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Associates Can Lead Diversity Efforts, Too (Perspective)

July 1, 2016, 9:16 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is a lawyer at a large law firm.

With the focus on diversity and inclusion arguably never greater at many of the world’s largest law firms, recent reportsshow most firms continue to make negligible progress when it comes to increasing diverse attorney headcount and retention. While it might be tempting for firms to attribute the lack of minority representation in BigLaw to a lack of qualified candidates in the recruiting pool, such underrepresentation still fails to account for the high level of minority associate attrition once an attorney joins a firm.

Datafrom the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) shows that among associates, the number of women has actually decreased at major US law firms over the last five years, and the percentage of African-American associates at large firms has declined each year since 2009. Between 2014 and 2015, the overall percentage of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) associates at major US law firms increased by less than one fifth of one percent, from 2.93% to 3.08% of associates. Figures also show that the minority lawyer pipeline starts leaking early, with minorities accounting for a higher share of summer associates than associates in many instances. With such a large problem to tackle, what can firms do to get aggressive when it comes to managing attrition and retaining talented minority associates?

At my own firm, Cooley, minority associates can take control of diversity and inclusion programming and initiatives through a firm-wide affinity group, known as the Minority Associates Group (MAG). Founded in the mid-2000s by an associate who is now a partner, the present iteration of MAG is managed directly by associates, with the goals of providing minority associates with a forum and resource for support, enhancing retention, training and promotion within the firm, and identifying opportunities to join with firm clients and community partners on initiatives and topics of associate interest. All new Cooley associates receive an invitation to join MAG, and any new associate — regardless of how they identify — interested in promoting diversity is encouraged to participate in events and programming. Offices including London, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, Reston, San Francisco, San Diego and Washington all feature MAG chapters supported by local associate leadership and led by two associate co-chairs. The chapters remain connected through conference calls among leadership, coordination with the firm’s Diversity Committee, and through the support of Cooley’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager.

Through MAG, associates are empowered from day one to drive firm initiatives and tailor programs, training and events to meet the respective needs of each office’s minority associates. By providing budgetary support, firm leadership ensures a large pool of minority associates have the ability to spearhead education about topics such as implicit bias, create opportunities to interact with firm leadership in both professional and social settings, identify sponsorship opportunities, establish mentorship programs and plan client and community events. MAG chapters also work with Cooley’s legal talent and professional development teams to create programming for summer associates, represent the firm at recruiting events, partner with diverse student organizations and support the efforts of the firm in attracting minority lateral associates. Within the past year, chapters have hosted intimate lunches with office managing partners to candidly discuss diversity at the firm, business generation and mentorship opportunities. They’ve sponsored diversity panels and events at the homes of partners, and have coordinated happy hours and mixers with in-house counsel.

Most importantly, chapters:

• Provide a forum for associates to discuss diversity, sexual orientation or minority concerns and issues in a supportive, neutral environment;

• Communicate ideas, concerns and issues directly to firm management;

• Raise awareness around cultural, gender, generational, personality and other differences in order to allow associates to maximize their potential based on their unique backgrounds;

• Develop a sense of support and collegiality among the firm’s minority associates to increase retention, job-satisfaction and professional development; and

• Create opportunities for and foster informal mentoring relationships among junior and senior minority associates, and associates and partners.

As many large firms continue struggling to patch the leaky pipeline of minority associate talent heading for the doors, to clients, or to more inclusive pastures, firms would do well to consider the benefits to be had by ceding some focus from top-down, management-driven diversity plans to grassroots initiatives designed for minority associates, by minority associates. Providing associates the leeway to take control of diversity and inclusion in their firms and offices isn’t just good for associates, but good for firm health overall. The benefits of increased minority associate retention, collegiality and morale for a firm, as well as its clients is felt immediately. That’s not just smart practice, its smart business.