Competing for Diverse Talent

Competing for Diverse Talent

As corporate clients more often consider the diversity and inclusion policies of law firms when selecting counsel to represent them, competition to recruit minority talent is fierce. To satisfy their desire for outside counsel that meet their desired diversity and inclusion goals, general counsel expand their searches to include smaller, local, and regional firms. Specifically, they’re looking more closely at ones that are certified women-owned, minority-owned, etc., because those firms already are identified and vetted. Increasingly, smaller firms are spinning off from Big Law partially with the intent to attain that certification and then go after work from outside counsel and big corporations to help those clients meet their diversity numbers. For example, in early 2020, a group of lawyers left Boies Schiller's Miami office to form a minority and women-owned firm and brought their corporate clients with them.

Other law firms also can compete for diverse candidates in a variety of ways--not just by outbidding their competitors on the compensation front. Of course, there always will be firms like Susman Godfrey that beat even Biglaw's associate base and bonus numbers, but smaller firms really can’t, so must employ other tactics. The good news is that most lawyers look beyond compensation when choosing which law firm to join.

Seeking opportunity

Diverse talent, like most lawyers, seek opportunities to learn and diversify their skills for the long term of their careers. This is where smaller and more regional firms can compete and even outdo their big firm rivals. For example, we’ve made a number of placements of associates out of Biglaw into smaller, local, and regional firms because those attorneys were looking for hands-on experience. If we can say, “We placed an associate at this firm and he or she has already done this, that, and the other in the six months they’ve been there,” that really excites candidates because they see the firm actually walks its talk.

In litigation, for example, a fifth-year associate in a large firm may never have taken or defended a deposition. They’ve prepared for them, they’ve prepared the partners for them, but they’ve never done it themselves. While in a smaller firm, they can have the opportunity to actually take that deposition. They get more hands-on experience and build their tangible skills. Ambitious associates don’t want to be in the back room all the time. Although, at a smaller, local, or regional firm the matters and the deals may be smaller than in Biglaw, the associate is getting a much higher level of experience. Savvy associates often are willing to take less compensation earlier in their careers in return for the opportunity to gain the skills for more success over the course of a long career.

When choosing a law firm or deciding whether to stay put or move on, diverse talent also is looking for mentorship and sponsorship--ideally, a culture of mentorship. In a large firm an associate can get lost, but in a smaller firm generally they have access to partners and people who can help bring them along. If a smaller firm really puts some time and effort into developing, training, and mentoring their attorneys, those lawyers are going to end up having a lot deeper and better experience than those in Biglaw. Thus, they may have more career opportunities going forward than their large firm counterparts. Much earlier in their careers, smaller firm associates can actually take on client or matter responsibility, lead a team, manage a deal, or even try a case on their own. That sort of experience often is not available in big firms where only a few partners actually try cases. In those ways, smaller firms are sometimes in a better position to compete for top diverse candidates, especially a mid-level associate looking around and saying, “Huh, I’m not really learning how to be the kind of lawyer I want to be at my current firm.” That's also how the smaller firms can hang onto their top associates.

Looking beyond pedigree

We often hear law firm hiring authorities say, “We want to diversify, but we just can’t find candidates who meet our criteria.” That presents another opportunity for a smaller, local, or regional law firm to compete by looking beyond the pedigree of a candidate. Many of the larger firms prefer to restrict their hiring to only a small list of elite law schools and, further, only look at candidates who graduate within a certain percentage at the top the class.

A number of studies have shown that pedigree is not necessarily tied to success in the practice of law. One such study done by UC Berkeley professors about 10 years ago delineated 25 factors in lawyers' effectiveness. They found that grades actually were counter-indicative of success in law firms when law firms hire on the basis of top grades. Similarly, the 2013 Lawyer Metrics Rainmaking Study found that the most successful partners at business development are those that went to lower-ranked law schools and perhaps didn’t do quite as well in their class ranking. The empirical analysis found that partners who didn’t come from Ivy League backgrounds, and who worked their way through college and law school, were better business developers because they’re hungry and always had to work harder. They better understood the needs of their potential clients.

Introducing metrics

Currently, more metrics are going into the hiring process whereby law firms analyze the characteristics of successful attorneys in their environment, with their kind of practice, and with their clients. They then attempt to interview candidates with that in mind and hire for those factors. The hope is that these strategies will lead to stronger law firms and, in the process, open the door to a wider variety of people. O'Melveny & Myers introduced gamification to their summer associate career assessment and recruiting platform to evaluate potential law school candidates. The firm hopes to broaden its recruiting pipeline and gain access to more diverse candidates.

Similarly, Thompson Hine recently developed an assessment for their summer associate candidates, and now administers the test to lateral candidates, as well. They looked at what it takes to be successful in their firm and created a test to measure those factors. That’s something that’s new for law firms, but it's not new in the corporate world.

If however, the law firms analyze only their existing attorneys for success factors, and those attorneys are all fit the same mold, the metrics used in these processes most likely will call for hiring more of the same. In the conservative world of Biglaw, however, there is a general prejudice against change. The prevailing attitude is: “We only want to see candidates from the top schools, with the top grades, which has always worked for us in the past.”

At a California Bar program where the Berkeley professors who ran the 25 factors of success study presented their results, they suggested that the data indicated that law firms should expand their recruiting to a wider variety of schools and rely less on grades, while considering other factors that indicated potential success. One of the hiring partners from a major law firm responded that his firm was never going to change. He insisted that they absolutely must have lawyers only from the top schools and the top grades, because he and his partners were convinced that was why his firm was so sucessful. They also believed that the credentials of the firm's lawyers in its public-facing biographies were important to the firm's professional image and enhanced their ability to compete for business.

Many firms still operate that way and will continue to do so, but the firms that are able to be more open-minded and willing to change might find that they’re able to compete in a different way. They’re able to get a wider variety of lawyers on board and compete for the kind of business in the current marketplace of diversity- and inclusion-conscious clients that the large firms might be leaving on the table.

There’s real opportunity for smaller, local, and regional law firms to compete not only for this business, but also for hiring and retaining top diversity candidates, if they’re more nimble and demonstrate a willingness to embrace a broader perspective and change.

Valerie Fontaine
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