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Effective strategies for finding—and retaining—talented nonwhite and female lawyers: A black partner’s perspective

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In a commentary for Fortune yesterday, I wrote about the challenges that have kept law firms from achieving and retaining a diverse talent pool. But the challenge is anything but insurmountable.

My experience here at Butler Snow and the success stories of women and nonwhite lawyers around the country make clear that there are effective approaches that can and should be employed to combat bias and retain diverse lawyers. What follows are some potential steps that law firms should take.

First, firm leadership must be fully committed. The unequivocal message to the firm must be in terms of a demand. One aspect of the evaluation of firm leadership should be their commitment to and progress regarding diversity and inclusion. What gets measured gets done.

Second, achieving greater diversity and inclusion has to be intentional and focused. Perhaps the best way to do so is by having a dedicated committee or person who will stay abreast of the latest developments regarding diversity and inclusion and the specific issues in the firm. This committee or person should report directly to firm management.

Third, diverse lawyers need active mentors and sponsors. Navigating the law firm environment can be difficult for any lawyer, especially new associates. The journey may be complicated by cultural differences that inhibit the kind of easy interaction that leads to good working relationships. Lawyers of color may not attend the same churches as other lawyers. They may not be members of the same fraternal organizations or social clubs. 

To remedy this, firms should assign mentors whose mission is to help young diverse lawyers traverse the system. Mentors help groom the diverse lawyer professionally and integrate them into the firm culture. Firms can also assign a sponsor, a person of influence within the firm who speaks on another lawyer’s behalf. There is a need for onboarding regimens that include sponsors serving as advocates for diverse lawyers.

Fourth, diverse lawyers should be given important administrative and other responsibilities. At many firms, involvement in crucial duties is one of the metrics for advancement. Careful attention must be paid to the appointment of diverse lawyers to administrative duties and other positions within the firm to provide an opportunity to meet this important metric. 

For those roles that are elected, consideration should be given to an alternative appointment process, if necessary, that is designed to make sure diverse lawyers have an opportunity to participate in firm governance. It is important that younger diverse lawyers have someone like them in key leadership roles to inspire and encourage them.

Fifth, clients should request hard data related to law firms’ inclusion. Clients should ensure that diverse lawyers are billing meaningful hours on client files and are getting an opportunity for client contact as soon as is practical. Clients should also make crystal clear that the woeful representation of diverse attorneys in the partnership ranks—if that’s the case—is unacceptable. Clients should inquire about a law firm’s efforts to make sure that the path to equity ownership for women or people of color is not made more difficult as a result of bias.

Sixth, firms must have a fair system of compensation that is clearly understood and allows all to progress on equal footing.

A white law partner, whom I also consider a friend, once attributed my success to being able to “move easily between both worlds.” While I suppose he meant it as a compliment, the notion that there are characteristics and behaviors that are specific to white people and absent in black people (or present in men and absent in women), and that lend themselves to success, is just wrong. 

Like all other lawyers, women and nonwhite lawyers should be evaluated by their skill and potential. Now it’s the job of law firms to remove the impediments to their success. This is an issue that goes far beyond the business case for diversity. It is the right thing to do.

Orlando R. Richmond Sr. is a partner at Butler Snow LLP.

More opinion in Fortune:

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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