As appeared on peopleinlaw.co.uk on April 25, 2022
Firms can boost diversity at partnership level by ensuring that work is distributed equitably, that associates are properly integrated within the firm, and by providing continuous feedback on tasks.
Andrew Talpash, founder and CEO of vi by Aderant – a people management software platform – said ethnic minority and female lawyers often fall behind in their careers because they are not given the opportunities and feedback they need to build their skills and advance.
According to a 2021 Solicitors Regulation Authority survey, only 35% of partners in UK law firms are women, despite women making up 61% of the lawyer population.
In the largest firms with more than 50 partners, only 8% of partners are from an ethnic minority background. Mid-ranking black lawyers in the largest UK law firms are four times more likely to leave as their white or other ethnic minority peers.
“Law firms definitely have strategies around hiring diverse lawyers but the real challenge is moving up to the partnership rank,” Talpash said on a webinar on fostering meaningful DEI strategies this week.
“We know that attrition is high and [has been] on the upswing since the pandemic started, but we see that its further exacerbated [among] diverse lawyers.”
The main reasons why diverse lawyers fail to reach partnership level, or leave a firm include: a lack of quality work and advancement opportunities; poor integration with the firm’s culture; limited ability to form relationships with clients, partners and practice groups; and a lack of feedback from partners.
“For anybody to progress at a law firm or in any career, we all need an example to follow, someone to give us real-time continuous feedback on our performance,” said Talpash.
“Remote and hybrid work has reduced the frequency of organic feedback conversations between associates and partners. There isn’t as many of the ‘collisions’ in the hallway…It’s important that there’s reminders, triggers, to give people feedback.”
He noted that associates will need frequent feedback and coaching in order to progress. The need for feedback could be triggered when a project is completed, or after a period of time.
The firm must also have a “psychologically safe” culture, whereby associates feel they are able to request feedback on tasks from partners without the worry of losing their job or being “written off” by the partner.
“Affinity bias” can also prevent fair work allocation, with Talpash noting that partners can sometimes repeatedly allocate work to people they know or having something in common with. This has been worsened by remote and hybrid working, as partners will often assign tasks to people who are in the office with them.
“Base work allocation on objective criteria, such as availability to take on work, the skills they have , the skills they need to grow, the interests they have and their developmental goals,” he said.
“Check if work is distributed equitably – check if the diverse lawyers are over utilised or underutilised and prevent associate burnout and attrition rates.”
People allocating work should also consider whether diverse associates are getting career-building assignments. Usually these will involve working with other practice groups around the firm, business development opportunities, meeting clients, and the chance to mentor other people.
Talpash suggested that an “integration programme” for new starters, which includes for example scheduled mentoring meetings, client introductions, or social events, will encourage partners and lawyers from diverse groups to “mingle” and build relationships.
“People often won’t [raise any issues] until they resign and you find out that the reason why they left the firm is that they weren’t properly integrated,” he said.
Law firms should consider using technology that allows them to effectively implement real-time feedback, allocate work fairly and help integrate diverse lawyers into their firm. Software tools can streamline these processes, making it easier for everyone involved to complete tasks and, as a result, increasing associate and partner participation.
Talpash said technology also helps improve transparency and visibility, as it gives administrators and talent leaders oversight of the data and insights they need to enhance their strategies and processes.