Illinois Bar Journal

July 2017Volume 105Number 7Page 12

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Solving the legal profession’s diversity problem

Law firm diversity efforts lag behind the corporate world. That's partly because too many firms hire based on law school pedigree and too few invest enough in training, a leading scholar says.

Corporate America has taken steps to create a more diverse workforce at all levels. Companies like Microsoft have executives who focus on developing and fostering a diverse environment. Women and people of color are increasingly seen in managerial and executive-level roles.

And yet the legal profession has lagged behind. Professor William Henderson of Indiana University's Maurer School of Law has looked at how to improve diversity in the profession and the benefits of doing so.

Henderson published the results of his research in a 2016 paper entitled "Solving the Legal Profession's Diversity Problem" ( Henderson, who recently spoke at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism's The Future Is Now: Legal Services 2.017 conference in Chicago, suggests that the profession's lack of diversity is a system failure rather than a lack of moral resolve.

The tyranny of elite credentials

Henderson's research indicates that law firms have put a disproportionate emphasis on academic credentials. He writes that since every lawyer must complete a four-year undergrad degree, score high enough on the LSAT to get admitted to an ABA-accredited law school, spend three years in law school, graduate, and pass the bar exam, lawyers are a group with higher-than-average cognitive ability. He also cites research and his own experience with internal law firm studies for the proposition that "attendance at an elite law school is seldom a marker of future success and often a slight negative predictor."

A better indicator for success than which law school attorneys attend is whether they had access to mentoring and feedback at the beginning of their career, he says. At the Commission's conference, Henderson commented that, holding race and gender constant, early high-quality assignments are crucial toward developing attorneys who look like the fabled "natural" in baseball. Associates who get "early at bats" and feedback are the ones that are set up for future career-enhancing opportunities.

The importance of work assignments, feedback

He believes that the work assignment system at most law firms is the biggest impediment to diversity. He referenced an American Bar Association study indicating that white associates tend to seek out work from white partners and diverse associates tend to seek out similar partners. However, the diverse groups have historically lacked "developmentally rich" work experiences to allocate to new associates because "they tend to control fewer important client relationships" for historical reasons. This is an unconscious structural problem that institutionalizes lack of opportunity.

Henderson styles his paper as a roadmap for solving the legal profession's diversity problem. Law firms must onboard "high-potential entry-level female and diverse lawyers." Then, they must "bring[] that high potential to fruition," he writes. His research has found that the current assignment system marginalizes diverse associates because they tend to obtain fewer early breaks. "The longer law firms ignore the profound effect played by work assignments, the longer the profession will be plagued with a diversity problem."

Henderson also found that feedback was crucial to development. However, most legal organizations lack a systems perspective that would encourage investment in a robust feedback mechanism. As a result, "they routinely confuse the cost of feedback, which tends to be short-term and personal, with the value of feedback, which is short-, medium-, and long-term." Such short-sightedness can "affect the competitiveness of the entire enterprise."

The power of diversity

The business reasons for fostering diversity are clear, Henderson says. "Organizations with a reliable system for creating diverse lawyers will have a competitive advantage for attracting clients and the best entry-level talent," he writes. At the conference, Henderson said that it is not just gender or ethnic diversity that produces high performing teams, but also different perspectives and life experiences that correlate with race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and other factors like political views and culture (e.g., rural v. urban).

Pulling together a diverse team of people in an environment where they can communicate freely and with trust creates high performance, Henderson found. He said a diverse team will out-perform a homogenous group with very high IQs. The creativity to be truly successful is a function of diverse perspectives and an environment of trust and safety.

In short, lawyers don't fail because they aren't smart enough, he said. They fail due to a lack of feedback and development. It's a problem law firms can - and should - remedy.

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

Member Comments (1)

Thank you Matthew Hector for bringing the matter of the legal profession's dragging its feet on diversity into the open. Too often we expect the victims of discrimination to solve the problem when it is those who are doing the discriminating who are the ones upon whom we should be focusing. To those of you who are doing the discriminating, and you know who you are, and everyone else does, too, just stop it. As First Lady Nancy Reagan said in reference to the war on drugs, "Just say "no" when someone offers you an illegal drug. Likewise, when it comes to discrimination in the legal profession and that is what a lack of diversity is--discrimination--just say "no" to discrimination. Stop discriminating. Stop doing it. You know it's wrong. Stop doing it. It is that simple. Or as the United Negro College Fund says, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Time's a-wasting, so stop wasting minds.

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