in years, the population of minority lawyers at big law firms is shrinking. That’s the key finding to emerge from the latest version of our annual Diversity Scorecard, which counts attorneys of color in the U.S. offices of approximately 200 big firms.
Diversity consultant Arin Reeves of Chicago-based The Athens Group discusses the results of this year’s Diversity Scorecard and the lessons that they hold for law firms.

Our Diversity Scorecard found that minority representation at large firms dropped slightly between September 30, 2008 and September 30, 2009–specifically from 13.9 percent to 13.4 percent of all attorneys. How does that track with what you’ve been seeing?
I think it’s very consistent with what I’ve been seeing, and I think the statistics are actually even maybe a few months behind reality.

Some firms told us that they felt their numbers had been distorted because of deferrals, that their entering classes had a lot of minorities in them but those classes didn’t start by the time we did the survey. Do you think deferrals have had an impact on minority representation at firms?
Not unless the only people they deferred were minorities.

Why were minorities disproportionately affected, then?
I don’t think it’s because of any [malicious] intent on behalf of any of these firms, at least not the ones that I’ve seen or talked to. I think it is literally who got invested in and who didn’t.
And some of the people that were laid off–I’m not the greatest believer in pedigrees or anything like that–but these are top, top, talented people. You know, these are not people that anybody took a risk on by hiring. And they’ve been successful their entire lives and they come into law firms and all of a sudden, they’re weak performers? It just doesn’t make any sense.

What should law firms have been doing to invest in these associates, in your view?
What criteria did firms use [for cutting jobs]? . . .Whatever criteria it was, they should have been applying that criteria on an annual basis to make sure there was not a differential in terms of what minorities were getting versus whites.
So if you measure performance by hours, every year law firms should be taking a look at, as a collective, are the minority lawyer numbers lower than the white lawyer numbers? If so, why? If as a collective, you see a differential and you don’t do anything about it, any time you need to let go of people you’re going to have a disproportionate impact on the minorities. And the same thing with women.
The other thing is, we’ve talked a lot about mentoring in the legal profession. . . . What we need to change is the levels of informal mentoring that minorities get in these firms. Not the presence of mentoring programs, not mentoring structures, but are white partners in a firm equally invested in seeing their minority associates succeed as they are [invested] in people that they relate to better?
Our research shows that the more connections you have within a firm–it’s almost like you think of a tree’s roots–the more roots you have going in more directions, the more likely you are to not move when there’s a flood or a wind or whatever. And minorities have not that many roots. Because no one is taking responsibility for them. When your name goes up on a layoff list, no one is saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, not that person. I want that person, I need that person, that person’s on my team.”

That’s very interesting. How do you foster that kind of informal mentoring?
As unfair as it sounds, I do think there’s responsibility on both sides. . . . It’s unfair because oftentimes minority associates have to work a lot harder to foster those relationships. But I mentor a lot of young associates in firms, and that’s the number one thing that I push. You need to get out there and you need to figure out how to build relationships with these people and you have to do it. You’re not going to succeed unless these relationships are in place.
From a law firm perspective, I think a big part of this is just to really make people aware of this. One question that I ask partners in a lot of my presentations and training sessions and coaching sessions is, I say, tell me the three associates that you’re closest to in the firm. Not the people that you work with the most. The people that you know the most about outside of the firm. People whose kids’ names you know…. Tell me the three associates that you know the most about, and I’ll tell you the three that’ll make partner at the firm. Because that’s what counts.
If a partner tells me the three, and they’re . . . all white, I’ll say you are inadvertently making sure only your white associates succeed.
Sometimes it’s as simple as the kindergarten rules: Speak to everybody. Minority associates notice when you come in to the office and you walk right past their office to the office of the white male associate next to them and say, “Hey, how was your weekend?”. . . As a partner you do have a responsibility to not just connect with the people that it’s easiest for you to connect with, but to connect with all the talent that you’ve invested in.

In a climate where there’s probably going to be reduced hiring for some years, where there are still cutbacks, what can law firms do to maintain or even improve their diversity?

You can say, okay, let’s take a look at all of the different things we do in terms of diversity, and if we’re not hiring, what else could we be doing? We could be focusing on retention. We could really be focusing on increasing those informal mentoring networks that I talked about before. We could be brainstorming ways that get people to connect better. Not in an expensive way. You don’t need to throw huge banquets. It’s about encouraging partners to take associates for cups of coffee.

Responses have been edited for concision and clarity.

Emily Barker, The AM Law Daily

Copyright (c) 2010 The Am Law Daily

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