Despite efforts to bolster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the legal industry, law firms continue to struggle with attrition among attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds. Moreover, even those law firms that do a good job of recruiting attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds struggle to keep people from underrepresented backgrounds at the firm.
According to the American Bar Association, in 2007, 78.96% of associates were white attorneys, and in 2019, white attorneys represented 89.85% of equity partners. In contrast, attorneys of color represented 20.78% of associates in 2007; by 2019, they represented only 9.78% of equity partners.
What can law firms do to address this attrition problem so they can boost diversity, equity, and inclusion? Support attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds in business development efforts.
How does a lack of DEI in business development contribute to attrition?
A book of business often correlates with career security and longevity (as well as firm loyalty). Not surprisingly, however, the historical business structures of law firms and the intrapersonal dynamics within law firms create a cycle of exclusion in business development.
Historical models and intrapersonal dynamics within law firms often advantage attorneys from majority groups (i.e., white men) and disadvantage people from underrepresented backgrounds. These dynamics can self-perpetuate despite intentions to the contrary. For instance, attorneys often choose to work with attorneys who look like them. They may connect more easily with junior attorneys who have similar backgrounds and, as a result, work with them more often. As a result, lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds may be excluded from business development opportunities.
Law firms should also be aware of how these traditional business models and intrapersonal dynamics create business development challenges for lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds. For example, if lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds don’t have access to the same networks—and often they don’t—they won’t have access to the same business opportunities as their majority counterparts. In addition, lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to feel as though they must “prove themselves” rather than expecting their credibility to be assumed. They may also have a more challenging time connecting with decision-makers with different life experiences than their own.
How can law firms empower lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds to meet their business development goals?
- Align business development with talent development. Law firms should make clear to all junior lawyers the firm’s expectations regarding business development. If business development expectations, training, and opportunities aren’t communicated to everyone, this information can become part of the unwritten rules of the firm and inaccessible to some lawyers. Instead of delaying business development conversations to the partner level, firms should be explicit about expectations at various stages of career development. In doing so, firms can prevent lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds from being excluded from business development opportunities if they don’t know the unwritten rules.
- Provide resources to help people build business development skills and experience. Law firms should allocate adequate resources to business development training and mentoring, including training geared toward attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds. For instance, the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity’s Fellows program trains senior associates and junior partners on business development and creates networking and mentorship opportunities with corporate legal departments.
- Be mindful of representation. It isn’t enough to have a DEI policy; firms need to be aware of representation in all practical aspects of business development, including client pitches, client teams, business succession, attendance at conferences, speaking opportunities, award nominations, interviews with the press, etc. Additionally, law firms should take an inclusive approach to networking opportunities, including memberships in affinity bar associations and attendance at affinity conferences.
Business development success and law firm advancement often go hand in hand. Accordingly, it is critical that law firms support the business development efforts of lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds—not just when they are approaching partnership ranks but early on in their careers as junior attorneys. For more information, listen to our webinar Growth Reimagined: Re-Charging Your Business Development.