Midsize Firms Are Recruiting More Diverse Associates, but Retention Remains a Hurdle
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Several midsize firms have made significant advances in increasing the diversity of their young legal talent, but it’s still a work in progress.
Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt in the Pacific Northwest and Drew Eckl & Farnham in Atlanta have both expanded representation of racial minorities and women among their associate ranks, starting with entry-level associates, thanks to some innovative tactics.
But retention is still an issue for both firms as associates advance through the talent pipeline. They’re not alone—a recent NALP survey of data from 800 firms found that retention can be as much an issue as recruitment when it comes to improving diversity.
Schwabe is effectively pulling diverse young lawyers into the pipeline through a 1L diversity fellowship program that’s entering its 10th year and a 2014 overhaul retooling of interview process for associate candidates.
At this point for Schwabe, retention “is the biggest area we, like every other firm, need to work on,” said Joe Straus, a Seattle shareholder who chairs the diversity committee. “We’re very proud of our efforts but we have a long way to go.”
Establishing the Pipeline
Drew Eckl embarked on a quantifiable diversity push at the start of 2020, tracking the percentages of women and minority lawyers at each phase of the talent pipeline from summer associates to equity partners, and set concrete improvement targets by 2025.
Over the summer Drew Eckl added to its strategy by recruiting from Historically Black College and Universities, a move sparked by the renewal of calls for racial justice in the wake of police killings of George Floyd and others.
In the Pacific Northwest there are no historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but Schwabe has added 22 law schools to its recruitment network over the past few years, Straus said. It hired summer associates last year from a couple, Arizona State University and UCLA, including two nonbinary black women.
Awarding diversity fellowships to 1L law students for summer associate jobs is a tactic that an increasing number of firms are adopting.
Last summer Drew Eckl welcomed its first 1L minority fellow from the University of Georgia, and invited her back for next year. And just this month Birmingham trial boutique Lightfoot, Franklin & White, with about 60 lawyers, announced its own 1L diversity fellowship and is taking applications for next summer.
Schwabe started its 1L fellows program almost a decade ago, so it is further along than some firms in diversifying its ranks. Overall, 24% of Schwabe’s associates are racial minorities or LGBTQ, and 52% are women. By comparison, only 19.5% of associates at midsize firms nationally are racial minorities, according to NALP.
Every year Schwabe hires three 1L fellows as summer associates for its Seattle, Portland, and Anchorage offices, respectively. Last year the 175-lawyer firm hired four 1L diversity fellows instead of three, because the applicants were so strong, Straus said.
Almost all return as first-year associates, he said, which has created a “pretty substantial pipeline” of diverse associates at a firm with 42 associates in total.
‘Organic Approach’ Is Not Enough
Drew Eckl, which has 115 lawyers, has targeted a 10% increase in associates of color by 2025. Currently they make up 26.5% of the firm’s 49 associates—as at Schwabe, that’s slightly above the NALP average of 19.5%.
Drew Eckl already exceeds most NALP percentages for lawyers of color, when looking beyond the associate ranks. Overall, 16.2% of the firm’s 116 lawyers are racial minorities, compared with 11.1% nationally.
But the NALP percentages are still quite low, said Douglas Burrell, who is leading the 115-lawyer firms’ diversity push along with its other Black equity partner, J.C. Roper. “We’re not satisfied with just doing the bare minimum,” he said.
Like other firms, Drew Eckl’s percentage of lawyers of color decreases further up the talent pipeline—from 26.5% of associates to 11.5% of equity partners. Nationally, 7.6% of equity partners at midsize firms are racial minorities, according to NALP.
That kind of incremental progress is not good enough, Roper, of Drew Eckl, said. Numerous studies show that “creating diverse and inclusive law firms using an organic approach does not work very well,” he explained, because of unconscious bias.
That is why Drew Eckl undertook the review a year ago to track percentages of women and minority lawyers at each phase of the talent pipeline. “We can clearly identify where there might be a problem in the pipeline, so we keep it from becoming a bigger problem,” said Drew Eckl’s COO, Christy Walsh, who keeps detailed spreadsheets on the diversity statistics.
For instance, there is a big gap at the nonequity partner level, she said. None of the firm’s 19 nonequity partners are racial minorities. That means that only 6.7% of Drew Eckl’s total partners are minorities (three equity partners, including Burrell and Roper)—below the 7.3% of partners of color at midsize firms nationally, according to NALP.
Drew Eckl crafted a new training program for senior associates, Path to Partnership, that it hopes will close that gap for nonequity partners—and improve retention.
It launched the yearlong program in January 2019 to stem associate attrition overall and help more associates advance to partner. The firm is making sure its diverse associates participate. In the 2020 class, 60% of the candidates are women and minorities, and of those, 13% are lawyers of color.
Drew Eckl set clear, objective admission criteria for Path to Partnership to eliminate unconscious bias, Walsh said. The program is open to everyone who meets certain billable hours targets, plus years of experience in practice and working at Drew Eckl.
Structured Panel Interviews
Schwabe’s increases in associate diversity are partly attributable to its overhaul of the associate interview process to guard against implicit bias in hiring. The firm adopted what it calls structured panel interviews for all associate candidates, whether entry-level or laterals.
Interviewers ask candidates questions designed to elicit responses about traits that Schwabe has determined lead to success in its culture, most importantly, collaborating with co-workers and clients.
“We’re looking to see how people handle the everyday challenges of being a lawyer, instead of asking the usual questions about things like law review,” Straus said.
Baird-Johnson said about 30 attorneys and senior staff are trained in the process. An ideal interviewer panel, she said, would include shareholders and associates who identify as diverse. “We don’t want a candidate to see four white men,” she said.
The interviewers use a numerical system to rank each candidate on the traits that Schwabe seeks. “It takes the implicit bias out of the system,” Straus said, “as opposed to when I came out of law school 40 years ago and people would talk about their favorite football teams.”
Despite the advances in associate diversity, only 16% of Schwabe’s lawyers firmwide are racial minorities or LGBTQ, as opposed to 24% of associates, and the percentage of women drops from 52% for associates to 33% firmwide.
As at other firms, that is due to the fact that more shareholders at the top of the talent pipeline are white and male, and that diverse lawyers have a lower retention rate at the firm. At the equity shareholder level, 17% are racial minorities or LGBTQ and 22% are women.
To address that disparity, Schwabe CEO Graciela Gomez Cowger has asked Straus and Baird-Johnson to focus on retention this year.
A big part of that is ensuring that there is a sufficient support network so diverse lawyers feel they belong, Straus and Baird-Johnson said. So they are assessing how work is assigned and considering ways to provide “better and more feedback” than just an annual evaluation. And they’re pairing younger associates with diverse shareholders to advise on their development and with more experienced associates as mentors.
Baird-Johnson said the firm is also considering a new approach to getting feedback from diverse lawyers. In addition to the standard exit interview asking those departing for their reasons, the firm is considering asking those still with the firm why they have stayed.
“We want to find out what we’re doing right,” she explained.
Reprinted with permission from the January 24, 2021 edition of the Daily Report© 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or email@example.com.